The Center of Britain

What the Tory resurgence can teach Republicans

To get a broad sense of what Britain once was, just what necessitated the rise of Margaret Thatcher, ignore the frequently referenced punk lyrics of the late 1970s, so full of manufactured rage at the ruling class (White riot! England’s dreaming! Guns before butter!). Instead, drop Yes, Minister, the classic early 1980’s television comedy of Whitehall perfidy and ministerial incompetence, into the Netflix queue. Or just find the episode “The Compassionate Society”—season two, episode one—in which the show’s protagonist, Minister Jim Hacker, attempts to halt a massive National Health Service (NHS) hospital project which bequeathed to London 500 full-time nurses and doctors but housed not a single patient. Arrayed in defense of the plan are the usual interests: the tub-thumping left-wing union leader (a send up of the militant socialist head of the mineworkers union, Arthur Scargill), Downing Street spinmeisters, and various members of Parliament shilling for self-interested constituents. An advisor defends the project, telling Hacker that one must “sort out the smooth running of the hospital. Having patients around would be no help at all.” It was, unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Thatcher’s favorite episode.

It isn’t hyperbolic to say that this was more or less the government the Iron Lady inherited—a bloated, free-spending state, full of make-work jobs jealously guarded by union toughs. It was a system that Thatcher would help delegitimize and then effectively destroy. The heavy lifting was done (thank you very much) by those heartless Tories, though by 1997 voters decided it was time to return government to the more compassionate hands of Labour.

And Tony Blair’s “New Labour” didn’t win the 1997 election so much as they pushed the Conservative Party to the edge of oblivion. The Tories retreated having lost a massive 178 seats, its biggest defeat in almost a century. For the Conservative Party leadership, it was an existential crisis.

Pop stars that, 10 years previous, excelled in writing songs about the forgotten British miner were now popping champagne corks at Number 10 Downing Street. These would be the years of “Cool Britannia”; Red Wedge was dead. But the honeymoon of pop and politics was mercifully—and predictably—short. Noel Gallagher, guitarist of the seminal 1990s Britpop band Oasis and early adherent of New Labour, soon grumbled that the prime minister was forgetting the working class and acting like an American president. This Tony talked god, was chummy with President Bush, and fancied himself a liberal internationalist. Indeed, the rebranding of Labour, according to Blair biographer Anthony Seldon, resulted in far more criticism from the traditional left than the Tory right. Blair would govern from the center.

Fast-forward to early 2008: Prime Minister Gordon Brown is wildly unpopular and local council elections resulted in Labour’s worst showing in 40 years. Barely a week after the catastrophic defeat, a YouGov poll put Conservative Party support at 49 percent and Labour at 23 percent, its lowest rating since polling records began in the 1930s. (Though it is tempting to blame an easy culprit like Iraq, Labour was 11 points ahead of the Tories just eight months ago, and this week’s Economist leader, which asks if “Gordon Brown is doomed,” doesn’t even reference the war.)

A certain amount of this Labour collapse is attributable to a palatable alternative: Conservative leader David Cameron, the Eton-and-Oxford party boss who professes a love of The Smiths and began a recent Times editorial with the cringe-inducing line “Radiohead are one of my favourite bands.”

But it’s not the pathetic hipster pose that has attracted so much positive attention from both voters and Fleet Street journos, but Cameron's bold (some say facile and opportunistic) attempt to rebrand conservatism in the style of New Labour: "I made changes to and with the Conservative Party over the last 18 months for a very clear purpose, to get us back into the centre ground, to get us into a position where people listen to what we were saying, where we are more in touch with Britain as it is today."

It’s getting crowded in the center of British politics.

Even after his stunning local election victory, Cameron continued to burnish his centrist credentials, writing this week in the lefty paper The Independent that "If you care about poverty, if you care about inequality, if you care about the environment—forget about the Labour Party…If you count yourself a progressive, a true progressive, only we can achieve real change."

Cameron didn’t always consider himself a “true progressive.” When running for Parliament in 2000, he repeatedly dealt the social conservative card, grumbling about legislation that was "anti-family" and warning that it would force the "teaching of homosexuality" into British schools. When he took over the party leadership, Cameron jettisoned the tradition talk and spoke of welcoming gays and lesbians into the party fold, admonishing the Tory old guard for not supporting domestic partnership arrangements. The perpetually peeved Thatcherite Norman Tebbit grumbled that he didn't think "Tory supporters have gone soft, but I think the Tory leadership believes the electors are too soft to take the hard decisions which the country is now facing."

Others argue that the dash to the center—the “modernization”—is vindicated by recent electoral success and recent polling data. "The modernisers were right,” Times columnist and former Tory policy wonk Daniel Finkelstein trumpeted after the election. “Their critics were wrong."

It’s hard to argue with success.

