Leading Article: Lessons from across the pond

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON'S first year in office has failed to bring him to these shores, but it may still have profound implications for this country. The Anglo-American 'special relationship' has noticeably cooled. In parallel, domestic policy in the two countries, symbiotic and mutually supporting during the Eighties, has diverged in most respects. As Mr Clinton celebrates greater popularity than Ronald Reagan enjoyed at this stage in his first presidency, British politicians would be wise to watch events across the pond.

The arrival of a Democratic president in the White House has made explicit what was perhaps obscured by the warmth of Margaret Thatcher's friendship with Ronald Reagan: Britain seems not to figure large in American minds. Canada, Mexico and Germany probably matter more.

Perhaps Britain has been pliant to the US for so long that this country's support is taken for granted. Whatever the reason, Mr Clinton has made little effort to cultivate John Major. Their relationship was poisoned by Tory aid for George Bush's re-election campaign; some resentment lingers. British threats to veto any American effort to lift the UN arms embargo in Bosnia demonstrate how a once seamless bilateral foreign policy is coming apart. Eurosceptics should be aware that being aloof from Europe does not guarantee intimacy with the United States.

Equally significant has been Mr Clinton's championing of competent government to heal the running sores of the budget deficit and high-cost, inaccessible health care. His success cannot yet be judged, but the President is seeking to create a centrist paradigm that combines fiscal responsibility with a populist message that governments must attack social problems.

The Labour Party seems to have learnt from Mr Clinton, whose election-winning centrism has rescued the Democratic Party from an ideological ghetto. John Smith has picked up a Clintonesque theme of appealing to the 'hurting' middle classes: in Labour's case the party has concentrated on crime and rising taxation. The Opposition has clearly copied the President's election mantra - 'The economy, stupid' - and recognised that to be politically credible it must be economically credible.

President Clinton has shaken off the old Democratic alliance with the trade unions to an extent that even Labour's most radical modernisers would not contemplate. Accusing him of selling out on America's poor, his critics see him as a Republican in Democratic clothing. Modernisers, such as Tony Blair, face similar attacks. But the President's achievement in taking office and increasing his popularity must make such pragmatism tantalising even to a Labour Party strangely resistant to the allure of power. Change is apparent - Labour's modernisers are shifting their party away from collectivism and towards individualism - but movement is desperately slow.

The Conservatives also have much to learn from American developments. But they show every sign of repeating the mistakes of the Bush years. Mr Major, like Mr Bush, inherited a clear political philosophy but, in much the same manner as the former president, has been unable to develop it into an attractive mission for the Nineties. He has promoted a stylised right-wing agenda - family values - rather than substantive policies. As a result his popularity has slumped. The experience of Mr Bush, destroyed by the contempt of right-wingers in his own party, should be a warning.

The lessons for Britain of President Clinton's first year in office can only be tentatively drawn. He often seems to have a death wish, flitting at the flame. His policies remain a mixed bag, with no great coherence. But there is an appeal to his moralistic, eclectic, centrist programme in which the job of government is to oversee society competently rather than provide services inefficiently. It may contain much of what proves to be the successful combination for whichever party wins Britain's next general election.