HALF THE COUNTRY'S GOT A HANGOVER," SAID ONE Briton last Friday, after an election result that turned his country's politics upside down. He probably erred on the sober side; for every soreheaded supporter of the Labour Party, which swept to a stunning victory at the polling booths, there was a Conservative who had spent Thursday night drowning his sorrows. In the light of a spring morning, the full reality became clear. Labour had an overall majority of 179 seats in the 659-seat House of Commons, far more than it has ever had before; the Tories had suffered their worst defeat since 1906; and in Tony Blair, Labour's leader, Britain had its youngest prime minister since 1812.
But that's just the beginning. The new House of Commons actually looks like modern Britain, not like a white, male, middle-aged version of it. The number of women elected leaped from 63 in the outgoing Parliament to 120 in the new one, and includes
Claire Ward, a 24-year-old from Hertfordshire who becomes the third-youngest M.P. ever. There are nine M.P.s from ethnic minorities, including Mohammed Sarwar, a millionaire Muslim who will represent a Glasgow district for Labour. Britain will have its first openly gay cabinet minister--Chris Smith, who becomes secretary of state for national heritage, and its first blind cabinet minister, in David Blunkett, secretary of state for education. The Liberal Democrats won 46 seats, the best performance by a "third party" for three generations. There are no Conservative M.P.s left in Scotland and Wales; all told seven cabinet ministers lost their seats. Major immediately and gracefully relinquished the party leadership. "We could be out of power for two Parliaments or even longer," said former Tory M.P. Sir Julian Critchley. "We may never get back." They will, of course. But the Conservatives are in for a rough time. The party is split down the middle over its attitude toward European integration. A significant faction is "Euro-skeptic," opposed to any sacrifice of sovereignty to Brussels. But the first contender to throw his hat into the leadership race was Kenneth Clarke, the pro-European chancellor of the exchequer under Major.
With the brutal efficiency of a British transition, Blair took possession of 10 Downing Street a few hours after the polls closed. And Britons started to ask themselves two questions: Who is this guy? And what does the faith we have put in him tell us about ourselves?
The second question may be easier to answer than the first. In the 18 years of Tory rule that ended last week, Britain underwent a change more profound than most countries manage in a century. Much of this--not all of it--was due to Margaret Thatcher. It was she who, in the early 1980s, changed the economic direction of the country, emasculating the power of the trade unions, cutting taxes and red tape. More than anything else, her legacy was one of the mind. To a country where the pursuit of wealth and comfort had become a mark of bad form, she brought a sense that prosperity was cool (admittedly, not a word known to have passed her lips). That is a conviction now shared as much, or more, by the Labour-voting hedonists of booming London as it is by the Tories in the shires. The clearest mark of Thatcher's economic legacy is Blair's promise not to raise taxes or to increase the Tories' planned spending for two years.
Thatcher did more. To a country that had come to regard its moth-eaten institutions, from the monarchy to the Church of England, with an odd reverence, Thatcher brought the lesson that nothing was sacred. Unwittingly, she was the mother of the constitutional changes that Blair proposes--abolition of the right of hereditary peers to vote in the House of Lords, a Scottish Parliament, a Bill of Rights--and which may turn out to be his own revolutionary legacy.
But Thatcher had little to do with other changes just as momentous. From a society hung up on the end of empire, Britain has --amazingly--become the most comfortably multicultural nation in Europe. Britain was never as inward-looking and isolationist as it thought; a massive British diaspora spans the world. But in the last 20 years, the country has become measurably more international; happy to let French firms own its water industry, happy to watch Italian soccer on the TV, happy to retire to Spain. (It is one of the nuances of modern Britain that this growing internationalism can coexist with a deep resentment at meddling in British affairs by the European Union.) All of this has combined to produce a society that is more comfortable with itself than it has been for decades. There was one, thrilling, proof of that last week: the scores of Union Jacks in Downing Street when Blair moved in. The flag used to be the preserve of the far right, not seen in polite circles; to see it waved at and welcomed by a left-of-center prime minister took this old expatriate's breath away.
Blair won because he embodies this new Britain. He has a wife who earns much more as a lawyer than he ever has; he speaks French and is as comfortable in France as in the English countryside; he has black and Asian friends. The old political language of class warfare is foreign to him. He speaks in abstract nouns, using words, like "community" and "patriotism," that an older breed of British politician would have found pious.
His job now is to translate those fuzzy concepts into workable programs. He has a lot to do, dealing both with the interminable negotiations on the future of Europe--never easy for any British prime minister--and with heightened expectations for handouts among Labour's bedrock supporters. He will have to be as tough in the next few years as he was in the last three, when he stamped on internal dissent and remade the Labour Party into a juggernaut. Few of any nationality or political persuasion would not wish such a young, fresh face well, or fail to raise a glass to his triumph. With or without a hangover.