By 1997 the party was plagued by infighting and allegations of “sleaze,” and the rebranded Labor Party won not because Britain rejected conservatism, but because it had a young, optimistic, and charismatic leader in Tony Blair. Blair essentially promised to implement conservative policies with a kinder, gentler touch. A succession of disastrous choices of leader, combined with ongoing factionalism, ensured that the Conservatives remained in the political wilderness until they found their own Blair in the shape of Cameron.
The anger, shouting, arrogance, and xenophobia which Applebaum claims marked the last two Tory election campaigns exist mostly in her imagination; to the contrary, the Conservatives in opposition lacked self-belief and passion. And by xenophobia, she is presumably referring to Tory promises to claw back powers from the European Union and put a stop to uncontrolled mass immigration. On both issues the Conservatives were, and still are, in tune with clear majorities of the public, but Europe and immigration weren’t priorities amid the economic boom of the Blair years.
“Above all,” Applebaum says of the Conservatives, “they changed the way they spoke.” True, Conservatives talk of Cameron having “decontaminated the brand,”‘ but only because the party allowed itself to be caricatured as at best mean and at worst the devil incarnate. It’s a caricature which Applebaum embraces just as shamelessly as she and Frum embrace similar caricatures of tea partiers and talk radio audiences in the U.S.
The Conservatives have remained out of power in part because they couldn’t get their act together and in part because New Labor didn’t screw up. But the main reason is because between them, Thatcher and Blair brought the British people to a consensus: we basically accepted the idea of a free-market economy co-existing alongside a large welfare state.
Cameron is now making noises about replacing “big government” with a “big society,” but whoever wins the election, they’ll have no option but to implement massive cuts in the public services; the real objection to the size of the state in Britain isn’t philosophical, it’s financial. (For more on the worst-case scenario facing Britain see this article by Richard Fernandez)
Contrary to what Applebaum, who describes herself as “a fully paid-up member of the mushy political center,” would like U.S. conservatives to believe, the contrast between the current British and American political scenes could not be more dramatic. In America, what could be a defining battle between statism and individual freedom is just getting started. And while in Britain there’s little difference between the parties, the differences between Republicans and Democrats have never been starker.
Applebaum writes: “The history of the Tories shows that if by exciting your base you lose the center, then you lose the next election too.” Leaving aside the fact the she’s comparing apples to oranges, it seems as if commentators like Applebaum and Frum are living in what we might call a pre-3/23 world. They obsess about “the base” and “the center,” but on the day Obama signed the health care bill into law, against the wishes of a majority of the American people, such distinctions lost much of their meaning. Increasingly, you’re either for Obama and his agenda, or you’re against him.
And Applebaum apparently hasn’t been looking at the polls. Obama’s approval ratings are in the tank. The Democrats’ favorability ratings are at an all-time low. The GOP is enjoying leads on the congressional ballot that are virtually unprecedented. Maybe she also missed the elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
Why at this stage would Republicans want to change the way they speak? As it happens, mainstream political opposition to Obama, Pelosi, and Reid has been remarkably civil, given what’s at stake, but if you can’t get angry at the prospect of your country being irreversibly damaged by the most arrogant, incompetent, and out-of-touch president and Congress in history, when can you get angry? This is no time for mushy centerism and rebranding exercises. America needs the conservatism of Thatcher, not Cameron.