NOTE: Originally posted at Political Capital
On the eve of an expected landslide sweeping Barack Obama into the Oval Office and congressional Democrats to majorities in both houses of Congress, many pundits have predicted a long period in the political wilderness for Republicans in national politics.
Not so far away in the UK the British Conservative Party has only recently recovered from its own journey to the dark side. In 1997 the Tory party was destroyed at the polls after 18 years in power and has been out of power ever since.
Whilst there are obvious and clear differences between the two sister parties, and the nations they aspire to govern, the circumstances of the 1997 and 2008 defeats are remarkably similar.
In the late ‘90s Tories were tempted to believe that the public were duped. That an inexperienced and inspirational young left wing leader had taken advantage of the divisions of the governing party and the credulity of the electorate to instigate what would become a far left regime.
A more sober assessment is the successes of the 1980s Thatcher revolution led to hubris and terrible mistakes. The party survived divisions over European policy and riots that followed the idiotic introduction of the Poll Tax through the dramatic defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, allowing the genial John Major to win an unexpected General Election victory in 1992.
It was the financial collapse of Black Wednesday in September 1992, when the pound crashed out of the European Exchange rates mechanism, and the ensuing recession that really killed Conservative hopes. Combined with party wars over its approach to the European Union (a relatively trivial matter compared to the 3 million unemployed) the recession not only tore the party away from the centre of political discourse but also created a massive rift between the modern British nation and the world the Conservative Government lived in.
To compound the matter there was the ever present “sleaze”, a string of Conservative MPs were exposed in sex scandals that would have made Larry Craig and Mark Foley blush, reaching its apotheosis with the strange autoerotic death of Stephen Milligan.
Even worse was the grubby stain of corruption, in 1994 it emerged that lobbyist Ian Greer had bribed Conservative MPs to ask questions in parliament on behalf of Egyptian retail mogul Mohammed Fayed. To compound matters a cabinet minister (Jonathan Aitken) was accused of conducting secret deals with Saudi princes, Aitken was later jailed for perjury – unlike Scooter Libby, Aitken did not get his sentence commuted.
So many of the ingredients are the same that it becomes difficult to see how the Republicans can avoid the fate of their transatlantic colleagues. Sometimes parties just deserve to lose, but that is far from being the bad news.
The disaster that the GOP of 2008 and the Tories of 1997 share is the fundamentals of the political background, both fell massively behind their opponents in levels of support from younger voters and crucially struggled to deal with the changing mores of a modern nation.
One of tomorrow’s most interesting results will be the outcome of California’s Proposition 8 on marriage equality. The idea that by 2008 there would not only be legally recognized civil unions in the UK but openly homosexual cabinet ministers would have been an anathema to many Conservatives, but not to the British public. One of the ways in which British Conservatives have begun to turn the page in recent years is making peace with issues such as this.
The issue of gay marriage matters not just because of the dangers of leaving behind an increasingly socially liberal electorate, but because of the fundamental contradiction in the modern conservative movement that it exposes. In a time of increasing family breakdown Conservatives should be promoting marriage as the primary family unit because of the legal and public commitment that it entails. Yet conservatives have pandered to their religious base in the search for easy votes, somehow the GOP has become a party at ease with telling people what to do.
It is when parties deviate from their fundamental intellectual core that they suffer the most. The most important example of this in the current administration is public spending. Whilst tax cuts helped to keep the American economy growing their pre-requisite – low public spending – was ignored. It’s harder to demonise big government liberals when you have spent eight years turning a health budget surplus into a massive deficit, a deficit which represents a massive tax burden on future generations in the form of interest payments to Chinese bankers.
In Britain the ideological departure had serious underpinnings and serious consequences. The pragmatic conservatism of the previous 150 years was eschewed in exchange for the dynamic monetarism, privatisation and market liberalisation of the Thatcher revolution. To succeed once more the GOP must rediscover its own ideological core, an ideology that is found not in the anti-intellectual city-dweller baiting of Sarah Palin but in integrity in government, individual freedom and not just low taxes but low spending.
The Tories have, recently, appeared to turn the corner, and are now consistently ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. Following their third consecutive election defeat in 2005 they nominated a young, modern leader in David Cameron. In the past three years the Conservatives have ‘decontaminated’ their brand, a focus on environmental issues and a rejection of upfront promises of tax cuts drew the headlines but the underlying change was more important.
The British Conservative party has changed, not a shift in policies but actual change. It has become a party that loves the country as it is now, and not as it wishes it was in 1983. The right-wing talk radio blowhards who think the answer is simply to hate the modern world more and scream at it harder are not part of the problem, they are the problem. If Republicans are to avoid the fate of their British counterparts then they need to develop a narrative for modern American that places the one true conservative principle – that of liberty – at the heart of the nation’s future.
EDITORS NOTE: Edward is a guest columnist, sending us his thoughts from the United Kingdom. He is a member of the British Conservative Party, and has witnessed first hand the destruction of the British Right, and how it has rebuilt itself from the ground up. We are grateful to him for his perspective, and hope to bring you many more articles from our friends across the pond in the future.