Now is the winter of Republican discontent. It is widely agreed that the party needs to reinvent itself. It is also apparent that nobody knows what that means. For all the exhausting conservative introspection since the Democratic sweep of Nov. 4, there has been scant inspiration.
Yet one argument is gaining momentum. The Grand Old Party, to avoid being out of power for at least a generation, should imitate the modernizing example of the British Conservative Party under David Cameron.
This idea is hardly novel. On Jan. 1, 2006less than a month after Cameron’s election as Conservative leaderRod Dreher enthusiastically identified the new-look Tories as fellow “crunchy conservatives.” Writing in the London Times, Dreher commended the “conservative truth” in Cameron’s concern for the environment and Britain’s “broken society.” “Get on with it, Cameron,” he wrote. “Many of us American conservatives … are watching and hoping you can pull this thing off.”
More recently, and perhaps more ominously, a number of Right-leaning Atlanticists have also embraced the Tory strategy. At a Hoover Institution lunch in December, former Bush speechwriter David Frum, deftly repositioning himself as the GOP’s intellectual savior, suggested that American conservatives could profit from the example of their Britishand Canadiancounterparts. On Frum’s new website, “New Majority: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” one contributor praises the “diverse policy areas” of Cameron’s agenda.
In May 2008, the Cameron model even received the imprimatur of David Brooks, who wrote in his New York Times column, “It used to be that American conservatives shaped British political thinking. Now the influence is going the other way. … The Conservatives have successfully ‘decontaminated’ their brand. They’re offering something in tune with the times. … The only question is whether Republicans will learn those lessons sooner, or whether they will learn them later, after a decade or so in the wilderness.”
Most pundits admit the obvious weakness in their analogy: America is not Britain. Yet they still underestimate the gigantic cultural and politicalnot to mention physicaldifferences between the United States and the United Kingdom. It is infinitely more difficult to “rebrand” a party, as the Conservatives seem to have done, in a country as huge, populous, and diverse as America. In the U.S., for one, there is no equivalent of the BBC telling everybody what to think. (That may seem churlish, but it is hard to exaggerate the pervasiveness of the Beeb in British life or the extent to which Cameron’s message has been tailored to appeal to the corporation’s journalists.)
Yet the parallels between the current predicament of the American Right and the recent history of its British cousin do bear consideration. In 1997, British Conservatives, like Republicans last year, were defeated by a seemingly unstoppable political force. Tony Blair, like Barack Obama, instilled a mood of delirious national optimism. He also dominated the political middle ground, outmaneuvering the Conservatives at every turn. The Tories were reduced to being the “nasty party,” distrusted, reviled, and ridiculedmuch like today’s Republicans.
In 2005, however, the Conservatives, having lost several general elections, changed course. They elected the young and dynamic Cameron, who adeptly recast the party’s image by focusing on climate change and social injustice. He wore Converses and quoted Gandhi. He dropped his opposition to gay marriage, along with some of his vowels. In short, he tried to become more Blair than Blairor, as he is reported to have put it, “the heir to Blair.” The ploy seemed to work. Under Cameron’s leadership, the party’s position in the polls dramatically improved. And after Blair resigned in 2007, with the eminently unlovable Gordon Brown taking his place, Cameron’s stock rose higher still.
It is not hard to see why many Republicanstheir popularity greatly diminished, particularly among the young, by eight years of George W. Bushmight want a Cameron of their own, someone who will attune the party message to the political zeitgeist. But there can be no certainty that American political trends are pursuing British ones and not the other way around. Contra David Brooks, the historical parallel can just as easily be framed from the opposite direction. After all, Blair’s political strategy was based on the triangulating ultra-centrism of Bill Clinton, while Cameron, in his opening speech as leader, talked about “compassionate conservatism,” the very words used by Bush in his quest for the White House.
Moreover, the widespread approbation for the Tories ignores an important reality: Cameron’s party is not that popular. After 12 years of Labour rule, with the widely loathed Brown pushing Britain to the brink of financial ruin, the Conservatives are still by no means certain to win the next general election. They have only recently begun to build a significant lead in the polls. A YouGov survey last month put Tory support at 43 percent, with Labour at 32 percent. The British public may be fed up with their government, but that does not mean they have warmed to the opposition.
