Tim Bale returned to
the UK in 2003 after five years working in New Zealand in order to
teach politics at Sussex University. He specialises in British and
comparative party politics.
Because of the linguistic, cultural and
media ties we share with the US, and with countries like Australia,
Canada and New Zealand, people in British politics tend to take their
shining examples – or their dire warnings – from those countries rather
than places closer to home. Conservatives, for obvious reasons,
are arguably particularly prone to learn their lessons from that small
Anglo-Saxon sample rather than from fellow European countries.
That’s a pity because the continentals, even those that labour under
the PR systems that are obviously anathema to most Tories, can sometimes teach us a thing or two.
For instance, how can an ailing centre-right
make it back into power even against a centre-left that appears to doing
most things right as far as voters are (or are supposed to be) concerned,
namely running a reasonable economy and demonstrating general (if not
total) competence in other areas of government?
Sweden is clearly a case in point in
this respect. Notwithstanding the fact that unemployment in the
country is probably higher than official figures suggest, the Social
Democratic government that lost power at the weekend was hardly a disaster:
multiculturalism and migration issues may have been bubbling under,
but growth was good, the welfare system nowhere near meltdown and there
were no great signs of a tax revolt among a population whose middle
classes pay a lot but also get a lot in return.
And yet, the centre-right coalition led
by a resurgent conservative party – the ‘new’ (note) Moderates –
has edged out the hegemon and its flank parties, the Greens and the
Left. And it has done it by getting out of the clear blue water,
towelling itself off and dressing in far more centrist garb. Voters
– many of whom work in or depend on public services, as well as in or
on Sweden’s highly successful private export sector – have been reassured
that those services are safe in the right’s hands. The key to
a more dynamic society is not wholesale tax and welfare cuts, its message
went, but extending labour market flexibility (without – and this will
be the difficult bit – sacrificing security and good benefits).
But the lessons don’t and shouldn’t
end with the idea that victory lies in appealing to the centre and leaving
the fringes to look after themselves – an example borrowed, by the way,
directly from Denmark.
Anyone interested in the long-term future
of Conservatism in Britain would do well to keep a close eye on what
happens next because that’s where the potential parallels get most
interesting. Many Tories are prepared to put up with David Cameron’s
makeover because they see it as precisely that – a change on the outside
that won’t really affect what’s going on underneath. When
and if the Tories make it into Number Ten, the belief runs, they will
revert to type and all manner of things shall be well: spending shaved,
taxes down, the US cuddled up to, etc., etc. Some members of their
Swedish counterpart will hope for the same thing – and perhaps they
If they are, then Sweden will provide
a fascinating controlled experiment for what happens when a refitted
and retooled right takes office on a centrist manifesto but then serves
up voters with what many of them will regard as a nasty surprise.
If they are wrong, and the new government sticks to its centrist line,
then more than a few Tories are going to have to decide whether they
really are up for a project that may be about a genuine, rather than
a superficial, primarily election-driven, change of direction.