FLC046, The American Election: An English Perspective, 8th November 2000

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment

published on the Internet
Issue Number 46
8th November 2000

The American Election:
An English Perspective
Sean Gabb

Note: This may be the most fatuous thing I have ever written. No welcome for Tony Blair in Washington? American passivity in foreign affairs? I read it all over again, and cringe with embarrassment. Still, I did write it, and up it goes and stays.

As I write, it looks as if the Republicans have won the Presidential election in America. Since the result is very close and has not yet been confirmed, and my knowledge of American politics is that of an outsider, this will necessarily be a less confident article than normal. Even so, I will make two points.

First, my American friends on the right will be disappointed. President Bush will betray them. The Constitution and Bill of Rights will not be more respected by the Republicans than they were by the Democrats. None of the semi-constitutional agencies that are the core of the Federal Government will be shut down. None of them will probably be significantly cut back in their operations. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will continue making life harder for gun owners. Civil asset forfeiture will not end. Juries will not be liberated from judicial control. The tax collecting agencies will remain just as arbitrary and oppressive as ever.

Of course, the great monsters of the Clinton years will now be out of office. No more will be seen of Janet Reno and her creatures at the Department of Justice. The same is true of Madelaine Allbright at the State Department. This is good. But a change of personalities will not really compensate for no change in underlying policies. Indeed, the great danger for the American right is that the semblance of having gained power will tend to break up the formidable opposition movement that has emerged during the past few years. Republican loyalists will now be arguing for moderation and patience. I saw this happen after the Republican victories in the 1994 mid-term elections. It took over a year for people to notice that the “Gingrich revolution” was a fraud; and the resulting disappointment and disunity helped keep Bill Clinton in the White House for a second term.

I am not sure of this. The American system is very different from the British. It is far less centralised, and the Republican leadership may have less control over local activism than the Conservative leadership over here. But I do feel that a Bush Presidency will be as disappointing to the American right as a Hague premiership would be in England.

My second point, however, is more definite and optimistic. The election result—assuming a Bush victory—is good for England. So long as the Democrats held the White House, there was an easy welcome for Tony Blair in Washington. It was good for him personally to be on such plainly good terms with the American President. It was also good for the New Labour project of national betrayal and destruction to have something very similar to point at in America. What happens in London probably has little noticeable effect in America—though there is a real effect that should not be ignored. But what happens in Washington certainly has an effect in England. If Tony Blair now has to line up with all the other foreign leaders to meet the President, it damages his authority over here. If the British Government loses its sometimes controlling influence over American foreign policy, the image it has projected here of international significance will crumble.

More subtly, New Labour has been able for the past three years to draw a moral advantage from the fact that its policies have been those of the American Government. It has been able to claim that its “third way” has been the future of political management. A Republican administration—whatever the reality of its conduct – will drop this rhetoric. In terms of projecting success, New Labour will become an ideological rump.

The main effect will not be in domestic politics, but in foreign and European policy. There will be no more Anglo-American wars for the New World Order. American forces may not be withdrawn from Serbia and Iraq, but the scale of interference in those countries and regions may diminish. And there will be no more adventures in other regions. As for Europe, a Bush administration will probably complete the American change of heart about economic and monetary union. The European Union was encouraged by the Americans during the Cold War as a kind of economic wing of NATO. Since then, they have begun to see it as a potential threat. If the Republicans are even slightly less internationalist than the Democrats, and even slightly more concerned about the American national interest, they will drop their pressure on Britain to integrate more closely into Europe.

I do not believe that President Bush will be an isolationist in foreign policy. That is far too much to hope for. In this, as in domestic policy, he will disappoint his core supporters. Even so, Washington will become more passive in foreign affairs during the next few years. There will be no positive reaction, as there was under President Harding; and the treaties and agencies set up over the past decade will remain for some future, more internationalist President to start the roll forward again. But we can look forward to a breathing space, in which we ourselves can start the work of positive destruction.

Looking back over the past half century, English and American politics have been roughly synchronised. Conservative and Republican and Labour and Democrat administrations have tended to coincide; and shifts of public opinion have happened at the same time and in the same direction. The Reagan and Thatcher years are the best example. The Clinton administration and the rise of New Labour provide a less perfectly synchronised example. Perhaps the rejection of the Democrats in America will be followed by a Conservative revival over here. I have no faith in William Hague, and feel inclined to prefer a fatally damaged but continuing Labour Government after the next election. But I have no doubt the Conservative Party will feel less endangered from today than for many years.

In summary, I advise my American friends to rejoice at their peril. George W. Bush is not Ronald Reagan come again—and certainly not Warren Harding. On the other hand, there will probably be some benefit at the international level. For all his father was first to use the term in public, the New World Order may have been put on hold. And that is better than nothing.

© 2000 – 2017, seangabb.

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Sean

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