London This year's most important voting in the North Atlantic region will determine the vitality, even the discernability, of British conservatism. And the result will reverberate among American conservatives, even though few of them have heard of either Kenneth Clarke or Iain Duncan Smith.
One or the other will be the next leader of Britain's Conservative Party. Conservative members of Parliament cut the list of candidates to two, and now, for the first time, the final choice is being made by the approximately 318,000 dues-paying party members, among whom the average age is at least 65, and of whom maybe 20,000 are actually active in party affairs. About half this electorate has already mailed in ballots. The result will be announced Sept. 12.
If Clarke wins, the Conservative Party probably will splinter. If Duncan Smith wins, contemporary conservatism will be more closely identified with the urgent cause of defending national sovereignty, which means accountable government. Although the two men differ on many issues, the dominating question in this contest concerns Britain's relations with the European Union.
Clarke is the Conservative Party's most passionate supporter of something opposed, often passionately, by a large majority of the party he aspires to lead deeper integration of Britain into the emerging European superstate. This integration would soon include adoption of the common currency, the euro. A Clarke supporter says, nonsensically, that Clarke wants to "keep the euro out of politics." A common currency implies a single political regime, "harmonization" of monetary and fiscal policies, and much else.
Clarke's policy must involve the progressive derogation of the supremacy Parliament has accumulated over 300 years. It must involve attenuated self-government for the British. Duncan Smith's campaign manifesto surprisingly, but not implausibly, connects his Eurosceptism with anti-globalization anxieties: "The Danish rejection of the single currency, the Irish referendum vote against the Nice Treaty and the riots in Stockholm and Genoa are all clear signs of growing unease about the way that important decisions are being removed from national democratic control."
Clarke, 62, who was a minister for 18 years and was Prime Minister John Major's chancellor of the exchequer, is Britain's John McCain the conservative most liked by people who do not much like conservatives. He is "appalled" by President Bush's rejection of the Kyoto protocol on global warming, he seems less than lukewarm about missile defense, and he says public spending must stay over 40 percent of GDP "if you are going to run a European-type society." As chancellor, he strenuously opposed a sensible policy that Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a move rightward of Thatcherism, adopted emancipating the Bank of England from political control.
Clarke's rumbustious rhetorical style could be called "straight talk" if McCain did not own that trademark. McCain has a volcanic temper; Clarke has called readers of the Daily Mirror there are 2.3 million of them "morons."
McCain has become an ally of Democrats regarding gun control and the patients' bill of rights, among other matters. Clarke has appeared on a platform with Blair at a pro-Europe rally, and says he would do so again. Clarke criticizes Duncan Smith for opposing, in 1992, Prime Minister Major on the Maastricht Treaty, which advanced the transfer of Britain's national sovereignty to the European Union. But Clarke insouciantly says he has not read the treaty.
Duncan Smith, 47, son of a World War II Spitfire ace, has never been a government minister, but neither had Blair before becoming prime minister. Duncan Smith, who would be the first Conservative leader since Churchill to have attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, was a Scots Guards officer before entering politics, and he pugnaciously made his maiden speech in Parliament in opposition to Maastricht. He says that if rebelling against one's party on a serious issue always disqualified rebels from future leadership, Conservatives would never have been led by Disraeli or Churchill.
Britain, with its lowest unemployment in 25 years and more foreign investment than in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg combined, is prospering outside the euro. So the drive to surrender ("pool" is the preferred euphemism) sovereignty to the European Union seems increasingly like a cause without a rationale other than "inevitability." That is, every step Britain takes deeper into subordination to the European Union is justified by the previous steps: it is too late to stop now.
Well. American conservatism's long march to power began in 1955 when William Buckley launched National Review magazine, proclaiming in the inaugural issue a determination to stand athwart history yelling "Stop!" Which is what Duncan Smith is doing on behalf of national autonomy and self-government.
George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.