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Britain's Beloved Welfare State
Published on Tuesday, May 29, 2001 in the Washington Post
Britain's Beloved Welfare State
Conservative Party Backs Policies Considered Liberal in U.S.
by T.R. Reid
EDGBASTON, England -- William Hague says government must provide free cradle-to-grave health care for all. He backs a ban on handguns. He endorses the right to abortion on demand. He supports a monthly handout to every family with children and education subsidies that pay about 95 percent of every college student's tuition.

"Welfare state."
In U.S. politics, that phrase is a pejorative. In Europe, it is a point of pride.

It's a policy portfolio that would put Hague on the far left fringe of American politics. Here in Britain, though, Hague is the leader of the Conservative Party -- and he's been criticized for taking his party too far to the right as he campaigns for the national election on June 7.

Hague's big-government style of conservatism reflects the most striking difference between this spring's British election and the U.S. election last fall: The whole debate on this side of the Atlantic is several notches to the left of the American political conversation.

At a time when the British are struggling to decide whether their free-market, English-speaking country is more "American" than "European," the tenor of the political campaign demonstrates that the British are thoroughly European in their enthusiasm for the beneficent hand of a generous government.

"The British are more European than American in their attitude toward tax-and-spend," said London political analyst Hugo Young. "Brits are no readier than the French for the minimal state."

Hague, who is leading the Conservatives in an uphill battle to unseat the popular Labor Party prime minister, Tony Blair, ran headlong into the British sense of entitlement during a stop here in the Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston on Thursday. There he met Suzanne Averis, a businesswoman who said she is a "totally loyal Conservative" because of disgust with "Tony Blair's taxes and regulation."

Averis had a personal complaint about the British government. Eight months pregnant, she wants to give birth at her home. She went to her free local National Health Service hospital and asked them to have a "birth team," a doctor and two midwives, come to her home when she starts labor. The hospital agreed.

"But then they said, 'Well, if it happens on a weekend, we may have staffing problems,' " Averis continued indignantly. "But this is my baby! A woman has a right! What kind of a health service would argue with you over something like that?"

Hearing this heartfelt plea, the leader of Britain's most conservative major party agreed that it was "shameful" the public health service might have problems accommodating home birth for any woman who wants it.

Of course, the British do pay for the services and subsidies they get from government. Income and social security tax rates are generally higher here than in the United States, and on every retail purchase consumers pay a whopping national sales tax of 17.5 percent. In contrast, the combined state and local sales tax for a shopper in Arlington, Va., is 4.5 percent.

The revenue here pays for a broad range of social services known collectively as the "welfare state."

In U.S. politics, that phrase is a pejorative. In Europe, it is a point of pride. Hague promised at Edgbaston that "a Conservative government will not cut a penny of spending on our welfare state."

Europe's high-tax, high-service model of government, sometimes described as social democracy, developed over 50 years ago as post-World War II governments rebuilt a shattered continent.

In 1945, Labor Party leader Clement Attlee proposed a "welfare state" as a contrast to "Hitler's warfare state." The idea proved so appealing that British voters dumped their wartime hero, Winston Churchill, just two months after the German surrender and installed Attlee as prime minister. The National Health Service, with its proud boast "free to all at the point of use," was one result.

As Western Europe's postwar recovery produced high growth rates and high tax revenue, governments poured money into an ever-increasing network of social services, subsidies and direct payments. There was open competition with the Communist governments of Eastern Europe, which promised an even more generous welfare menu. Another impetus was a desire to outshine the United States, which is often depicted here as a nation where the rich flourish and the poor suffer.

The resulting structure of public services was so popular that even such noted Conservatives as Margaret Thatcher, who dominated British politics in the 1980s, dared not mess with it.

On the American side of the Atlantic, similar policies were introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt before the war to counter the Great Depression. But the welfare state faced fundamental limits in the United States, with its history of lower tax rates and a philosophical commitment to the private sector that President Ronald Reagan summarized when he said: "Government is not the solution. Government is the problem."

The popularity of the welfare state is a key reason that Hague and the Conservatives -- the party of Churchill and Thatcher that governed Britain for most of the last century -- have made no headway in the polls during this campaign. Blair is so far ahead, according to pundits and pollsters, that he may do better on June 7 than the landslide victory that swept his party into power in 1997.

Hague initially positioned his party as a champion of lower taxes. But whenever he talked about "tax cuts," Blair fired back that this really meant "spending cuts," and thus a reduction in government services. Polls show that people are much more concerned about the rickety transit infrastructure and the aged, dreary schools and hospitals than they are about tax rates.

Hague sharply pared back his tax-cutting plan for the campaign, finally promising "Conservative tax relief" totaling about $12 billion over two years. Two weeks ago, a senior Tory told a newspaper that the party might be able to offer tax cuts of around $30 billion. Rather than embrace this bolder plan, Hague ran away from it. A larger tax cut, he said "is no part of Conservative policy."

The Liberal Democrats, Britain's third major party, are running on a commitment to raise taxes across the board -- a position that no party, not even Ralph Nader's Greens, endorsed in the U.S. election. Blair's Labor Party promises only minor changes in tax laws and a steady increase in spending on public services.

The Conservatives also take what Americans would consider a liberal line on many social issues, including abortion rights and tough national gun control laws. On these issues, too, the Tories are merely fitting into the British mainstream.

But Hague has moved to the right in this year's campaign on the issue of immigration. Sounding something like Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan in the U.S. election, he charged that Britain has become a "soft touch" for asylum applicants. He proposed to put all immigrants into locked detention centers on arrival. For this, he has been pilloried in the media and in some segments of his own party for swinging too far to the right.

It's easy to tell where the British parties stand on these points because of another major difference between U.K. and U.S. elections: the party manifesto, a written declaration of everything a party plans to do if it wins.

In U.S. elections, the formal statement of policy intentions, the party platform, is all but dead, a document that surfaces briefly at the quadrennial convention and is then ignored. Each British party, in contrast, introduces its manifesto with great hoopla, and party leaders recite it throughout the campaign.

Then, the media and politicians keep referring back to this contract with the voters throughout the winning party's tenure. One of the key arguments in this year's election involves how many of its 1997 manifesto commitments the Labor Party has fulfilled over the past four years.

To a degree, the manifestos are full of platitudes, smiling photos and vague invocations of a better tomorrow. But they also contain specifics on taxes, spending and proposed legislative changes. Voters seem to like them. The major party manifestos for the 2001 election are on sale at bookstores and newsstands throughout Britain; the Labor and Conservative manifestos cost $4 each this time.

At the WHSmith bookstore in Birmingham, clerks say they will sell hundreds of copies by election day.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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