Part of the problem lies with Cameron himself rather than his politics. His upper-class origins can irritate the average voter, particularly, it seems, when he pronounces on global warming. As Frum noted in Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, changing the conservative position on the environment is well and good, but “there is something off-putting about David Cameron, ex-Eton, ex-Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, heir to an old gentry name and fortune, telling his class inferiors to take their vacations at home. Is that the kind of party we want the GOP to be?”
Republicans, who specialize in class warfare, can probably avoid that trap. But they should recognize that the Tories’ inability to pull away in the polls stems from more challenging difficulties than those associated with Cameron’s background. Having dramatically shunted to the center, the Conservatives are easily attacked, especially by wounded right-wingers, as unprincipled chameleons. Even the party’s former joint chairman, Lord Saatchi, called them “the say-anything-to-get-elected Tories.”
It should be recalled, though, that many people, on Left and Right, felt the same way about Tony Blair, and he never lost an election. Cameron’s problem might be still more profound. After successfully repositioning the Tories closer to the middle, he now finds that, under the pressure of the financial crisis, the atom of Blairite centrismwith its faith in the unifying power of neoliberal and global economicsis splitting. Since the stock markets began collapsing in earnest in October, Brown has veered left, virtually nationalizing the British banking system and presenting himself as the mega-statist savior of the global future. Cameron found himself stuck. He did not want to be cast as the unpatriotic opponent to “Super Gordon,” yet he could not be seen to accept Brown’s dangerous overhaul of the monetary system. Brown’s approval ratings surged, while Cameron’s floundered. This “Brown bounce” lasted only a few weeks, but it was enough to show a weakness in the Conservatives’ positiona flaw that would-be reformers of the GOP should note.
On the other hand, the looming economic catastrophe has given Cameron an opportunity to reiterate the compassionate strands of his Tory blend, enthralling disillusioned conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic with his promises of “radical social reform.” At the Davos World Economic Forum, Cameron struck a distinctly localist and antiglobalist tone as he denounced “capitalism without a conscience.” He expressed dismay at a world in which “someone working in the local branch of a global corporation can feel like little more than flotsam in some vast international sea of business.”
In the last few weeks, Cameron has cultivated an intriguing alliance with political philosopher and theologian Philip Blond, a “new localist” who believes the financial crisis demands a revival of “the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism,” or “Red Toryism.” In the latest issue of the British magazine Prospect, Blond says, “British conservatism must not … repeat the American error of preaching ‘morals plus the market’ while ignoring the fact that economic liberalism has often been the cover for monopoly capitalism and is therefore just as socially damaging as Left-wing statism.” He goes on to urge Cameron, in a passage that has electrified sections of the conservative blogosphere, to reject the ideology of social mobility, framed as it is in the “neo-liberal language of opportunity, education and choice.” He continues, “This language says that unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10 to 15 per cent of top-rate taxpayers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value.” Blond’s Red Tory manifesto includes plans to implement government subsidiarity and break up “unrecognised private sector monopolies,” such as supermarket giant Tesco.
At the recent “Progressive Conservatism Launch” hosted by Demos, Blond told Cameron that the Tories’ “political agenda is far more radical, far-reaching, and transformative than the majority suspect.” Yet the philosopher might be deluding himself. Cameron’s Conservatism, for all its nods to Burke, for all the high-minded waffle about the “atomization” of modern life, offers little hope of effective reform. The party’s policy proposalsdivided into platitudinous headings such as “Advancing Opportunity” and “Protecting Security”suggest that any “Red Tory” influence is marginal.
Cameron’s true identity remains, like that of most gifted politicians, elusive. Is he a proper conservative lurking under the veneer of a centralizing populist or the other way around? Is he Dave the Burkean hero of postmodernity? Or Dave the progressive champion of gay marriage? This very slipperiness appeals to many of his admirers. Certainly, Cameron’s success in charming not only establishment Republicans such as Frum and Brooks but unusual and original thinkers like Dreher and Blond reveals impressive political dexterity. But the British electorate appears less than convinced. The real Cameron will only be defined by what he does if and when he becomes prime minister. Until that time, he represents a poor exemplar for the future GOP. For now, the only lesson American conservatives can learn from David Cameron is that there are no lessons to be learned from David Cameron.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]