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.
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.