TCS Daily

Where Now for the Tories?

By Chris Pope - May 23, 2005 12:00 AM

After a tireless campaign, with no prejudice left un-pandered to, Michael Howard tendered his inevitable resignation as leader of the British Conservative Party. Although the Labour majority in parliament was slashed by more than two thirds, the Conservative vote merely edged up from 31.7% to 32.3%. Eight years after collapsing from power, the Tories show no signs of returning to Downing Street, and the number of ballots cast for them has fallen with general turnout since then. While John Major summoned over 14 million Tory votes in 1992, Michael Howard did not manage to muster two-thirds of that figure in 2005.

That, in short, is the challenge facing the British Conservative party. After 18 years of Thatcherite revolution, and Britain's collapse from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the public no longer recognizes the need for radical social reform, nor the pragmatic superiority of Conservative economics. Indeed, it has been twelve years since the Conservatives have held a sustained opinion poll lead.

Whereas, for generations, the Conservative Party could rely upon Labour governments to self-destruct with crude socialistic schemes, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have succeeded in maintaining a difficult marriage between their party and the market. The Conservatives -- the most successful political party in the western world, with their implicit political slogan: "We're not socialist ideologues" -- have been caught out by the New Labour response: "Neither are we".

For all the idealistic rhetoric and talk of "new life for Britain", Blair's politics have consisted of an uneasy alliance between pragmatism and populism. While Britons knew that Mrs. Thatcher was "not for turning", they have grown accustomed to the "reverse gear" that Tony Blair has denied possessing. Market-driven policies in health, education, and transport have been tried, reversed, and tried again. The line on crime has flapped with the whims of the popular press, as have fuel taxes, immigration regulations, terror laws, and even constitutional changes.

Although New Labour's domestic reforms have consisted of little more than tentative trial and error, Tony Blair has been very keen to avoid the fates of Neil Kinnock and Michael Dukakis on national security issues. In eight years, he has dispatched forces to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bush and -- despite his Foreign Secretary's repeated attempts to woo the tyrants of Tehran -- has seldom wavered from a principled commitment to those seeking freedom abroad.

Yet, the Conservatives have shown an astonishing inability to expose New Labour as a house divided between a pro-European centrist leadership in the mould of Ted Heath, and a socialist membership that is closer to Tony Benn. While the PR image screams "NEW!!!" Labour's policies are essentially those that were discarded by the Conservatives a generation ago.

And it is for this reason that the Conservatives find such a chasm between themselves and the bulk of the British electorate. Whereas Westminster elites have flocked to Chicago School economics (the post-Thatcherite consensus on which Britain's prosperity is constructed) much of the public remains left behind. While Margaret Thatcher inadvertently presided over the largest peace-time expansion of welfare spending in British history, Labour has successfully cast the Conservatives as blind ideologues, hell-bent on constructing a sink-or-swim society. For the third successive election, Tony Blair managed the astonishing feat of simultaneously pandering to fears that the Conservatives' reform proposals were reckless and exploitative, while producing policies that were almost indistinguishable.

Having opened vast sections of British society to market forces, and exposed ossified institutions to the "gales of creative destruction", Britain's Conservative Party found that it was itself swept aside. As the economic turmoil of the 1970s gave way to a wave of prosperity, political opinions became fashion accessories, with Environmentalism and Anti-Americanism as the leading brands. In this new climate, conservative principles -- the basis for this new-found success -- became the social equivalent of wearing one's grandfather's clothes.

The election of 2005 cannot be noted as a noble defeat. The Conservatives did not take a stand, but chased polls in all directions: against immigration, for welfare spending, against university tuition fees, for detaining terrorists, against Blair's "lies". And, as in 2001, the Conservatives were overjoyed to find that the public shared their skepticism of the European Union, but were again dismayed to discover that they were not all nationalist obsessives. Rather than emulating Barry Goldwater's 1964 strategy of "running as Barry Goldwater" -- planting a flag to rally support around core principles for a future assault -- the Conservatives chose to pursue populism in a manner that was embarrassingly unpopular.

In a post-socialist age, where both Labour and Liberal Democrats are unsure of their core principles, much of the public still lacks a natural political home. Although there has clearly been an electoral re-alignment away from the traditional class cleavages, this has not given way to a stark cultural divide. While the BBC and other elite media relentlessly banged an anti-war drum, it must not be forgotten that around 65% of the British population supported the allied invasion of Iraq, when it was launched. So, what chance do the Conservatives have of following President Bush and building a coalition behind the backs of metropolitan opinion?

Unfortunately, the task facing Mr. Howard's replacement will be rather more complicated. Britain does not possess the enthusiastic base of conservative ideologues, nor the millions of Christians, gun-owners and home-schoolers who fear an activist judiciary threatening to impose big government liberalism on them. What's more, British law bans many of the activities (fundraising, TV ads, ballot initiatives, etc...) that are required to drive a successful grass-roots campaign, and so political issues are far more dependent on elite media support to get discussed at all. Yet, the main obstacle to Britain's Conservatives is the flexibility of the Labour government. Whereas Democrats must satisfy a multitude of liberal interest groups before reaching their party's nomination, the Labour leadership is far less constrained, and has been able to choose (and un-choose) policy strategies on the basis of their political effectiveness.

Although the Conservatives have sought to emulate this populism -- pledging to match Labour's spending plans -- the public has been in no doubt that they were insincere. Indeed, having won the argument against big government in the 1980s, it is no surprise that the Conservatives have difficulty in convincing people that they now believe in it more than Labour.

Rather than avoiding debate on the superiority of competition and consumer control over state-management of Britain's decrepit public services, the Conservatives should be relentless in pushing the argument. Until the British people find it clich├ęd to hear that they spend their money more carefully than other people can do it for them, and that they cannot help others permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves, then Britain's Conservatives will always find themselves out-bid at the ballot box. If they do not recognize this soon, then the prompt resignation of their next leader will be just as inevitable.

Chris Pope is an assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.


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