The days following the Conservative rout saw nearly every political columnist on the island considering the future of Gordon Brown. The Spectator wondered what Brown “could learn from Hillary Clinton.” In the 1990s, when Labour was emerging from its punishing wilderness period, it took on countless Clinton operatives as consultants to micromanage its Clintonian rightward drift. But perhaps it’s time for American politicos—i.e. Republicans—to tear a page from the British political playbook.

The political landscape in America is hardly analogous to that of England. Despite Blair’s public piousness, fealty unto God isn’t a prerequisite for a presumptive prime minister. Nor do issues like abortion, the death penalty, or stem-cell research dominate the political culture. British conservatism is in many important ways distinct from its American cousin. But as many American conservatives have noted—David Frum in his book Comeback and his National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg—America too is becoming more socially tolerant and, if the Republican Party is interested in a successful future, a Cameron-like shift to the center on issues such as gay marriage and the drug war is advisable.

As political scientist Morris Fiorina points out in his book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, both residents of red and blue states are “basically centrists”; American's aren't "red" or "blue" but various shades of purple. As conservative commenter David Brooks pointed out in 2001, "Although there are some real differences between Red and Blue America, there is no fundamental conflict."

Pat Buchanan's declaration at the 1992 Republican convention that there was a "religious war" raging in America, a "war for the soul" of the country, seems preposterous in retrospect. With a strong majority of Americans supporting Roe v. Wade, a clear majority supporting civil unions for gay couples, and the very real possibility of the country electing an African-American president, it's time for the Republican Party to borrow from the Tories if they want to recapture the center ground.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.

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  • Bingo||

    Won't happen solely because of the social conservatives (old people and religious folks).

  • ||

    Strange, the Republicans should adopt the Tories' centrism on libertarian-friendly topics like ending the Drug War (although sadly, I think that the Drug War is pretty popular) and civil unions, but not on strict environmental regulation or government-run health care like the NHS.

    I mean, I agree, but it's hardly the necessary conclusion to draw from the evidence, is it?

    (And regarding abortion, I'll note that strong majorities support Roe v. Wade but also strong majorities support restrictions on abortion that it wouldn't allows, and that the UK's restrictions on abortion are arguably tougher than what Roe v. Wade allowed-- and Parliament did recently discuss lowering the age of a fetus at which abortion is legal, and in fact that in 1990 the supposed limit (with exceptions of course, like the US) was lowered from 28 weeks to 24 weeks due to advancements in medical technology changing the concept of viability.)

  • ||

    Margaret Thatcher was the greatest political leader of the twentieth century. How I wish she was ours.

  • ||

    Strange, the Republicans should adopt the Tories' centrism on libertarian-friendly topics like ending the Drug War (although sadly, I think that the Drug War is pretty popular)

    I think its a very serious political mistake to try to end the Drug War in toto and all at once. Its the kind of thing that meets the Libertarian Purity test, but flunks the Political Futility/Stupidity test.

    We need to be splitting off the War on Leafy Green Substances That Are Fun to Smoke from the War on White Powder if we want to make any progress on this at all.

  • ||

    Isn't this the way all democracies behave over time? One party captures the center and rises to power and then over time the combination of hubris and the need to satisfy their core constituency pulls them toward the extreme until they get so extreme that the other party captures the center and rises to power. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

  • ||

    Color me skeptical. At the moment I don't have time to track down the polling data, but while it's true that a majority (but hardly a strong majority) of Americans support Roe v. Wade, it's also true that that majority has been steadily decreasing since the 70's.

    Further, I'd point out that while in this election Mitt Romney's affiliation with LDS became an issue, when his father was running for office, I don't recollect that issue ever even coming up. Apparently religion is playing a larger role in our politics than it did several decades ago...

    As per civil unions for gays, I'd note that most times (possibly every time, but again I don't have time to check the data) a referendum has appeared on a ballot, it's been shot down by the voters, and in fact the Republicans have managed to capitalize on that issue quite nicely.

    My anecdotal observation is that this country has become more socially conservative than it was in my youth. If you'd have asked me in 1978 what the role of religion in politics would be in the 21st century, I'd have laughed and said, "Extinct!".

    And man! Would I ever have been wrong!

  • ||

    Margaret Thatcher was the greatest political leader of the twentieth century. How I wish she was ours.

    I don't know about that, but if you judge sombody by the enemies they make (as I sometimes do), she certainly shines. Anybody who thinks Hillary is a tough broad must have slept through Maggie Thatcher's time as Prime Minister.

  • ||

    I think its a very serious political mistake...

    Is it possible for a movement that has little prospect of receiving more than one percent of the vote to make a political mistake? If our choice is to be a political afterthought with pure views or a political afterthought with watered down views, I would choose the former.

  • Neil||

    Republicans dont need any help.

