British politics makes a fascinating mirror to our own

By Tom Baxter

It was interesting last week, while channel-surfing between clips of one Republican congressman blessing out a park ranger and another admitting he didn’t know what the House GOP could ask for to save face and back away from the budget crisis, to catch some of the recent British Conservative and Labour Party conferences on CSPAN.  A lot about British politics looks very familiar, but there’s much that seems very different, indeed.

A big difference is that these are two parties talking among themselves, and to each other. Their language is often saltier — Prime Minister David Cameron  spoke of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s economic proposals as “Red Ed and his Blue Peter economy” — but at least they’re talking.

Some of the differences between their current politics and ours are only cyclical. Over there the Conservatives are in power, so the party more like the Republicans defends the pace of the economic recovery while the party more like the Democrats attacks it. Some of the similarities are more fundamental. The British Conservatives talk about finishing the job of reducing the national deficit and “welfare that really works,” while Labour talks about what it calls the cost of living crisis and increasing income inequality.

“They used to say a rising tide lifts all boats,” Miliband said at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton. “Now the rising tide just seems to lift the yachts.”

Both sides talk a lot about the National Health Service, but the debate is vastly different from the one in the United States over the Affordable Care Act. Nobody’s talking about dismantling a system that’s been around since the 1940s. Instead both claim credit for its survival.

Miliband accused Cameron of letting the NHS slide on his watch.

“It’s the same old story. We rescue the NHS, they wreck the NHS and we have to rescue the NHS all over again and that is what the next Labour government will do,” Miliband said, receiving the longest applause of his speech.

Cameron answered the following week at his party gathering. “Who protected spending on the NHS? Not Labour, us. Who started the Cancer Drugs Fund?  Not Labour, us,” the prime minister said in his speech at the party conference in Manchester.

In this country, pundits worry about the possibility of a breakup, as it gets harder for the two sides to reach agreement even over balancing the nation’s books. Over there, there is the clear and present possibility of a breakup. On Sept. 18, Scotland will hold a referendum on whether it should declare its independence from the United Kingdom.

I’ll bet that if you ran a genetic breakdown, the Scottish National Party, which stands for independence, would show a lot of kinship with supporters of the Tea Party in the United States. But the resemblance is only in the DNA. The SNP is a Euro-style party which leans well to the left of either of the Labour or Conservative parties.

The one thing the Conservatives and Labour seem to agree on wholeheartedly is that it would be a very bad idea for Scotland to break away.
“We want to stick together,” Cameron said, addressing the people of Scotland as a spokesman for the other parts of the UK. “Think of all we’ve achieved together — the things we can do together. The nations — as one. Our Kingdom — United.”

Echoing a similar message, Miliband, told the story of Cathy Murphy, a Labour delegate from Glasgow who had an emergency heart condition at the party’s convention in Liverpool two years ago and returns there for followup treatment. The doctors and nurses don’t ask her whether she’s from England or Scotland, he said.

“Friends, I don’t want Cathy to become a foreigner,” Miliband said. To underscore his point, the Labour leader said later that hospitals in Scotland lacked the expertise that could be found in the larger UK.

The SNP quickly countered that Scottish patients could seek specialized medical care in the UK under the agreement worked out ahead of next year’s referendum and accused Miliband of setting up a straw man.

In his speech the following week, Cameron also referred to access to the NHS in the part of his speech devoted to cracking down on illegal immigration.

“If you are not entitled to our free national health service, you should pay for it,” the Conservative leader said.

This is the same free national health service that has been much maligned in the debate in the United States. Over there, it’s the biggest argument Labour makes for  the country sticking together, and the benefit Conservatives are keenest on protecting from the undeserving.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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