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The Digester

"Why, he asked, had the British Tories not been able to learn from the success of the US Republicans?"

The Cornerstone Group are trying:

"A group of "socially conservative" Tory MPs say the party should echo George W Bush's "faith, flag and family" slogan."

Third Avenue

Indeed, but they are barking up the wrong tree. They mistake the UK for merely a European version of the US. Replicating the policies of the US right is unlikely to reap any benefits for them. After all, the Tories briefly tried to make abortion an election issue back in May. Despite the best efforts of parts of the right-wing press, it disappeared almost immediately off the radar.

Personally, I find the Tories (much as I dislike them) preferable to the Republicans in almost all ways. But, in terms of tactics, the Republicans are the premier league whereas the Tories are definitely Vauxhall conference... The Republicans know how to speak to Americans; the Tories seem to have lost the knack of speaking to Britain.

Matt Daws

Great article! But on the initial point, the main problem affecting the Tories is that Labour has, broadly speaking, won the argument about how we in the UK wish to be governed. The Tories in the last few elections have tried to paint themselves as an ever-so-slightly more right-wing version of Labour. Oddly enough, the UK public decided they'd rather stick with what they knew. The Tories either need to get some real policy differences with Labour (but lots of people seem to think that a hard move to the right would be terrible in terms of electoral success) or they need to get better at PR and present a difference that maybe isn't really there. I often get the impression that the Republicans do this par excellence in the US: they really talk up the ideological divide with the Dems, but in reality both are rather close to the centre (at least from a European perspective).

Yep, as regards this new movement (it's getting a lot of attention here right now): it really risks just playing to the "blue rinse" brigade, which is what the Spectator article goes after as well. Great at pleasing the troops, but it's hardly likely to attract the centralist voter that they need.


3A: some fair points, but I my own several pennies' worth:

On the exact comparison between the American and British Right - the American Right are a long way further down the learning curve. The flowering (if you will) of American conservatism was hardly a time of sunny optimism - quite the opposite; very glass half-empty. Since then they've had ups and downs, and this is their second time of unrivalled dominance. The British Right's only recent time like that (the Thatcher era) was a very odd one, because it wasn't a victory for a movement with a clear agenda as a historical collision of circumstances, which in so doing screwed the Tory Party rather than forging a generation to return to Government later as the Reagan era did.

Where the British Right is massively weaker than the American Right is simple lack of intellectual capital. That flowering I referred to above continues to resonate today. After the war, where they had (to name the front rank only) Kirk, Weaver, Nisbet, Strauss, Voegelin, all we managed to produce was Michael Oakeshott (who is ultimately a liberal if you ask me). The work of the think-tanks tells a big story too - they had Hoover and AEI for decades, developing a coherent conservative vision for American society, whereas all we had was the IEA hammering away at specific policy ideas to free the economy.

You're right though that the Tories can't simply ape the GOP in policy and tactics - we have no New South or Mid West, no Bible Belt. On the other hand, we do have a greatly parochial and introspective country, one that is instinctively small-"c" conservative - much more than the US is, certainly.

The bigger problem is the tendency to history, as you say, although I think this is a broader British malaise - our public discourse has become dominated by the historical mode. But, it's true that on the Right, and especially the conservative Right, history has for some time (think of the Peterhouse set) been triumphant, alongside economics on the liberal Right. We need more political scientists, maybe...

So, no clear conclusions, but that the Tories need to rediscover what it means to be genuinely conservative - which is against a preset or imported ideology - and (as you've said before) find a narrative that fits with and explains the country as it is today. Where I would part company is in any idea that this means that we have to be comfortable with the country as it is today - but the point there is not to be mournful for a lost golden age, but roused to work to improve the way things are.

Matt: "Labour has, broadly speaking, won the argument about we in the UK wish to be governed." No they haven't - John Major did that, but Labour came along and added a few frilly bits. What, really, has Labour changed about the post-Thatcher settlement? The direction of policy continues on broadly the same path: a centralising state; commitment to managerial improvement and a greater private role in service delivery; a commitment to keep taxes down; a financially-driven evolutionary approach to welfare reform; and a muddled foreign policy, especially vis-a-vis the EU. Like I've said before, all New Labour is is Majorism with Marketing.

Re your main point though, the point is not that the Tories need to worry about moving Right, but how they move the voters to the Right to meet them - politics is not simply passive adjustment to popular demands, with a given centre ground, but about building a narrative to put yourself close to the voters and your opponents as far away as possible. Some of the rising issues of the coming years - security, crime, immigration - are natural Right-wing issues, if only the Tories can find and build the narrative to connect on them.

Third Avenue

Blimpish - thanks for your comments, reasonable and reasoned. You are right that the US right, much as I might disagree with it, has a lot of intellectual clout behind many of its ideas (something often ignored in Europe). Personally, I think you're a bit negative about the lack of intellectual muscle on the UK right - the thinking behind the Thatcher revolution, although not all born in think-tanks and not all pre-conceived in 1979, was as momentous as anything Reagan came up with. Britain in 2005 is, I would hazard a guess, further removed from Britain in 1975 than the US now is from its 1975 version.

