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.