    The Democrat Party has handed us victory by nominating the most liberal far-left Senator in the country, and Hillary Clinton is STILL going after him LOL!

  • Brandon||

    RC Dean said, "We need to be splitting off the War on Leafy Green Substances That Are Fun to Smoke from the War on White Powder if we want to make any progress on this at all."

    Are you suggesting that we try to legalize marijuana, call it a day, and let the WoD rage on against some other drugs; or are you advocating that we merely take baby steps and try to legalize marijuana prior to cocaine and friends?

    If you're going for the latter, I think that's where things are headed: medical marijuana, recreational marijuana, maybe steroids, then more and more drugs on a (very mildly) slippery slope towards freedom.

    If you're going for the former, well, that's just silly. I have as much right to use coke as I do pot.

  • dhex||

    brandon - now all you have to do is convince everyone else of that, and we'd be set.

    it's not about rights, or lacks thereof, but what is politically realistic.

    (i.e. first things first, let's burn down the headshops)

  • ||

    Are you suggesting that we try to legalize marijuana, call it a day, and let the WoD rage on against some other drugs; or are you advocating that we merely take baby steps and try to legalize marijuana prior to cocaine and friends?

    The latter.

    If our choice is to be a political afterthought with pure views or a political afterthought with watered down views, I would choose the former.

    Some of us would like to be something more than an afterthought, and have realized that rigid adherence to Pure Libertarianism is a surefire way to see that never happens.

    Salami slices, baby. Boil the frog. Incrementalism. Call it what you want, but its the only way to get anything big done in politics.

  • Fluffy||

    The funny thing about this article is that David Brooks [that cock] has a column about this same topic this week, but the conclusions he draws from the British experience is that conservatives should dump individual freedom as a rallying point, forget about economics, and specialize in nanny-state politics and emphasize its commitment to sponsoring "social groups" like families and churches.

  • ||

    The Tory lesson: conservatives can stand for nothing in particular just as well, if not better, than leftists can stand for nothing in particular.

    Actually, I would argue that the nomination of McCain partially fits the mold here. Not a lot of Thatcherite backbone going on.

    Given that the Tories haven't actually won the whole enchilada yet, I wouldn't be too quick to heap praises on David Cameron.

    As to the libertarian lesson to take from this, I'm not seeing one. Pandering gets results?

  • ||

    I'd also point out that in addition to the Tory upset, the BNP also gained seats - which doesn't exactly re-enforce the argument that Britain's swing to the Right was inspired by the Tories new-found liberal take on social issues...

  • Geotpf||

    Here's my comparison between the UK political scene and the US presidential race:

    McCain is clearly a Tory.
    Clinton is clearly Labour.
    ...but, Obama is clearly a Lib Dem.

    And, if there choice in the UK was merely between the Lib Dems and the Tories (a two candidate election, as in the US this time, not a three candidate one), the Lib Dems would win easily. When you have two semi-lefty parties (as in 2000 in the US with Nader, or as in the UK now), things get more complicated.

    Clinton is as unpopular (amoungst the public at large, not just amoungst Democratic primary voters) as Brown is. Their fates are similar.

    Plus, don't dismiss the Iraq war component to this out of hand. It weighs on everything in both nations, in the background at times, but it's always there.

  • Daniel Reeves||

    Isn't this the way all democracies behave over time? One party captures the center and rises to power and then over time the combination of hubris and the need to satisfy their core constituency pulls them toward the extreme until they get so extreme that the other party captures the center and rises to power. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.


    Actually usually the reign of a party-- at least for the presidential seat-- is lost during slow economic growth periods or when there's an unpopular war going on.

  • Adam||

    Thatcher is hated, but she did so many things that needed to be done that no other politician in the country would've had the balls to do in 100 years.

  • TGGP||

    I don't do drugs, so I don't particularly care about marijuana legalization. I'd rather legalize crack, heroin and meth because those are the ones the War on Drugs is being directed at, and it's the War I've got the big problem with.

  • economist||

    I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Tories became the "more concerned than thou" party on all issues of civil society. Indeed, when the British political system consisted of Liberals and Tories rather than Labour and Tories, the Tories were by far the more interventionist, statist wing of British politics. Then again, Republicans were sort of similar in this respect at the time, when it was dominated by "Progressives" like TR. In many ways British Conservatives and American Republicans followed parallel paths, with Reagan explicitly establishing the Republican party as the noninterventionist (in economic issues), strong national defense party and Thatcher making roughly similar accomplishments with the Conservative Party in Britain.

  • Anonymous||

    You can have whatever politics you want, as long as it's left. Democracy in Britain is close to failure, and America isn't far behind.

  • ||

    but if you judge sombody by the enemies they make

    Always a temptation, but rarely a wise step.