Is Britain small-'c' conservative? In some ways it is, but in a very different way to the US. I don't detect any appetite in Britain for the kind of 'social conservatism' that won Bush votes. It's not that many Britons are not socially conservative, it is just that they are, rightly, suspicious of it being the Government's business to set the tone in this area (and as you and I have discussed elsewhere, history has been unkind to moral crusades started by British governments).

Of course, nostalgia is a strong part of the British psyche, and from my current vantage point in the US, appears a dangerously cloying and negative trait. It is not exclusive to the right, although the right, being out of power, now clings to it tenaciously. I'm not advocating taking a Panglossian attitude towards modern Britain, goodness knows there is plenty about the country to be improved - more it is about setting a tone of being happy to be part of modern Britain, and not constantly portraying it as a hellhole that it palpably isn't.


About the intellectual stuff first: yes and no.

'Yes', because the IEA and the like were much more rigorous in coming up with policy ideas than their American counterparts at the time, and the Thatcher Government then put many of them into practice.

'No', because those weren't conservative ideas - for the most part, they were ultra-liberal ones. And in fact, they've become counterproductive for the Right politically - the Tory Party is so obsessed with markets that it's forgotten that capitalism used to (pre-1922) be only a small part of English conservatism.

And anyway, as you say, the British Right's intellectual resurgence probably has changed the country a lot. But their very success has made them politically irrelevant - who now doesn't believe in relatively free markets, competitition, and so on? With a straight face? There's not sufficient meat to excite a governing coalition in this stuff, and that's crippled the Right here.

On our small 'c' conservatism, it is VERY different from anything that the Dubya GOP would chime with. But then today's Republicanism is closer to a democratic nationalist and reformist movement than a conservatism as such. I think the social conservative dimension in Britain tends to be evoked less now through support for any positive moral agenda than a rejection of special claims, especially from outside - hence, hostility to immigration, to welfare claimants, and criminals. The British don't want to be preached at, but they have a real disdain - perhaps more than Americans do, on average - for those who don't fit the right shape. That makes it a more difficult thing to campaign for, although quite powerful nonetheless.

As for nostalgia being across the spectrum - few political parties in the world have have been more backward-looking than the Labour Party is, or at least was before Blair.


You might read Right Nation, by two Brits, Mickelthwaite and Woodridge (spelling may be off, I don't have it in front of me), and was written to explain American conservatism to Europeans. It's excellently written and researched, and blessedly free of left-wing bias. They don't have a lot to say about US vs. UK conservatism, but that's not the focus of the book.

We have on our side American culture, and the fact that our nation was deliberately founded on the concept of a constrained Federal government. And while we obviously have leftists, even the ones on the furthest fringes distrust government.

What you can see here over the last thirty years and the expansion of so-called "social services" is that Americans are much more dependent on government than they were, oh, when I was in graduate school. Socialist programs breed dependence, and a dependent population will vote for whoever will give them the most.

And you're further down that road than we are.


Blimpish has the right of it methinks. All parts of the British political spectrum have mortgaged themselves so far to the mantra that change is good, in and of itself, that conservatism as traditionally defined has become inconceivable to them.

I would place a small bet that a party which genuinely embraced "there is a time for change and that time is when it can no longer be resisted" conservatism in this country would clean up.

Rob Read

The Tories have been in the political wilderness because they have no defining principles anymore and thus come accross as trying to sell themselves as better socialists.

I won't work.


The social phenomena the Republicans have hitched their wagons to in the US simply aren't there in the UK.

In every American generation the most energetic younger people have sought to move out from under the restrictions imposed by their elders, to have their families in a larger and freer space. This formerly meant the 'frontier'. Today it means the newer suburbs, where housing is (very) cheap and the teachers' unions have less entrenched control over the schools. GWB's vote margins over Kerry correlated extremely closely with housing prices and the rate of white/Asian ('Asian' in the US means mostly Chinese) family formation. In this sense this generation's Republicanism reflects just America being itself, and credit goes to the Republicans for recognizing that and getting with it.

Europe's denser populations and (more important) far tighter 'planning' restrictions on the construction of new communities, suburban or otherwise, plus the relative non-existence of meaningfully autonomous local government, mean that young people just don't have similarly attractive places to go to have families. Hence the EU's low birth rates and so many other phenomena, plus the fact that European conservatives just can't follow the path taken so successfully by US Republicans.

Mary Branscombe

If the Tories praise modern Britain, they'd be praising the results of 13 years of Labour. Bit of a dilemma for them there.

Third Avenue

Surely modern Britain is more than simply 8 years (not 13) of Labour. Isn't the country - its culture and its people - more than just its government?

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