Cheshire Cat, Cheddar Man


"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

London--about Prime Minister Tony Blair, architect of "New Labour" and apostle of the "Third Way" (American-style capitalism blended with European statism), the question is, what is there besides his grin? The Third Way is thin gruel, its mantra of "modernization" as watery as Bill Clinton's 1992 celebration of "change." Blair's government, preoccupied with the politics of presentation, has a remarkably high ratio of rhetoric to real programs. However, it is advancing, or allowing to advance, the most radical agenda in the nation's history. How else to describe the dissolution of the nation, and the submersion of its component parts in the gray leviathan called "Europe"?

Blairism is the radicalism of purposeful inertness. It is part cause and part effect of both centrifugal and centripetal forces. After not quite three centuries as a unified entity, bits of Britain, a composite nation, are spinning outward ("devolution," via legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). But all are being tugged toward a new center, Brussels, the cold bureaucratic heart of "Europe," as that becomes a political as well as a geographic category.

Blair's political profile is not just blurry at the edges, it is blur straight through. Blairism consists of embracing conservatism but calling it something else--deploring Thatcherism while preserving its consequences, such as deregulation, privatization and democratization of the trade unions. Blair's most specific campaign promise, to reform, and particularly to end the waiting lists in, the sclerotic National Health Service (with three quarters of a million employees, one of Europe's largest employers), remains spectacularly unfulfilled. Although in 1997 Labour gave the Tories their worst shellacking of the 20th century, winning a 179-seat majority, a recent poll put the Tories just three points behind.

The politics of pure presentation ("spin" and "focus groups" are recent American imports into Britain's political lexicon) works only until it is recognized as such. But there is a brain behind Blairism. It belongs to Gordon Brown, chancellor of the Exchequer. He is a Scot (that matters) who approvingly quotes Alan Greenspan. Even when throwing red meat to "Old Labour" class warriors (he lambasted Oxford for being a haven of private-school toffs when it turned down a state-school graduate who was accepted at Harvard), he does so in a Thatcherite vocabulary stressing the meritocracy and efficiency necessary for an entrepreneurial society.

Brown is making sure that the most important issue in British politics does not come to a boil before the next election, which must occur no later than 2002 and will probably be next year. The issue is whether to scrap the national currency and join the euro currency, with all that implies for surrendering control of monetary policy, and then (inevitably) fiscal policy, and sliding ever deeper into "harmonization" with (meaning subordination to) the emerging European superstate.

Brown is cleverly kicking this issue down the road by making much of the five "conditions" that must be met before Britain joins the euro. But all five are economic, which means political principles (such as sovereignty and self-government) are irrelevant. Thus does materialism supplant political morality as Homo economicus has (pace Aristotle) eclipsed Homo politicus. And all five conditions are so vague, and are tied to such fudgeable data, that they can be declared met whenever Brown desires. Which will probably be after the next election, if Labour wins it.

Many Europhiles are English intellectuals of the sort George Orwell despised because they despised their nation: "England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their nationality." (Orwell did not live to see America in the 1960s and 1970s.) Trust intellectuals to use a 1,222-page tract to advance their politics. It is Norman Davies's "The Isles," a slapdash, padded, trendy and tendentious history of Britain from Cheddar Man to Tony Blair.

Shortly after the last ice age, a man was buried in Cheddar Gorge in what is now England. His body was discovered in 1903, and in 1996 samples of his DNA were compared with DNA samples from some villagers in that area. A close match was found with a 42-year-old teacher in Cheddar Village, who is thus a direct descendant of the man from the Middle Stone Age. And--here is Davies's political point--Cheddar Man lived before nature had separated the British Isles from the European landmass. Therefore he was "a Continental," so why make a fuss about Britain's going (back) into Europe?

Also, the Plantagenet kings spent more time (because they had more territory) in France than in Britain. And the pedigree of the term "Great Britain" runs only to 1707 (the unification of the English and Scottish crowns), and that of "the United Kingdom" only to 1801 (the dissolution of the Irish Parliament). And so on, all of this selective mining of British history culminating in a crashing non sequitur: contingencies produced Britain, therefore its dissolution is a matter of moral indifference, and probably desirable.

The moral of the story supposedly is that the British nation is a result of geologic caprice and (relatively recent) political improvisations that are less durable than the cultural and ethnic differences now recrudescent. Identity politics has come to Britain.

What is vanishing, and not slowly, is the nation to which the United States traces much of its political and cultural DNA. Unless this disappearance is resisted, and reversed, soon all that will linger, like the Cheshire Cat's grin, will be a mocking memory of the nationhood that was the political incarnation of a people who (as has been said), relative to their numbers, contributed more to civilization than any other people since the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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