In Britain, Shock and Awe at the Election Wave

The British follow our politics far more closely than we follow theirs. That’s because what the U.S. does matters to everyone. Still, reading British coverage of American elections occasionally reminds me of the old joke that our two countries are divided by a common language.

But no one in Britain is denying the scale of the Republican victory. The left-wing Guardian is in the dumps, finding only what one columnist described as “straws of comfort” in the Democrats’ narrow majority in the Senate, which he describes as “more a legislative block than a legislative engine.”

A common theme in British coverage is that it was the Tea Party that won the election, and the Tea Party that lost it. It won, obviously, by taking the House, as well as electing Marco Rubio in Florida and new Republican governors in big states such as Pennsylvania. It lost, the claim goes, because Republicans failed to take Delaware, Nevada and West Virginia -- supposedly theirs for the having.

This bifurcation makes no sense. Either way, without the Tea Party’s energy, the Republicans would have taken very little. In fact, absent the Tea Party, the GOP’s position in the U.S. would have been much like the Conservative Party’s in Britain. The Tories got a bounce in the last election, but it was as much a rejection of Labour as it was a vote for conservatism. That’s why David Cameron now leads a coalition government.

Much of the British media’s analysis of the Tea Party usually starts and ends with the word “angry.” Left unexamined is whether there is anything to be angry about. The big question is whether British politics will mirror America’s. Could a Tea Party take off in Britain?

The British left, of course, hopes not, and British conservatives, by and large, fear the left might be correct. What they are less sure of is why. The answer – if the skeptics are right – is simple: the U.S. is an exceptional country, founded on the belief in the rule of the people. That means its politics are periodically rocked – as they were by the Jacksonians in the 1820s, the Republicans in the 1850s, and by the Goldwater conservatives in the 1960s – by popular movements that draw inspiration from those founding ideas.

But even to a country as generally well-disposed to the U.S. as Britain is, those ideas, and the way they move the American people, can be a little mysterious. That’s why there is a touch of baffled conservative envy. In Britain, the Conservative Party took 13 years to bounce back from its devastating defeat in 1997. In the U.S., conservatives got off the mat in 24 months.

That’s no reason for American conservatives to crow, but it is a reason for them to give thanks. After all, if it hadn’t been for Great Britain, and 1776, there wouldn’t have been a Tea Party.

Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation .