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The Tories and the GOP: Lessons in Losing

Monday, August 3, 2009

As the catharsis of electoral rejection gives way to the long march of opposition, Republicans might reflect on the experience of Britain’s Conservative party, which in 1997 suffered its worst poll defeat since 1832. Two further defeats followed. By the next election, due by June 2010, the Conservatives will have been out of office longer than they have been at any time since the middle of the 19th century.

Under the leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, British Conservatives and American Republicans shared ideas and a common sense of purpose. Defeat at the polls — coming recently for the Republicans and repeatedly for the Conservatives — has provoked a similar outcome. The shared narrative of defeat and, both parties hope, redemption includes criticisms of tone, style, and cultural assumptions which, it is argued, repel younger voters and alienate minorities and women. Such critiques often draw on evidence from opinion polls and focus groups and are couched in the language of corporate “rebranding.”

What might be termed a historical analysis of political defeat, though, would look for defeat’s causes in policy failure, not communication failure, and would recognize the truth of Lord Acton’s observation about the tendency of power to corrupt. When a party holds power for a lengthy period — whether in the uk, the U.S., or anywhere else — it inevitably corrodes the ideals that propelled it into power in the first place. There is a life cycle to governing parties and a price to the inevitable compromises made in government, whether of policy principle or personal integrity, which sets in motion a natural reaction without requiring wholesale rejection of the party’s philosophy or self-abasement to correct it.

In the 1980s, British Conservatives and American Republicans shared ideas and a common sense of purpose.

The modernizers’ analysis, unlike the historical analysis, creates a dialectical struggle between the past and the future and sets up a conflict between the party’s base and those who urge actions that will win the support of centrist and minority voters. The modernizers, instead of broadening their party’s coalition, fragment it. This in turn causes the party leadership to oscillate between centrist outreach and reassurance of the party’s core vote.

The Conservatives’ circuitous path through this wilderness began with the shock of defeat. In 1990, they replaced Margaret Thatcher with the softer-edged John Major, who against expectations went on to win the 1992 election. Almost immediately, the centerpiece of the newly reelected government’s economic policy was destroyed when the pound could no longer sustain its peg in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. The following year, the government announced large tax increases, even though Major had campaigned on cutting the income tax. These difficulties only exacerbated the political fault line running through the Conservative party on the question of deeper European integration, an issue that could not be ducked. Parliamentary ratification of the Maastricht Treaty had exposed the depth of the divisions within the Tory ranks. The Major government had been beaten — beaten itself, in many ways — long before it was defeated by Tony Blair at the ballot box.

British elections are brutal for the losers. There is no transition. The morning after, the prime minister resigns on behalf of the government, and the ministers sitting in the House of Commons who lose their seats find themselves out of office and out of parliament. The latter fate is the one that befell Michael Portillo, Major’s defense secretary, who had previously positioned himself as Margaret Thatcher’s true heir. For many election-night viewers, Portillo’s defeat was the evening’s highlight; he had become the focus of pent-up, anti-Tory sentiment. At the Conservative party conference the following autumn, Portillo offered an analysis which was to become the modernizers’ creed. New thinking, he argued, could not be based on nostalgia for old ways of thought; “an idea whose time has come can quickly become an idea whose time has gone,” he said, throwing off the Thatcherite mantle. The electorate’s desire to punish the Conservatives wasn’t because of policy failures. Instead, Portillo argued, four factors were behind the Tories’ defeat. First, the public had thought the Conservatives arrogant and out of touch. When they looked at the composition of the Conservative party, the public “thought it too elderly, or too vulgar” and “too out of touch in vocabulary and perceptions, or in some other way, unfamiliar and unrepresentative.” Second, the Tories were perceived as harsh and uncaring. The party, in Portillo’s words, was “associated increasingly with the most disagreeable messages and thoughts.”

Politicians are responsible for what they do and say, but they cannot control people’s perceptions of either.

This second point posed a conundrum: John Major’s government was different in tone and style from Thatcher’s — one might call it warmer and fuzzier. The Tories under Major had a palpable concern for social issues and an inclusive “One Nation” approach to policymaking. Yet it was John Major, not Thatcher, who led the Tories to their heaviest defeat in 165 years. Conceding that this might be unjustified, Portillo argued that because the reaction against the Tories was what he termed a deeply-felt distaste, it could not be dismissed it as “mere false perception.”  

Here’s the problem: Politicians are responsible for what they do and say, but they cannot control people’s perceptions of either. Fashioning a political program with the aim of changing people’s perceptions, as distinct from developing policies designed to address objective needs, is inherently problematic and quite possibly self-contradictory insofar as it risks creating a perception of inauthenticity.

Portillo wasn’t finished. The third factor was corruption: “Sleaze disgraced us in the eyes of the public.” And the final factor was loyalty, or rather its absence. “Our new leader, William Hague, has every right to expect our loyalty publicly and privately. If he does not get it, we stand no chance of being reelected,” Portillo declared. But far from heralding a period of party unity, Portillo’s conference speech started a faction fight within the Conservative party which was to undermine William Hague’s leadership and culminate in the removal of his successor, Iain Duncan Smith, in 2003.1

In light of his professions of loyalty and his recognition that disloyalty would lead to certain defeat, Portillo’s leadership of the modernizers’ faction from 1997 until his own defeat in the 2001 leadership election might appear cynical and disingenuous. Yet Portillo was being true to his interpretation of the teachings of his Cambridge tutor, Maurice Cowling. Speaking at Cowling’s memorial service in 2005, Portillo recounted Cowling’s pre-democratic conception of “high politics” that revolved around faction and personal ambition. What was important “was not Parliament or public opinion, but the way that the few politicians who mattered, those of rank and weight, reacted to each other.” Even before his return to the House of Commons in 1999, Portillo made little secret of his contempt for William Hague: “Rank and weight” were not qualities Portillo was willing to accord his nominal leader.

The influence of Cowling

Cowling’s influence on the modern Conservative party is as profound as it is paradoxical, given his visceral dislike of modernity and by extension, any project to modernize the Tory party. In 2005 William Rees-Mogg, Lord Blake’s successor as chronicler of the Conservative party, wrote that “former Portillistas, who may be thought of as Cowling’s intellectual grandchildren, have become the ablest of the younger generation of Conservative mps. If there are still any ideas in the modern Conservative party, they have some Cowling genes in them.” With David Cameron’s victory in the 2005 leadership election, these men (there are no women) have taken control of the Conservative party and spearhead the Conservative modernization project.

Examination of the salient features of Cowling’s ideas and their influence on the development of the post-Thatcher Conservative party should help answer two questions:

1) What is the relationship of Cowling and his political heirs (or perhaps his stepchildren) to Thatcherism?
2) How well do Cowling’s ideas — and thus the assumptions underlying the modernization of the Conservative party — travel across the Atlantic?

There are three components of Cowling’s ideas which form a triangle. Its apex is formed by his hatred of modernity, his deep opposition to a progressive interpretation of history, the decline of Anglicanism in the intellectual assumptions of the English polity (“public doctrine” was the term he used) and its substitution by liberalism, which he viewed as a godless religion.2 In these beliefs, Cowling was a direct successor to T.S. Eliot. But whereas Cowling was content to remain the critic rather than risk exposing himself by formulating an alternative to a state of affairs he loathed, Eliot provided, in a 1939 essay, a sketch of a proper Christian society. Both Eliot and Cowling opposed classical liberalism and its variants, though, again, it is harder to see what of substance the latter added to the sparer and colder thoughts of Eliot, who saw liberalism as something “which tends to release energy rather than accumulate it, to relax rather than to fortify. It is a movement not so much defined by its end, as by its starting point.”3  A society based solely on negative liberal values would, Eliot believed, ultimately collapse. As the basis for a program of government, then, Cowling’s ideas are of no political value. In the words of one critic of Cowling’s impossibilist conservatism, “the central element in Cowling’s view of British history in recent times was the perception of an overwhelming victory for forces and beliefs that he despised.” But its very remoteness from practical political reality, when combined with the second and third points of the triangle, sanctions a Machiavellian view of political conduct devoid of principle.

As the basis for a program of government, then, Cowling’s ideas are of no political value.

The triangle’s second point is the role of ideas in the contest for political power. Cowling rejected the claim that ideas in politics have intrinsic ethical value or political merit in providing any diagnostic and curative policy function; he saw their role as purely instrumental in the acquisition and retention of political office. But as Gertrude Himmelfarb once noted, by removing ethical content from political science, Cowling denied “the legitimacy of political ideals and thus hope[d] to render them impotent in the political arena.” In this regard, Cowling’s views are similar to those of Marxists, who consign ideology to a superstructure determined by class relationships to the means of production. Indeed, Cowling did not reject the sobriquet of “Tory Marxist.” His real enemies — an enemy he shared with Marxists — were 19th-century classical liberals and their successors.

The triangle is completed by Cowling’s institutional view of British politics that Portillo talked of in his memorial address. According to Stephen Davies of Manchester Metropolitan University, Cowling saw politics as “essentially about the personal relations and struggles for advantage among a very small group of people who have power and are generally autonomous, that the role of popular pressure or mass movements is generally trivial and at best supportive and secondary.” A politician might be actuated by political principles but would succeed only to the extent to which those principles accommodated themselves to the requirements of high politics and did not challenge the prevailing public doctrine.

It is a view of politics rooted in a specific institutional setting. From Cowling’s perspective, the extension of the voting franchise from 1832 onwards did not fundamentally change the pre-democratic nature of British politics, which remains the play of power of a few dozen individuals at the top. Sociologically, the composition of the players at the top might have changed (although there is a high degree of social homogeneity at the peak of today’s Conservative party and, similarly, among their contemporaries in the Labor party), but the rules of the game have not. These imply that the notion of a distinctive Tory political philosophy is to provide a way of justifying the pursuit of political power, not defining the ends to which political activity should be directed.  In this regard, the “One Nation” brand of Toryism serves the purpose. It is a formulation derived from Disraeli, who was, in Rees-Mogg’s words, “a bogus and inconsistent theorist even by Maurice’s standards,” and whose conduct was, according to Cowling himself, one of “consistent opportunism.”


The poverty of this approach was revealed in the October 1974 election, the last before Thatcher became Conservative leader. As Britain descended into economic chaos, the Conservatives campaigned on the desirability of being governed by men of practical goodwill rather than offering a clear set of principles. “The Conservative Party, free from dogma and free from dependence upon any single interest, is broadly based throughout the nation,” the Tory platform portentously declared. “Working together as a nation, we can solve our problems,” it continued, although it didn’t say how.

One person who disagreed was Margaret Thatcher. Her philosophy was drawn from the very tradition that Cowling spent two decades denigrating. “The traditional economic liberalism which constituted so important a part of my political make-up — and which Burke himself embraced — was often uncongenial to Conservatives from a more elevated social background,” she wrote in her memoirs.4 She read Hayek in the 1940s and reread him in the 1970s. Above all, she read the legal and constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey: “I found myself immediately at home with what he said — it is not perhaps without significance that though Dicey’s was a great legal mind, he was at heart a classical liberal.”

In his 1960 essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” Hayek argued that unlike liberals, traditional conservatives distrusted general principles and did not understand the general forces, especially economic ones, by which the efforts of society are coordinated. Instead, economic and social order appears to them to depend on the continuous attention of governmental authority, leading to a fundamental difference with the classical liberal about the role of government. Hayek’s decisive objection to traditional conservatism is its inability to offer an alternative to an established trend: “The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments.” It is thus the fate of conservatives, Hayek argued, to be dragged along a path not of their own choosing.

Hayek also highlighted the historical differences between British and American conservatism and their positions with respect to classical liberalism, which positions were to become obscured by a temporary confluence in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Because the American republic was founded on liberal principles, in America a conservative defense of American institutions and traditions buttresses liberal principles on limiting the role of government and freedom from government coercion. It is in favor of low taxes, too. Meanwhile, the British Conservatives’ 18th-century forebears were on the opposite side of the American Revolution. Hayek points out that it was a Tory government in London which had tried to suppress American independence, which the Whigs had enthusiastically supported. “It was Whig principles which, as Jefferson tells us, guided all the lawyers who constituted such a strong majority among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. . . . Even Washington’s soldiers were clad in the traditional ‘blue and buff’ colors of the Whigs, which they shared with the Foxites in the British Parliament.” Thus, Margaret Thatcher’s political achievement in leading the Conservative party in an economic revolution that embodied the philosophical principles of the Tories’ historic enemies is both more remarkable and more tenuous than Ronald Reagan’s leadership of the Republicans.

Margaret Thatcher’s philosophy was drawn from the very tradition that Cowling spent decades denigrating.

Despite her different ideological background, Thatcher did not fundamentally threaten the traditional mode of Tory politics, not least because of her success in winning elections and keeping her party in power. Her lease on the leadership of the Conservative party was terminated when it appeared she would lose an election, although her successor’s was not, even as the evidence mounted that his leadership would end in electoral disaster.

“A new beginning,” promised the Conservatives’ 1979 election manifesto, and that is exactly what Thatcher offered them. As long as Thatcher kept winning elections, the Tories didn’t feel the need for a new beginning. The politician who forced them to change was Tony Blair, who won as many elections as Thatcher. Like 1979, the 1997 election which brought Blair to power promised to be transformational. Labor spoke of a new Britain and a vision of national renewal. “Our aim,” Labor’s manifesto declared, “is no less than to set British political life on a new course.” Voters relying on the manifesto would have been hard pressed to discover why — the document was notable not for what it promised a Labor government would do, but what it promised it would not do. It promised not to raise income tax rates, not to roll back the Conservatives’ reform of industrial relations, and not to let public spending get out of control (as it had under previous Labor governments). “New Labour will be wise spenders,” the 1997 platform read, “not big spenders.”

The reality of the Blair “revolution” turned out to be closer to the justification given by Tancredi, the young Sicilian nobleman in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for joining Garibaldi’s Redshirts and overthrowing the Bourbons: “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.” In the first years of the Blair government, the changes were essentially stylistic — in power was a contemporary, demotic culture of governance in tune with popular culture. If the classic definition of government is that of French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France, who said that to govern is to choose, for New Labor, to govern was to campaign. The new regime made the Tories look hopelessly out of date as Tony Blair delivered what John Major had promised — a nation at ease with itself — and gave Britain what Major couldn’t: leadership. By the end of Labor’s first term, although the tax burden was slightly higher than the one it had inherited, government spending as a share of gdp was lower and the public finances were stronger. Based on his record, there was no good reason for voters to deny Tony Blair a second term. The Tories themselves offered none. Riven by factional splits, the Conservatives seemed a more dismal option than they had even during the final years of the Major government.

Defeat in the 2001 election strengthened the Tory modernizers’ analysis. A book of essays published four months later by a vanguard of modernizers included a passionate denunciation of Hague’s leadership. “The Conservative party went into the 2001 election seeming neither to understand, nor even to belong in modern Britain,” one essay said, and it went on to develop what was to become the central motif of the modernizing project: “We have to accept the world as it is, not continue to pretend that it is as it used to be — or, worse, that the old world can be restored.” The essay concluded that the Conservative party’s longevity reflected its ability to adapt to the times: “Accepting change is a central strand of Tory tradition,” one that affirms the distinction Hayek drew between traditional conservatives and classical liberals.

This political imperative led to the inversion of the apex of Cowling’s Tory triangle at the same time as it kept the other two points — Cowling’s notion of high politics and the instrumental role of ideas — as its base. Instead of fighting a losing war against modernity, the Tory modernizers would embrace it. What traditional Tories would have excoriated, modernizers would praise. Their influence was evident in the first speech Michael Howard, himself a pragmatist and not really a modernizer, gave as party leader in November 2003, in which he called for Conservatives “to understand how Britain has changed in the last 20 years. And that means we have to be respectful of decisions people make about how to live their lives.” Although Howard brought discipline and energy to the Conservatives, the party did not offer a genuine alternative to Labor’s economic program, nor could it reverse Labor’s lead on the election-determining issue of economic competence. Unlike 2001, the 2005 election was a missed opportunity for the Conservatives. The Iraq war had damaged Labor, but in giving their unconditional support to it, the Tories faithfully followed Blair’s shifting justifications for it. Blair was reelected on the lowest share of the vote of any government in postwar Britain, winning fewer votes even than John Major had in his 1997 defeat. For the first time since the 1983 election, the Conservatives picked up a large number of seats in the House of Commons, but only slightly improved their share of the vote.

Change to win

“Change to win” was David Cameron’s slogan in the leadership election that followed, which he won with 68 percent of the vote. In his victory speech he explained what his slogan meant: “We will change the way we look. Nine out of ten Conservative mps are white men . . . We need to change the way we feel. No more grumbling about modern Britain . . . We need to change the way we think.” The Tory brand would be detoxified. Finally, the party would remove from itself any association with the 1980s and Thatcher, and it would reposition itself at the center of the political spectrum. “Improving our society’s sense of well-being,” Cameron told a 2006 Google conference, “is the central political challenge of our times.” He de-emphasized economic issues. Cameron instead pushed issues such as global warming to burnish the party’s media image, all the while taking care to dispel the impression that doing so might require making hard choices — “We have to liberate ourselves from the myth that we have to choose between protecting the environment and promoting prosperity,” he said.

Detaching the Conservative party from its Thatcherite legacy has been the central objective of the modernizing project. It has had two main components, one of philosophical repudiation and the other of mission completion. The rejectionist prong consists of a rebuttal of one of Thatcher’s quotations, as when David Cameron insists “there is such a thing as society” and outlines his belief in the notion of shared responsibility between the state and the individual. But as Samuel Brittan argued, far from being an apology for selfishness, Thatcher’s remarks were a prelude to a homily on people’s duties and obligations. While recognizing the existence of complex wholes, “Lady Thatcher was reminding us that society consists of individuals, just as herds and flocks consist of individual cows and sheep.”5

This leads Tory modernizers to create a straw man liberalism which purportedly elevates the freedom of the individual at the expense of society and to press the charge that liberal ideas lead to anarchy, a claim made by Cameron in one of his early speeches as Tory leader.  According to Ludwig von Mises, such views are based on a fundamental misconception; “Freedom is a sociological concept.  It is meaningless to apply it to conditions outside society.” In rejecting classical liberalism and embracing the notion of shared responsibility (“we’re all in it together,” as Cameron puts it), Tory modernizers are reinventing a species of what von Mises called pseudo-socialism, in their case the solidarism of interwar France. The basis of solidarism was the belief that men in society, by the very nature of social cooperation, are reciprocally interested in the well-being of their fellow men. They should therefore act with solidarity, either by imposing obligations on the owners of property so they act in the common good or through appeals to conscience, the method preferred by today’s Tories.

Detaching the Conservative party from its Thatcherite legacy has been the central objective of the modernizers.

The mission completed line, the second of the two components, accepts that Thatcherism was necessary for the specific economic circumstances of the 1980s; the arguments in favor of markets and against socialism have been won and therefore do not need refighting. The focus has now shifted to social issues, from the “broken economy” of the 1980s to the “broken society” of the 21st century, about which, so the narrative goes, Thatcherism has little to say but David Cameron has a lot to say. “The central task I have set myself and this party is to be as radical in social reform as Margaret Thatcher was in economic reform. That’s how we plan to repair our broken society,” Cameron told his annual party conference in October 2008, as the banking crisis took a downward plunge. Three months later, Cameron developed this argument in a speech on fiscal responsibility and the recession, in which he said that “the social costs of family breakdown, welfare dependency, educational failure, antisocial behavior, drug and alcohol addiction are huge,” as if social policy could substitute for tough decisions on spending.

Regardless, defying the Tory modernizers’ expectations, the recession has meant that tax-and-spend concerns have returned as the top political issue. Two numbers illustrate the depth of Britain’s economic problems. No other member of the oecd has increased government spending faster than the uk — spending has ballooned from 36.6 percent of gdp in 2000 to a projected 48.9 percent in 2010. Apart from the U.S., the uk is projected to have the worst cyclically-adjusted government deficit of all oecd members — equivalent to 4.8 percent of gdp in 2010. If Tory claims to solve Britain’s fiscal and economic problems by solving its social problems (and environmental ones, too) sound like a way of ducking all the problems, it reflects a history of losing to Labor on tax-and-spend issues. For Tory modernizers, tax cuts are toxic — history has supposedly taught them that having an argument with Labor over taxes is having an argument the Tories can’t win. In a November 2008 mini-budget, Labor proposed a new 45 percent top rate of income tax (the first such increase since 1974, subsequently increased to 50 percent in the 2009 budget) and the withdrawal of tax allowances to raise the marginal rate to over 60 percent for some taxpayers. The Conservatives responded by saying as little as possible about the former and incorporating the latter into their own plans. It was not a Labor politician arguing that “the richest in our society” must bear a fair share of the burden of fiscal consolidation because “the poorest in our society should not pay an unfair price for mistakes made by some of the richest”; it was David Cameron.

But as the economic landscape darkened, the modernizers’ focus on noneconomic issues needed recalibrating because they had assumed the sustainability of the Blair-Brown spending increases. Their job, as they saw it, was to persuade voters that the Conservative party had accepted the broad outlines of Labor’s economic policies. In March 2009, though, Cameron acknowledged his party’s spending plans were unaffordable: “We based our plans on the hope that economic growth will continue,” marking a clear break with Labor and a central modernizer tenet. Two months before Cameron’s admission, in fact, the last Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke, was recalled to the frontbench, which he had first joined in 1972, to provide experience and reassurance. The party began to put greater emphasis on public sector efficiency and controlling public spending. And the tone and policies of the “post-modernized” Conservative party began increasingly to resemble those of the October 1974 Conservatives, down to the need to consume less oil and for Britain to grow more of its own food. Modernization had come full circle.

Lessons for America

What can republicans learn from the Tory experience? Modernization could be imposed on the Conservative party because power is concentrated in the House of Commons. But the open nature of U.S. politics and the diffusion of political power both at the federal level and across the states make it far harder for a political faction to win control of a national party. Independent think tanks and talk radio mean there is a genuine contest between political ideas; ideas flourish because people are persuaded by them and not because of their usefulness to politicians. But the ordeal of Britain’s Conservatives is nonetheless instructive.

Republicans should avoid the Tory modernizers’ almost oedipal need to kill what is most dear to the traditionalists. Successful parties are formed from uniting coalitions, not by sundering them, and parties revive their fortunes by addressing the big challenges of the day by applying their values to them — not by rejecting their values. Hostility to the cultural values of party’s core voters and picking fights on issues that matter to them leaves everyone confused about what the party stands for and alienates the base. Voters tend to have a nose for a fake. Republicans should also be patient. Political recovery has to be earned and cannot be summoned on demand.

As Emerson said of the wisest heads, their opinions have weight because they had means of knowing the opposite opinion. In a democracy, that is the function of political parties, and the principal role of a party out of government is to give voters the opposite side of the argument. Sometimes they will be right, sometimes not. But voters will be wiser for it and democracy more vital. In their haste to catch up to Tony Blair, Tory modernizers stigmatized any attempts by Conservatives to develop a genuine alternative to Labor. When Labor’s economic policies collapsed, there was no alternative on offer: Voters did not see the Conservative party as the alternative. Instead they saw an alternative set of politicians.

1 The depth and destructiveness of the intraparty conflict during the Conservatives’ first term in opposition is the subject of Simon Walters, Tory Wars (Politico’s Publishing, 2001).

2  This article follows Hayek in using the traditional meaning of “liberal” rather than the contemporary American usage denoting its antonym, namely “collectivist.”

3 T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988 edition), 12.

4  Edmund Burke is often appropriated as a Tory, his “little platoons” being repeatedly called to march up and down the Tory parade ground. Hayek disagreed: “Burke remained an Old Whig to the end and would have shuddered at the thought of being regarded as a Tory.”

5 Samuel Brittan, “There Is No Such Thing As Society” (Social Market Foundation, 1992).

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