An American friend (this being New York, I hardly need add that he's a Democrat) asked me a few days ago why it was that while in the States over the last 10 years or so the right had reached a level of national political dominance, across the pond in Britain the right had spent the last decade getting lost in the wilderness. Why, he asked, had the British Tories not been able to learn from the success of the US Republicans?
I doubt that there is any really simple answer to this question. Firstly, the two countries have very different political systems. The US is a truly two-party system - so that, crudely put, voters who desert one party have only the other to turn to. The UK, where about a dozen parties have seats in the House of Commons, follows the pattern for European parliamentary democracies. A disaffected Labour voter can just as well go to the Liberal Democrats, while still remaining in the political mainstream. All this makes the Tories' job that bit harder.
A good part of the Republicans' success is also down to their ability to capture for themselves the evangelical Christian vote. This path is not open to the British right, not least because such a constituency does not exist.
Then, of course, there are policies, although whether these are as key as many people would like to believe is something I'm a bit sceptical about. The British have shown themselves more than willing to vote for right-wing governments in the past, so there must be more to popular disdain for the Tories than simply a dislike of right-wing policies.
But there is a striking difference between the Tories and the Republicans that may go some way to explaining the former's malaise and the latter's success. US Republicans have managed (rightly or wrongly) to become the spokespeople for a positive American future, while the Democrats all too often are seen as the whingers at the sidelines. Over in Britain, it is Labour that has colonised the 'positive', forward-looking territory, leaving the whingeing firmly in the hands of the Tories.
This week's cover article in the Spectator by Anthony Browne is a case in point. Its tired thesis is the usual Spectator fodder, and of the kind I have often commented on before: the left hates Britain, Labour hates Britain, the British hate Britain. Unfortunately, all the article shows is how much contempt Browne himself has for so much of modern Britain (can Browne not see the irony of his position?). The BBC, we are told, 'gushes over "the other", but recoils at the merest hint of British culture'. Would this, pray tell, be the same BBC that not so long ago was lauding Winston Churchill as the winner of its search for the greatest ever Briton, the same BBC that will be devoting its prime time Saturday slot on its premier television channel in a few weeks' time to the last night of the Proms (last time I looked, this was not a Muslim festival in Indonesia) and the same BBC that has recently sent David Dimbleby on a tour of the sceptred isle (itself the title of a Radio 4 series on the history of Britain) to investigate the British landscape and its impact on British painters? Of course, according to the right, we are not allowed to be 'proud' of the BBC (Browne describes the corporation as 'ludicrous'), despite it being as British as fish and chips and rain, and one of the most widely recognised names on the planet.
But where the gulf between the British right and the American right becomes most glaring is in the second half of the article: over 1200 words spent describing what makes Britain great. Browne has example after example. But, almost without exception (Dido and Dolly the sheep being the only two I could find), they are all in the past tense. Browne, like many of his right-wing colleagues, cannot bring himself to speak in positive terms about modern Britain. Britain must be seen as being in some kind of terminal decline, woefully diminished compared to its magnificent yesterday. Its today is unspeakable. When Browne writes that 'Britain's self-loathing is deep and pervasive', I wonder whether he is not writing about himself.
It is inconceivable that an American right-winger, tasked with writing an essay about why he was proud to be American, would concern himself so little with the present. Indeed, such an essay would almost certainly be pretty much exclusively concerned with the here and now. Praising modern America is the knee-jerk instinct of the American right (to the frequent derision of Europeans). The British right's instinct is to dwell lugubriously on its country's modern failings.
The British right, unlike their American cousins, show a deep unease, bordering on disdain, for their country in its contemporary manifestation. Unfortunately, all voters, by definition, live in modern Britain, not in some bucolic paradise of yore. Republicans here understand that patriotism is first and foremost about being proud of one's country now, not the foreign land that is the past. Until the British right ditches its love affair with exclusively bygone glories, it has little chance of winning back the hearts of the many modern compatriots that have deserted it.