American Lawmakers Can Learn From the UK's Ideological Politics

If only American politicians were as ideological as some say they are

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.

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  • bassjoe||

    The American system of government is not well-suited for ideological stands. While the House of Reps is (theoretically) capable of being replaced completely every two years, the Senate and the presidency are not, not to mention the judiciary. Motivated ideologues in DC will simply bash themselves repeatedly against institutional inertia, only very rarely achieving anything more than incremental change.

    The English system of government is not like that, at all. Executive power is derived directly from legislative power and, though its relationship to the Parliament is complex, the judiciary is not nearly as powerful or independent as it is in America. Ideologues are completely capable of achieving major changes in very short periods of time.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Yeah, but it's a one-way ratchet. Any serious efforts in the right-wing direction will provoke serious opposition from the pan-European bureaucracy.

  • Free Society||

    I'm not so sure the pro-EU bureaucracy is institutionally more powerful than the American equivalent. Seemingly at least the British bureaucracy 'serves' at the whim of Parliament while in the US the federal bureaucracy is so strong that it's budgets are rarely cut and it's ability to make law rivals that of Congress.

  • Scarecrow Repair||

    My pet idea for reforming Congress is to put all legislative power directly in the Representatives and Senators. Any legisator can introduce any bill at any time, and it sits in a one month review, unchanged. The author can revise it at any time, but that restarts the review period. Other legislators can vote in favor of any bill at any time during the review period. At the end of the review period, it either has a majority (or super majority) in each house or it doesn't.

    No committees, no seniority, no whips and such to decide which bills to come forward and which don't even get a vote. It would make a mess of party politics because party leaders would have no way to punish strays.

    Politicians could still run on party platforms, promising to vote as party leaders say, etc. But party discipline would suffer.

  • Winston||

    Two Shitty articles in less than an hour. Is that a record?

  • HenryC||

    The concept behind this article ignores the fact that the ACA is a brand new entitlement, which if allowed time enough will embed itself into the economy and make it nearly impossible to root out. The ideology of less social entitlement is at the base of the Republican party and is a purely ideological play.

  • Wizard4169||

    Less social entitlement? So who, exactly, pushed Medicare Part D?

    It really would be nice if we had a party that was fundamentally opposed to social entitlement.

  • HenryC||

    Bush, whom the Tea Party does not claim any part of.

  • HenryC||

    The concept behind this article ignores the fact that the ACA is a brand new entitlement, which if allowed time enough will embed itself into the economy and make it nearly impossible to root out. The ideology of less social entitlement is at the base of the Republican party and is a purely ideological play.

  • Jull||

    In the whole this post liked the comparison of the seafaring nations and landlocked nations. I think it's high time for Americans to learn to control the waves and understand finally 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.

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