The Tea Party movement has caused a seismic shift in American political discourse in recent years. The movement holds great power over most Republican congressmen and senators, as well some of the party’s leading presidential candidates. More alarmingly, it is also largely responsible for pushing the US to the brink of a cataclysmic debt default, due to its sway over the Republican leadership and its inability to countenance even the closing of tax loopholes (“no new taxes”) as part of its demand that the Treasury immediately slashes the US deficit by £1.2trillion.
Vince Cable puts the current crisis in Washington down to “right wing nutters”, and Westminster heaves a sigh of relief that such a bunch of Neanderthal slash-and-burners could never exist, let alone thrive, on this side of the Atlantic. But could they?
The conditions that saw the rapid rise of the Tea Party in the US from late 2008 are not exactly alien to our current political landscape – a sluggish economy, a feeling that Government is too big, a mistrust of powerful elites and the ‘mainstream media’, and a growing belief that the people are no longer represented by those that serve them. It’s fairly easy to see the parallels with today’s Britain, given this morning’s sclerotic growth figures, the government’s war on public sector interests, and the phone-hacking scandal which has come hot on the heels of the banking crisis and expenses furore.
But it’s not just the similarities of context which are interesting. Take a quick trip round the comment sections of the main centre-right and right wing blogs – even at the more intellectual end – and the main thing that strikes the reader is the sheer weight of critiques of the current system. There is a clear pattern in these comments: Cameron (like Blair and the hated Brown before him) is far too left wing, the public sector unions are too powerful, taxes need to be slashed, government (particularly in Brussels) must get out of the way, our politicians are corrupt and Britain needs to radically change course. Bar the occasional rant, these tend to be relatively well-written, intelligently put arguments, rather than the rabid ramblings one might expect of a less lucid political movement.
But it is the sheer weight and scale of interventions along these lines that really hits home. The comments under these three articles, all written this morning in mainstream and respected right-wing publications, tell a very interesting story. And that’s before looking at some of the more base commentary along the same lines by the earthier participants at sites like Guido Fawkes. Even Ed Miliband – hardly a populist demagogue – has spotted the mileage in raging against “powerful vested interests”, be they bankers or energy companies.
Of course, the US Tea Party has a greater cultural basis in the social and religious conservatism of many parts of the country, much of which (such as its views on guns or socialised healthcare) is anathema to pretty much the full spectrum of British political opinion. But, as the economy continues to dominate political debate on both sides of the Atlantic, there certainly appears to be a growing wave of grassroots anger at ‘the elites’ that may one day break upon the British political system.
But one question remains – what should this movement call itself in the UK? After all, given the avowed patriotism and muscular nationalism of the movement’s membership, it can’t exactly be the Tea Party, can it?