The Dernogalizer

April 11, 2009

A Warning to Conservatives: Don’t Emulate the Brits

Filed under: National Politics — Eugene Huskey @ 10:50 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

British conservatives are once again on the rise. American conservatives: Don’t be fooled.

Since last year’s electoral wipeout, the Republican Party has been in a debate over how to remake itself. Some have pointed to Britain’s Conservative Party, which is today poised — after 12 long years — to regain power.

David Cameron

Conservative Party leader David Cameron, some say, has crafted a “modern conservatism” which is well past all that talk of free markets, tax cuts and individual freedom. This conservatism is caring and recognizes the role of government; it connects with citizens and worries about day care and global warming. If only the GOP would emulate its British cousins, so the argument goes, it might forge that lasting conservative majority.

It’s true the British Conservatives are on track to win next year’s general election. It is also true that this has little to do with the non-philosophy the Conservatives have been spinning to the public. The next election will instead be a referendum on a worn-out Labour movement. If Conservatives win, it will be because the party has made itself less offensive to the electorate than those currently in charge. And that, American friends, is no way to rebuild a party.

It’s not that they don’t offer lessons, in particular what not to do after a big defeat. The Conservatives were bounced in 1997 after the British public wearied of a party more redolent of corruption than the Thatcher revolution. (Sound familiar?) It chose a young, charismatic politician named Tony Blair who promised change and argued the nation could have it all — a strong, free-market economy and a big, caring government. (Also sound familiar?)

The initial conservative response was to try to “reconnect” with the British people, though not via serious policy discussions. Leader William Hague appeared at a theme park wearing a baseball cap, hoping to appeal to younger voters.

To the extent the party did engage in policy debates, it was in the context of factions warring with each other over issues such as support for the European Union. It failed to take a hard line on the corruption that hurt the party. As it floundered, it increasingly stoked populist passions, in particular anti-immigration fervor or opposition to the Iraq War.

Mr. Cameron came to power in 2005, promising to transform the party. What he did was indulge a particular British paranoia that the Conservatives are viewed as the party that doesn’t care.

Much of the  “modern conservatism” consists of reassuring voters about what they won’t do. It won’t dismantle a failing national health-care system. It won’t disavow failing public schools. It won’t resist higher tax rates on the “rich.” Beyond this bold agreement with the status quo, the party has refused to articulate its own agenda, lest any part go down badly with voters.

Mr. Cameron has been at this revamp for years, but only recently did Conservatives start to gain traction. This coincided closely with growing public anger with the Labour Party and its new leader, Gordon Brown.

Polls show the public is furious with Labour’s handling of the financial crisis, which also helped expose a dozen years of unrestrained Labor spending. The party has been hit with an embarrassing scandal tied to parliamentarians’ perks. Mr. Brown, in his nearly two years as prime minister, has enraged voters with tax hikes and by reneging on a promise to hold early elections. Mr. Cameron has carefully avoided giving them a reason to dislike the alternative.

Many Conservatives here fear Mr. Cameron will become prime minister, only to be quickly exposed as a poll-driven “heir to Blair” who treads water a few years and then loses. What every American should understand is that this is not a test of “modern conservatism.” It’s a test only of whether an opposition that voices no coherent ideology can succeed when the ruling party stumbles.

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