  • Michael||

    The episode of Yes, Minister mentioned in this article, "The Compassionate Society", shows an even worse situation than Michael Moynihan describes here. The massive hospital project in the episode actually had no nurses or doctors, as well as no patients. All 500 staff were administrators and support staff!

  • Daniel Briggs||

    You say most Americans are in favor of abortion, but you don't specify at which point in the pregnancy (first trimester vis-a-vis partial birth) and with which minimal guarantees for women (life and health of the mother). You refer to stem cell research without providing the clear dichotomy between embryonic and adult stem cell research, the former with NO scientific breakthroughs and the latter with 75 and counting. Plus, what about the recent induced pluripotent stem cells breakthrough? It is possible to conduct stem cell research without crossing moral boundaries.

    You say America is becoming more "socially tolerant" (whatever that means) on issues like gay marriage but 27 states have adopted marriage amendments; voters in California just sent in 1.12 million petitions to put a marriage amendment on the Nov. ballot, and all that was required was 696,000 petitions.

    You speak of electing a black president in the same breath as abortion and gay marriage; I'm sure blacks in America do not appreciate your moral equivalency, not to mention the innuendo that conservatives don't care about blacks. Don't forget that it was the Republican party that led the abolitionist movement. Don't forget that conservative Christians led the way, as they did with women's suffrage.

  • Vapor||

    The only hope for the GOP is that Pelosi and Reid continue to be as dysfunctional as Gordon Brown.

    Blue dog Dems are giving Pelosi hell over notabiding to "pay as you go" pact on legislation.

  • ||

    I was listening to CSPAN's coverage of a Conservative Party conference, and I was amazed at how much they sounded like warmer, fuzzier Republicans.

    Daniel -

    I think it's arguable that the emergence of "soft" acceptance for gays and lesbians, in the form of TV, film, and other media outlets, shows that the U.S. is getting more tolerant of us.
    Given that the Republicans know they can get folks to come out to the ballot box when they put gay rights up to a referendum (they do this in Virginia, trust me), it will probably remain a contest for some time to win "hard" acceptance, i.e. lawful equality.
    Whether that is the sign of "true" tolerance in America is a tough call to make - does it matter more to win everyday tolerance or legal support? Both are necessary, of course, as latter alone breeds contempt, and the former alone breeds hypocrisy.
    If black civil rights are any indicator, eventually the GOP will leave gays alone, the same way they (generally) leave blacks alone, otherwise they lose elections (again, this is the case in Virginia; see the 2006 gubernatorial race).

  • Agliter||

    The idea that there isn't a difference between "Red State" and "Blue State" America is a bit of a farce, as is a comparison to Britain. Almost all Brits, at least the ones I've met, believe that their government can fix something. I've yet to meet an American who believes the government is competent in anything -- the annoying bit about the "Blue States" is that they seem to think that the Government can fix something if it's given enough money...

    The "Red Staters" are split a bit -- some of them, mostly Southern, Midwestern, and PA, are more concerned about Social issues, whereas TX, and the Western States tend to focus more on limiting the power of the state.

    As for the war on drugs... I think Marijuana may again be legalized/at least decriminalized eventually -- maybe coke. I doubt Crack, Meth and Heroin would ever be legalized. As for steroids, I'd hope so, but there's a bunch of propaganda about them, and it's mostly been associated w. men cheating in sports. (I don't have a problem w. steroid use, but if it's against a league's rules, then it's still a grounds for expulsion, etc.)

  • M. Simon||

    The Drug War will end when people understand the nature of drugs from a brain chemistry standpoint.

    Round Pegs In Round Holes

  • Adam||

    Agliter, I don't know which Britons you've been talking to, but we are ripe with skepticism of the government and have been moved and stayed center-right ever since Thatcher.

  • Daniel Briggs||

    Zac in Virginia wrote: "I think it's arguable that the emergence of "soft" acceptance for gays and lesbians, in the form of TV, film, and other media outlets, shows that the U.S. is getting more tolerant of us."

    Are you suggesting that acceptance by the media is in any way related to acceptance by American society in general? And do you argue, then, that Hollywood is a fair representation of American society? I simply don't agree.

  • JayDubya||

    I'm not entirely sure what Libertarians or Republicans can learn from Britain's Conservatives...

    How to pander to the center of British politics (which are far to the left of ours)?

  • zoltan||

    Daniel:

    I think Zac means instead that media do well despite the intolerant attitude of many Americans toward gays. This might be considered a sign in that direction when some people aren't going to boycott or refuse to watch shows that feature gay characters. I'd be the last person to say that Hollywood is the barometer of "America's values" whatever the hell that is, but it does give us shows like The L Word.

    Plus, I'm not sure someone who extolls the virtues of the movie Expelled has a very good grasp on much of anything.

  • ||

    If McCain wins and more Republicans go centrist, the only solutions offered for our looming problems will be government and government-light. God help us.

  • Nike Dunk Low||

    is good

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