The British Election Debate: The Chastening

My live-blogging of the first American-style debate between British party leaders is here. My bottom line: Cameron narrowly won this. But, apart from the tedium and politeness of the thing, my biggest take-away is about the boundaries of the debate. They are remarkably constrained compared with the current debate in the US. In some ways, that's a reversal of historic norms. The Brits used to look at the US and see almost no difference between the GOP and the Dems: they were all broadly capitalist and anti-communist, all within the conservative brand in Britain. The Brits, meanwhile, actually debated the merits of real socialism in the 1970s and balance-the-budget capitalism in the 1980s. Their left extended far beyond America's tame Democrats and their right, from 1975 on, pushed the boundaries of low-taxes and smaller government in Europe.

Now, the Brits all sound as if the national debate is within the US Democratic party, while the American right has veered back to the nineteenth century, with a healthy dose of McCarthyism thrown into the mix. In that sense, American politics is now far more interesting than anything in the UK. But the British consensus seems to reflect a country more at peace with itself and more realistic about the limits of change.

The debate felt - how can I put this - like the fruit of a great chastening, as the Tories flee their Thatcherite past and Labour absorbs the legacy of a brutal recession, a divisive war and 13 years in power. My gut tells me this election will swing strongly toward the Tories in the final stretch. When a government has been in power for more than a decade and its central argument for re-election is fear of an untested opposition, it's in trouble.