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.

While my own experiences suggest that Americans are broadly more ideological in their politics than the British, the recent fiscal fiasco has highlighted that American politicians could use a similar "return to ideology" that is being seen in the U.K.

Since the beginning of the partial government shutdown, Obama has accused some Republicans of being on an "ideological crusade," as if commitment to principles was something to be ashamed of or dismissed. The National Review's Jonah Goldberg has argued that Obama is just as ideological as the Republicans that he has criticized.

The truth is that the House Republicans Obama mentioned cannot be fairly described as "ideological" or on a "crusade." After the partial government shutdown began Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the reopening of national parks and the National Institutes for Health, an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. This is not a move you would expect from committed ideological members of a party that supports free markets and limited government. It highlights the fact that Republicans wanted to try to support reopening high-profile parts of the government knowing that the bills would almost certainly not be passed by the Democrats in the Senate, who spoke out against this Republican "piecemeal" strategy. This is politics, not ideology, at work. It might be the case that politics in D.C. is dysfunctional at the moment, but it would be a mistake to think that this is solely because of ideology and has nothing to do with upcoming elections and political grandstanding. 

The fact that Republicans have been willing to vote for high-profile parts of the government to reopen while opposing Obamacare makes the Republican behavior during the government shutdown look more like a giant whine than some brave ideological stand. Perhaps more Americans would be sympathetic to their current strategy if it didn't appear to be merely a fight against Obama's signature piece of legislation. 

Like Conservatives and Labour Party members in the U.K., where politics is not usually ideological, Republicans and Democrats should consider making their cases more strongly and encourage the sort of divisive, ideological politics that has been left wanting on Capitol Hill and in the White House recently.