Shortly before the partial U.S. government shutdown began, British politicians from the Conservative and Labour parties flocked to their party conferences, where politicians and party members gathered to discuss policy and strategy without the necessary anxiety over impending elections that characterizes American political conventions. The Conservatives headed to the northern city of Manchester, and Labour, the largest opposition party, met at the seaside town of Brighton.
What was particularly striking about the speeches from this year’s Labour and Conservative conferences was the distinctly ideological tone on display during the leaders’ speeches. The leaders of both parties were happy to highlight the core principled differences between their two camps.
Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, gave a speech outlining some policies that are remarkable in their blatant disregard for property rights and rejection of the price system. In his speech Ed Miliband (referred to by some of his critics as “Red Ed”) said that a Labour government would freeze gas prices until 2017 and seize land from property developers who did not use their land in a way the government liked.
The announcement was criticized by many in Britain, and the Conservative MP (and self-described classical liberal and fan of the Austrian school) Steve Baker told Reason the energy policy “was just harkening back to the explicit socialist ideas of yesteryear that have been debunked.”
In his speech at this year’s Conservative party conference David Cameron characterized the choice between the forward-looking Conservatives and the socialism being offered by Labour, saying:
So make no mistake who's looking forward in British politics...
...we'll leave the 1970s-style socialism to others...
...we are the party of the future.
While it might not come as a shock that British Conservatives and Labour Party members have very distinct ideological differences, the British public are not known as particularly ideological voters, particularly in comparison to their continental European neighbors. Speaking to Reason, the German-born Labour MP Gisela Stuart made an analogy between the U.K’s maritime history and its politics: “I always use this wonderful analysis, and it’s a difference between seafaring nations and landlocked nations. If you’re a seafarer you know you can’t control the waves, you just can’t. So what you do in order to survive is you learn to ride them. So the battle of ideas ... you know, if you look into the House of Commons you are on the left on the right, is that you accept that there is no such thing as a perfect answer to any problem, but you fight out whatever is the best answer to a current problem, and whoever makes the best case wins.”
Stuart contrasts this British way of doing politics to politics on the continent, where she says politicians start with a sort of catholic teleological approach and assume that there is a right answer to political questions.
Speaking to Reason, Mark Littlewood, the director-general of the London-based free market think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs, said that Jean Monett's analysis, that “The British people are never moved by ideas, but they are moved by facts,” is “a relatively good way of summarizing the bulk of British opinion.” However, Littlewood also said that “I think that we are seeing in the UK... is the return of ideology to some degree in politics.”
Baker said that “... the British public are very realistic and practical people and they have heard it all before, that politicians are going to wave a magic wand and make life better. I understand that when Parliament burned down in the 19th century the public came out and celebrated because the politicians had been taken out of their lives, at least for a while.”
This return to ideology is in contrast to the sort of politics that was seen in Britain after Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997. Although a member of the Labour Party, Blair was not known for his strict adherence to left-wing ideology. Both Blair and his successor Gordon Brown were members of what is known as “New Labour,” a political philosophy whose followers were sympathetic to market mechanisms being used in order to fund and implement the welfare state Labour members supported.
Ahead of the 2010 election campaign David Cameron said that the NHS would be his “number one priority,” and that the Conservative Party was the "party of the NHS," hardly the sort of rhetoric a committed opponent of socialism would use.
What is refreshing about this return to ideology in British politics is that, while David Cameron’s free market credentials are not impressive, the positioning of politicians in the U.K. is at least making the choices between the pro-socialist and the pro-market parties apparent to British voters while also encouraging divisive politics.