If you want to know how successful Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labor Party government are today, consider this: When the party gathered for its national convention this week, the hottest and most controversial policy issue was fox hunting.
About 15,000 fans of the hunt, many wearing tweed coats and caps and warbling into brass hunting horns, staged a noisy and energetic demonstration along Bournemouth's sunny seashore today to protest Blair's proposal to outlaw hunting with hounds. The marchers were met--rudely, but not violently--by hundreds of hunting opponents, many wearing fox or rabbit outfits stained with blotches of red.
For all the surrounding pageantry and fervor, fox hunting is a minuscule policy matter for Britain. Barely a tenth of the population is seriously committed for or against. But the hunters' march, together with another parade Monday by the hunters' allies, the farmers, has been one of the few points of heat at this party convention.
Whether through good government or just good luck, Blair presides over a proud and prosperous nation with the strongest economy in a generation. The war in Kosovo was viewed here as a noble victory for the West, and Blair receives much of the credit. As the prime minister himself conceded today, the nation's grimy, overcrowded schools and hospitals still need a lot of improvement, but polls show most people are willing to give Blair time to improve them.
Meanwhile, Labor's chief opposition, the Conservative Party, is badly split by internal debates and woefully weak in the opinion polls.
Accordingly, Blair was upbeat and confident in his keynote speech today, in contrast to the same occasion a year ago, six months after taking office, when the prime minister sounded defensive and thin-skinned. Today he brushed aside the Conservatives with a string of cutting jokes, and even made fun of the horn-blowing hunters in the streets: "With all these people down here demonstrating, I tell you, there's not been a safer day for British foxes in years."