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Antiwar Tories? I Think Not

Kimberley Strassel reports from an alternate universe in which the Tories opposed invading Iraq (and presumably where Peter Hitchens is Leader of the Opposition):

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 [bold mine-DL].

Strassel is right that internecine battles over Europe consumed much of the party’s energy and made Tories seem removed from what concerned most British voters, but the idea that the Tory leadership stoked populist passions on anything over the last twelve years is amusing. The last twelve years have seen the steady growth of both the UKIP and BNP as alternatives on the right in part because the Tories played the role of “responsible” opposition. Hague and Duncan-Smith made noises about changing rules for admitting asylum-seekers, which stoked few passions. Theirs was the lot of the moderate restrictionist, the one who cannot generate enough interest on immigration policy because the changes he advocates are so minor and unremarkable and who nonetheless gets tarred as xenophobic by the press because he is dissatisfied with the flawed status quo. Howard was even less interested in this issue. For the most part, the only strong feeling Tory leaders were able to stoke was contempt for their ineffective leadership.

The claim about riling up opponents of the war is simply false. No Tory leader before Cameron opposed the war, and even today Cameron’s critique of interventionist foreign policy is a limited, targeted one. As far as I know, he has never repudiated his past support for the war and re-stated his support for the war when he became Opposition leader. It is conceivable that there have been backbenchers critical of the war from the beginning, but to use this as a description of the Tories as a whole would be like citing Ron Paul and Jimmy Duncan when describing the GOP. The amazing thing is that the Tories managed to stake out the wrong position on the war in a country where it was always extremely unpopular and nonetheless they have been profiting from the implosion of Labour, which was much more split over the invasion and the continuation of the war. It’s as if the Democrats had been poised to sweep back into the majority in 2006 after having been and having remained as hawkish as Bush.

Of course, even after we have corrected the record the lessons are not entirely clear. The Tories might have been able to ride antiwar sentiment to oust Labour in earlier general elections had they opposed the war from the beginning, but we will never know. As things stand now, warmongers should be pleased that a pro-war leadership has managed to engineer a political comeback in spite of being utterly wrong on the most important foreign policy question of the last generation. What makes no sense about this entire column is that Strassel’s WSJ Republican worldview is much more in line with that of the Cameroons than with that of many of his critics on the British (and American) right. She ought to understand that if Cameron loses or fails once in office the Tories will turn to leaders who are much less amenable to Republican globalists.

The obvious, natural role for the Tories as the opposition was to organize antiwar forces in Britain, including those in the Labour Party, against Blair, and they failed spectaculary in this regard. The rallying cry for Euroskeptics was to tie themselves even more inextricably to America and strike a pose of being more Atlanticist than Thatcher, which in practical terms during the Bush years meant signing off on U.S. foreign policy no matter how bad those policies were for Britain (and America!). Aside from some de rigueur swipes at neoconservatism, Cameron has never shown any hint that he disagrees with the positions Conservatives took on foreign policy over the last decade, and no leading member of the party has made any effort to rile up or organize antiwar voters despite the obvious incentives the Tories have had to do so. There are many policies the Cameroons embrace that would not necessarily work in the American context, and there are some that might if adapted properly, but no one can accuse Cameron or the Tories of having exploited antiwar sentiment. They not only never did this, but they never even put themselves in a position where this was possible.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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