Once upon a time, British and American politics seemed to operate in tandem. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to office, both supposedly little experienced and out of the mainstream, at about the same time. Tony Blair shaped his New Labor politics with the New Democrat approach of Bill Clinton very much in mind.
But today, British and American politics are moving in very different directions. One reason is that changes of government, from one party to another, have become very infrequent in Britain. The only one the last 30 years, since Thatcher’s victory in 1979, was Blair’s in 1997. Indeed, the interval was the longest since Britain developed modern political parties in the mid-19th century.
That’s pretty extraordinary: We Americans have had four changes of government since 1979. The only period in our history when we had just one in 30 years was in the early 1950s.
But a change in government does not always result in major changes in policy. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has held important positions in two Democratic and four Republican administrations, argues in his memoir "From the Shadows," it’s pretty hard to turn around the giant ship of state. Yes, new presidents and prime ministers usually make course corrections, and some of them have significant expected and unexpected effects. But not complete turnarounds.
In that perspective, Britain and America look rather similar. Only two leaders have made really major changes in policy, domestic and foreign, over the last 30 years, Thatcher and Reagan. Blair and Clinton accepted those changes and made some adjustments. The same can be said of the two George Bushes.
But now, economic distress and changes of government, actual here and likely next year there, raise the prospect of major changes in policy. And here we come to the second way in which British and American politics are moving in different directions.
Barack Obama is trying to move America considerably to the left, while David Cameron, whose Conservative Party is leading Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor Party by wide margins in the polls, may be aiming to move Britain some distance to the right.
It’s not clear now whether Obama will succeed or what precisely a Prime Minister Cameron would do. On Capitol Hill, the labor unions’ card check bill looks to be dead, the House cap-and-trade bill seems to be foundering in the Senate, and the Democrats’ health-care bills are in some trouble.
One reason is that American voters are wary of the prospects of vast deficit spending. Britain faces an even bigger budget deficit, about 14% of gross domestic product. The Blair and Brown governments in good macroeconomic times slowly raised government’s share of gross domestic product from 37% to 47% by enlarging the public payroll with teachers, nurses, diversity counselors and the like (similarly, much of the Obama stimulus money spent so far has been devoted to keeping state and local government employee ranks from thinning). Yet Britain’s financial sector suffered a collapse worse than ours, and in a country where it is a significantly larger part of the total economy.
Up to this year, Cameron and his team have pledged not to cut public spending significantly, while opposing tax increases. The current fiscal situation makes those pledges inoperative — Cameron has even accepted Labor’s 50% tax on the rich. So while Democrats struggle to make American government larger, Conservatives are pondering whether they can make British government smaller.
The voter has some say in this, on Election Day and in the polls. A recent Quinnipiac poll showing declining Obama ratings in Ohio may have jangled Democrats’ nerves as much as the ghastly June job numbers. But it seems to me that on both sides of the Atlantic politicians — American Democrats and British Conservatives — are facing the same big fundamental issue: How large should government be?
They face as well the question of whether the economic distress following the financial crisis has produced an increased demand for bigger government. The evidence from the 1930s is mixed: While Americans were voting for the New Deal, Britons were rejecting Labor socialism.
The polling evidence today in both countries is equivocal but not as cheering to advocates of larger government as they expected. Turning around the giant ship of state is hard, even when you have a change of government.