Margaret Thatcher was elected as leader of the Conservative Party in Britain on a protest vote against the "go along to get along" policies of her predecessor Ted Heath. For years, conservatives had been afraid to stand up for any major change in the way Great Britain was governed, content to just sort of nibble at the edges of problems that become progressively worse as time went on. The view of the conservative establishment which Heath represented was that they needed a "consensus" to govern. As long as that view held, Britain would continue to decline despite which party held power.
Margaret Thatcher defined consensus politics this way:
“Consensus: “The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?”
Conservative elites bided their time waiting for a moment to take Thatcher down. Their chance came in a dispute over how much Britain should acquiesce to the growing power of the European Union. Thatcher wanted to protect British sovereignty and was appalled at the idea that a faceless army of bureaucrats in Brussels, home of the European Commission, would gain increasing power over the daily lives of British citizens. Establishment conservatives used the conflict over European integration as the excuse they needed to get rid of Thatcher despite the fact that she never lost an election. She was the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th Century. [a great video documentary on the fall of Margaret Thatcher can be found here.]
Despite Thatcher's fall and a return to a form of consensus politics the worry about encroachment on Britain's freedom by the European Union has not gone away. If anything it has intensified as the EU seeks to control more aspects of British life.
While the Conservative Party under Prime Minister David Cameron has taken a slightly tougher line with European integration than previous Labour Prime Ministers a growing segment of the British electorate remains alarmed over the erosion of sovereignty. Likewise, weakness on immigration and social issues has left an opening for a challenge from the right. That's exactly what happened this weekend with a major surge by the solidly conservative UK Independence Party (UKIP).
In elections for the European Parliament UKIP took the lion's share of the vote. Quite an astounding feat for a new party.
|See results at the UK Daily Telegraph.|
It is no small earthquake when a small insurgent party with not a single Westminster member of Parliament wins more votes nationwide — across all three nations in Great Britain and all the regions of England — than the established behemoths of Labour and the Tories. This almost unprecedented success (the last time that a party other than Labour or the Tories came top in a national election was 1910!)In local council elections which were held at the same time the result is similar:
And while the graphs above might indicate a surge for left's Labour, there is no cheering in that party (1,2). Labour was seen as the only viable alternative to Conservative rule. But Labour's compromise on social issues, European integration and immigration make it just as unattractive as the Conservative go along to get along policy. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is cited as rejecting any tilt towards the UKIP's stand on these issues. If Blair's attitude prevails it will make Labour's attempt to retake power in Parliament in next year's election that much more difficult. Labour is in a difficult spot. If they walk away from past support for key issues they risk losing the left. If they don't, they risk losing the sizable anti-Conservative vote to UKIP.
But with all the troubles of Labour's balancing act and the disappearance of the Liberal Democrat Party the biggest disappointment must be for the Conservative Party. Establishment elites in the Conservative Party rejected Margaret Thatcher's populist views on European integration and other issues. They thought they knew better. In dumping Thatcher the establishment showed contempt for the grass roots voters who kept them in power. They are now discovering what a mistake that was.
It's a lesson for the conservative establishment in the United States too!