I should feel quite at home at the tea parties. I was present at the last round of them. It was another country and another time, but the anger was as genuine, the sense of betrayal by the political class was as real, and the idea of an endangered heritage was as painful.
Also, then as now, there was a certain disconnect from reality.
The place of these tea parties was throughout the dwindling British Empire. There, middle-aged people, who had spread the concept of British exceptionalism and borne the Second World War, felt everything they had built and fought for was slipping away.
What was seen as a terrible leftward drift was opposed virulently by a phalanx of patriotic organizations, but most notably the League of Empire Loyalists, founded in 1954.
The Loyalists were good yeomen who loved the Britain they believed had existed and was endangered, along with the position of Britain as the world’s dominant power. They believed in Britain’s special writ to civilize the world, police it and sometimes settle it. Compared to the militarists of the 18th and 19th centuries, these were soft imperialists but believers nonetheless, held together in a loose federation throughout the British colonies and dominions.
In Britain, the Loyalists formed a political bloc on the far right of the Conservative Party. They were on the fringe in Britain, but they were taken seriously in the colonies as a legitimate expression of wide discontent with the decline of British traditions, British leadership in business and British moral authority.
Loyalists inside and outside Britain railed against politicians in London, much as today’s Tea Party activists rail against Washington.
In Britain, support for the Loyalists was limited because so much had already changed. The British public had already accepted the dissolution of the empire; after all, its jewel, India, was gone.
Although the Loyalists raged against non-white immigration into Britain, this had not yet been identified by most people as a society-changing occurrence. Mainline British Conservatives feared that the leader of the loyalists, Arthur Chesterton, had been a fascist sympathizer in the 1930s. Even though he had broken with the fascists and written a book about it, he was still suspect.
Where I was in Rhodesia, the Loyalists were seen as the hope for saving Britain, of returning her to greatness and somehow turning the clock back to “the good old days,” whenever they were imagined to have been. Many, including my parents, believed the Loyalists would bring about a glorious new Elizabethan era under the young Elizabeth II, who had been crowned a year before the founding of the League of Empire Loyalists.
For those outside of the British Isles, the league was back to the future. But in London and across Britain, the Loyalists were just a right-wing pressure group (known in Britain as a “ginger group”), claiming support from a handful of Conservative Members of Parliament but shunned by the Tory leadership. In the United Kingdom, they were sidelined as “Colonel Blimps,” a satirical comic figure who ridiculed the conservative middle class and had been enshrined in criticism by George Orwell.
The League of Empire Loyalists lasted 10 years, but its aspirations were sealed after six years with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech. The league’s domestic issues — the fight against socialism, the uncontrolled flood of immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean, and the growing power of the unions — were taken up by more sophisticated entities, like The Monday Club, operating inside the Conservative Party.
There is a limit to the analogy of the Tea Party movement to the Loyalist movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But the people are eerily the same. They share a decency, the sense of being let down and the feeling that something has to be done. In the British case, nothing was done until Margaret Thatcher much later addressed some of the concerns of the Loyalists (unions, state ownership, immigration and global stature). She did not bring back the empire, but she did make the Brits feel a lot better about not having it anymore.
Who will do that for the good people of the Tea Party movement?
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All those people who treat politics like baseball may have to start again. All those statistics about what happened in off years down through our history, all those references to recurring political phenomena, like the impact of the weather on elections, are null and void.
We’re moving from government as we have known it — a system of two parties modulated by bipartisanship on many issues, where factors other than ideology matter to members of Congress — to a new order in which party loyalty trumps conscience.
Congress is acting more like a parliament than a congress. People who have been clamoring for a Congress more like the British Parliament, with features like “Prime Minister’s Question Time,” have got more than they wanted. They’ve got something like the British party system, and it is not a step forward.
While watching the Brits go at it on C-SPAN is good sport, and certainly tests the mental acuity and verbal dexterity of the players, it is an inflexible way of governing.
Despite the jolly repartee and the openness of discussion, the House of Commons can be a sterile place. The individual member feels impotent and frustrated. Unless a member loves constituency work with a passion, they can feel very unloved by the parliamentary legislative process.
The former Conservative M.P. Matthew Parris has written brilliantly about the impotence of the backbenchers in his autobiography. He abandoned elective politics for journalism, where he felt he could be more effective in shaping public policy.
The dirty little secret about Britain in particular, and parliaments modeled on Westminster in general, is that they aren’t kind to mavericks and are institutionally structured to keep them down or out. Private consciences cannot be aired easily, if at all. A cri de coeur may have to be embedded in a question on an aside in a debate late at night. It won’t be reflected in a vote when “the whips are on” — party discipline in force. The rare exception is a free vote of the House of Commons on a matter like the death penalty.
Here in the U.S., despite the emasculation that goes with party discipline, the Republicans are well down that road. And one wonders, can the Democrats be far behind?
The dynamic across the aisle is becoming asymmetric, and the only Democratic response will have to be a closing of ranks. Something unique to the American system is being lost here.
The genius of Congress is its ability to hear minority voices and, on occasion, for the administration to make common cause with the opposition — as President Clinton did with the Republicans to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But the Republicans have given up one the great freedoms of our system of government. They have sacrificed on the altar of discipline the special freedom to vote as you see fit.
Sadly the move to party authoritarianism hasn’t come from within the party — although Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and House Republican Leader John Boehner, of Ohio, are enjoying it — but from the forces that are shaping conservatism from without.
First among these forces is right-wing broadcasting. It’s a vicious and relentless goad to Republicans to move ever further to right, to embrace positions not of their own making.
Then there’s the party rump, characterized by the Tea Party movement. It’s implacably at odds not just with the administration of Barack Obama but with the times we live in. It yearns for another America in another time. It doesn’t want to face the cultural, demographic and political realities of today. But it’s in tune with the conservative broadcasting colossus, and it will have a large and negative affect on the Republican Party.
Arcing across the political sky, compounding all of this, is the phosphorous rocket of Sarah Palin. The former governor of Alaska may be in the 10th minute of her 15 minutes of fame, but for now she’s a bigger force in Republicanism than are its wiser leaders.
All of this has forced the Republicans in the Senate, and to a lesser extent in the House, to look more like the opposition in a parliament than the minority in Congress. Significantly, we’ve always favored “minority” to describe the other party rather than “opposition.” These words have described the uniqueness of Congress — its authenticity, if you will.
At least until history took a new course in 2010. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
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