TCS Daily

Conservatives Abroad

By Robert Spain - March 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Last month three senior members of the British Conservative Party's front bench traveled to Washington. This was widely seen as an attempt to repair relations with US President George W. Bush and his Republican Party, which had deteriorated badly after former Tory leader Michael Howard criticized the war in Iraq.

But that may have been too harsh a judgment; there were other reasons for the visit. These included:

Even though the Tory trio also met with Democrats, the question of whether they were seeking to pick up Republican strategic tips will never have been too far from the agenda. One member of the delegation, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague, had already attempted to emulate George W Bush's "compassionate conservatism" in his last senior political job: Conservative Party Leader.

But for the Conservatives this tactic could never have worked, not least because of the state the party was in when Hague was leader. Now that Tories are apparently more unified it will still not work, for two significant reasons.

Firstly, the differences at that end of the U.S. and U.K. political spectrums are pronounced. How significant is abortion as an issue in Britain? And despite the official prayers in the Houses of Parliament and the presence of bibles and a skullcap in front of the Speaker of the Commons, for a long time our Prime Minister didn't "do God". This policy has just been broken, to justify the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Secondly, conservative leader David Cameron is anxiously shifting his party towards the center, away from the "conservative" brand of his predecessors. As has been noted widely, the resulting aggravation of the party's grandees is an added bonus: the electorate has so roundly and repeatedly rejected their views, that their criticism could be more valuable than their endorsement.

This is happening on virtually every issue other than Europe. This instinctive distrust of anything European, or non-English speaking, may be why the party is flailing geographically in its search for aid. Although the party has sent activists abroad to work for rejections of referenda on Europe, it has been less inclined to seek succor. And this is unlikely to be forthcoming should the Tories leave the European People's Party grouping in Brussels (and Strasbourg), as Cameron planned. This is a real and tangible loss: European leaders may break off contact with the party should these links not exist in the continental institutions. The current "situation" in Europe had seemed like a chance for these to flourish, unencumbered by issues such as the Constitution.

All this has seriously limited the party's scope for a foreign perspective, assuming, of course, that it requires one. During the last British election, with American counsel not forthcoming, a guru was borrowed from the Australian Liberal (i.e., Conservative) Party. While Lynton Crosby worked wonders for John Howard, his "dog whistle" politics — which seemed to consist entirely of attacks upon asylum-seekers and dirty hospitals (neither of which, it has to be said, the government was strongly in favor of) — failed miserably in Britain. Never mind the lackluster material with which he had to work; Crosby is not likely to be invited back to London anytime soon.

But why return to Washington for advice? The main parties of our two countries have a long history of cooperation, from the Democrats' heavy involvement in Tony Blair's election victories to the Conservatives seeking dirt from Bill Clinton's Oxford days for use by George Bush the first. The common denominator here is not transatlantic political affiliations, but what has could be characterized as the "downstream" effect: what happens in the U.S. defines the limits of the possible for Britain. For example, Clinton's successes helped to pave the way for those of Blair.

Thus a dominant Republican party would not only assist in providing David Cameron with the means to wage an election but could also contribute to the momentum for a turn to the right at Westminster. Remember: the next British general election will be held under a new U.S. president, and presumably a Republican one.

So keen are the Tories on receiving instruction at Karl Rove's feet that they do not see the syllabus for the lesson. Instead of analyzing the situation they are currently in, they are returning to the tried-and-tested approaches of the past, even when those approaches haven't always been sufficient. Given that the Liberal Democrat leadership affair (pun intended) is now over, such planning is all the more essential.

Thankfully there is another option. Think carefully: they are facing a left-wing prime minister who has been in power for approximately 10 years and who will soon be replaced by his popular chancellor, long seen as the leader-in-waiting. Until recently the right-wing was disunited, and still is not one fully harmonious body. Their newly elected leader is young and charismatic and has sat in Parliament only for a short period of time. With great fanfare he has ditched or camouflaged many unpopular policies.

This is all rather reminiscent of the situation faced by Canada's Stephen Harper before he brought the right-wing to power there just months ago. While Cameron's presentation and use of the media has been excellent with regard to his personality, there is still a long way to go to convince the nation with regard to policy. Without the benefit of Cameron's charisma, this is exactly what Harper managed to do.

The Canadians have a political structure similar to our own, right down to the bias of support in the devolved regions of Quebec, Scotland and Wales. They ought to be a natural choice when seeking support. That the Canadian conservatives have just overcome exactly the same obstacles faced by the conservatives in the U.K. makes such an alliance all the more compelling.

But, wait. Harper speaks French, a European language. Clearly an unsuitable political role model for a Tory.

Robert Spain is a writer living in Europe. 


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