Defending David Frum against attacks from fellow conservatives, Anne Applebaum suggested in a recent Washington Post column that Republicans should take a leaf from the book of their ideological cousins in Britain’s Conservative Party. She specifically referred to the changes in policy and, more importantly, attitude required to make the GOP an electoral force again.
Applebaum claims that, after losing power to Tony Blair’s New Labor in 1997, the Tories were confined to the political wilderness because they “ran two angry campaigns that reeked of xenophobia.”She implies that Republicans will suffer a similar fate if they continue to embrace “radical right-wing talk-show rhetoric” and move too far to the right.
After the second, decisive election loss, the conservatives finally made some changes. They elected a new leader [David Cameron], younger and “modernizing.” They changed their social policies to match the views of the majority. They supported the green movement — hugely popular among their own, heavily rural electorate — and accepted the basic premises of Blairism and moved on. Above all, they changed the way they spoke: No more shouting. No more anger. No more arrogance.
Applebaum’s analysis of the Tories’ wilderness years, their recent revival in fortunes, and the lessons therein for the Republican Party is so flawed, superficial, and self-deluding that it’s hard to know where to begin.
For starters, anyone reading the opening paragraphs could be forgiven for thinking the Tories are on the verge of sweeping triumphantly back into power. They are, in fact, just a few points ahead of a Labor government which has presided over the worst recession in the country’s modern history, doubled the national debt, poured billions of pounds into the public services with little to show for it, and presided over rising unemployment. The Labor government is led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who’s only marginally less popular with the public that he is with his own party.
Even if the Tories win the largest number of seats in the May 6 election, current polling suggests they won’t secure an overall majority, with the balance of power being held by Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, who are enjoying a bounce following leader Nick Clegg’s performance in the first of three televised debates. Few of those voters who are suddenly so taken with Clegg have any idea what the Lib Dems stand for, and at heart they’re soft-on-crime, hot-on-Europe, big government types who will throw their lot in with Labor at the drop of a hat.
So after enjoying poll leads of 15 points and more for much of last year, the Conservatives are now in real danger of being kept out of power for another four or five years — hardly a model the GOP should be aspiring to emulate. But even if the Conservatives were to win by 20 points, that wouldn’t mean they’d have anything to teach the Republicans.
As Applebaum acknowledges, the Conservative Party hasn’t been out of power for 13 years because the British people rejected its core principles; far from it. She writes: “After almost two decades in power, the British conservatives lost, in 1997, to Tony Blair’s slicker, smoother, Labor Party — a party that had accepted the basic premises of Thatcherism and then moved on.”
That’s only half the story. Margaret Thatcher so utterly discredited socialism and destroyed the Labor Party that it was forced to completely reinvent itself, to the extent of adding the prefix “New” to its name. But paradoxically, Thatcher’s success sowed the seeds of her party’s downfall. With the biggest battles won — the unions were brought to heel, large chunks of the publicly owned industries and services were privatized, and abroad the Iron Lady’s partnership with Ronald Reagan helped bring down the Soviet Union (Labor, like the Democrats, was viewed as weak on national security) — the Tories ran out of ideas.