London Britain's Conservative Party has been drubbed in the last two elections and now is riven by a leadership contest between two men diametrically opposed on the most important question this country has faced since World War II relations with the European Union.
A commentator in The Spectator calls this "an embarrassing period of menopausal Tory anguish as the party struggles to make sense of the modern world." There is even speculation that the Tories could wither into Britain's third party, behind not only Labor but the Liberal Democrats, who are on Labor's left.
In 1997, after 18 years in power, the Conservatives suffered their worst 20th-century defeat. This June's election took place in conditions which The Daily Telegraph called unprecedented since before World War I low inflation, low unemployment, rising living standards. And Labor matched Margaret Thatcher's conservatives in winning consecutive elections with parliamentary majorities exceeding 100 seats. Prime Minister Tony Blair has the largest second-term majority in British history. The Conservatives now have only 166 of 659 seats just one in Scotland, none in Wales.
Nevertheless, the Conservative Party the world's oldest party, which over the last two centuries has held power more years than any party in the world, including most of the 20th century could govern again after the next election. It must choose the right leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Then he must convince the country, which already largely agrees with his views on the great constitutional question, to vote accordingly.
One candidate for leader, Kenneth Clarke, favors the further surrender of British sovereignty to the EU. Because about 80 percent of his party disagrees, making him leader would be, as a pundit has put it, akin to giving General Rommel command of the British Eighth Army on the eve of the battle of El Alamein. The other candidate, Duncan Smith, a Eurosceptic, favors the "repatriation" of some powers Britain has ceded to the EU.
The Eurosceptics' rhetorical heat is rising, to a temperature not seen in U.S. politics since the Vietnam War. But so far it is the heat of rival elites, not the public.
Eurosceptics speak of the Europhiles' support for Britain's surrender of independence as "the crime of Vichy." They warn of a peacetime revolution comparable to that of 1688, but this time a revolution against the supremacy of Parliament. Thatcher says Blair "is committed to the progressive extinction of Britain as an independent nation, and indeed to British democracy as it has developed over the centuries." During this year's election campaign the Conservatives' leader, William Hague, said, "This could be the last general election of its kind, the last time that the people of the United Kingdom are able to elect a Parliament which is supreme in this country."
The Conservatives lost in June because they were unconvincing about their solutions for the problems that currently preoccupy most voters the deterioration of public services, particularly in health, transportation and education. The Conservatives did not lose because the public favors Britain adopting the common currency, the euro, the next step toward a European superstate. Blair has promised to submit such a step to a referendum and he cannot win it without engineering a dramatic reversal of public opinion.
If British voters cannot be made to care, the decline of self-government hardly matters. But the Conservatives' attempt to make them care could, for the next few years, give Britain the most interesting politics in the North Atlantic community.
George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.