Republicans' Future From Across the Pond

Don't sell your principles to gain power.

So now the Republican party plods, dispirited and disgusted, into the wilderness.  Countless keystrokes have been sacrificed to detail the manifold reasons why Republicans deserve every bit of this shame; countless more, no doubt, will be expended to describe what must be done if there is to be a revival of fortune within anyone's political lifetime.  These debates are sure to be fiery, relevant, and interesting; but they are not the most urgent and pressing concern.

It's far more important to consider what must not be done.  The Republican party is just that - a name, and a political party.  There was a time in America before there was a Republican party, and for the most part we did rather well as a nation without Republicans.  What matters to history is not the presence or absence of any particular political party, but the guiding principles and practical policies espoused by the parties of the day.

For a look at one possible future of the Republican party, all conservatives should consider carefully the example of our cousins across the pond.

The Iron Lady and the Cowboy

All American conservatives honor the memory of Ronald Reagan; most are also aware of his British counterpart, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" who was said to be the strongest man in her cabinet.  Mrs. Thatcher was the leader of the British Conservative, or Tory, party at about the same time as Reagan's presidency, from 1979-1990.  The two worked together to fight Communism worldwide, and liberalism within their own countries.

In many ways, England in the 1970s was even worse off than America during the Carter years.  It was poorer, less well educated, and still somewhat run down from years of war and privation.  Most importantly, it suffered from a suffocating dead hand of almighty unions and government monopolies.

Much as Reagan did with the air traffic controllers' union, Thatcher did with her coal miners' unions, but more so.  There were far more coal miners than air traffic controllers; they could not be so readily replaced by the military; and shortages of coal affected everyone in England, since the nation still largely ran on coal.

Despite the political risks, she stood firm against their demands, rallied the public, and broke union resistance to privatization of all manner of government-owned companies, not just the coal mines.  On this strong beginning, Margaret Thatcher laid the foundation for the past twenty years of wealth and prosperity for England, which certainly wouldn't have been predicted in the 1970s.

It didn't work out so well for the Tory party, though.  Voters eventually tire of the incumbents and figure the other team should get a chance.

While the Tories were starting to fight amongst themselves, Tony Blair was hard at work reforming the Labour party and removing the old Communist elements.  Thatcher herself failed to realize the depth of public animosity to one of her reforms, the poll tax, and was "convinced" by other party leaders that her resignation was in the best interests of the Conservatives as a whole.

She was replaced by John Major, just as Reagan was succeeded by Bush; and like Bush, John Major had little of his predecessor's leadership skills.  After a long string of fiascoes, failures, and scandals, Major's Conservatives were driven from power in 1997, receiving the worst shellacking in a century and a half.  Labour's Tony Blair came to power with the largest majority his party had ever had; they've reigned supreme ever since.

Listening Is Not Leadership

Naturally, the Tories have wanted to get back into power for the last decade.  It's equally natural that they should turn to a thorough self-examination to try and figure out why the voters rejected them, just as Republicans are being encouraged to do from all corners.  The new Conservative leader, Michael Hague, started a campaign of "Listening to Britain", the idea being to go around talking to ordinary people, figure out what they didn't like about Conservatives, and change the party platform accordingly.

Some of this was a good idea and necessary.  The various sex and other scandals were certainly a valid reason for the Tories to be tossed out.  From Mark Foley to Larry Craig, Republicans clearly have a similar problem.

It's hard to know when you have to throw your erstwhile colleague overboard, particularly when the opposition can get away with every debauchery in the book for years on end without penalty.  But the harsh truth is that any political party can be taken down by excessive corruption; it's far better for a party to purge its own bad apples than to allow the voters to do it for them.  Americans and Brits alike expect conservatives to behave like, well, conservatives; if a conservative isn't going to act like one, you may as well stump for a liberal.

Alas, a lot of the changes to the Conservative party have not been so transparently essential as cleaning up corruption.  The new leadership looked at the polls, looked at the values of the young, gauged what was on TV, and determined that many of their policies and principles were old-fashioned.

Most particularly, the Tory leadership cast aside virtually all of their social conservatism.  No more would there be any opposition to homosexuality or homosexual marriage, much less abortion.  No more were illegal drugs of particular concern.  No longer would the Tories attempt to control or restrict immigration, even though large numbers of native Englishmen did and still do want an end to the flood.

Tory leaders now try to out-green the environmental regulations proposed by Labour; the new Conservative mayor of London stands opposed to desperately needed expansion of Heathrow airport, for example, on account of pollution concerns.  The Tories even fully accept the National Health Service and national provision of education, which in American terms are equivalent to single-payer health care and endorsing our unionized public-school monopoly.

In short, the Conservatives have transformed themselves into what is now a generally social-democratic party which is not conservative in any particular way except, mildly, economically.

Current polls show that the Tories have a fighting chance to return to power in the next election.  Their mission has been accomplished - if that's what their mission should have been.  The purpose of a political party is presumably to get and keep power; they're on track to doing so.

But they sold their soul to do it.

By abandoning most if not all of their conservativeness, the Conservatives are now conservative in name only.  Sure, they'll get a chance to run the government from time to time - voters always tire of incumbents eventually.  But they don't stand for anything anymore beyond "We're not the other guy."

Their only distinction from Labour is "not so much."  "Not so many" more taxes; "not so much" government spending; "not so much" welfare.  Differences in principle?  All gone.  They are merely a different hand on the tiller, not a call to turn the ship around.

If you are a true, American-style conservative in England, you have no party.  Yes, obviously the Tories are not quite as far left as Labour.  If all you want is the lesser of two evils, that'll do just fine.  If you are conservative by belief, though, that's not good enough - and now, there is no obvious way back.

Melanie Phillips wrote in National Review Online:

The British Conservatives think that, to regain power, they have to show they have broken with cultural conservatism and go instead with the way society has changed - gay rights, green politics, anti-racism. What they have failed to grasp is that such change has turned values such as right and wrong, good and bad on their heads and has produced a sentimentalised, cruel, oppressive and perverse society - one where burglars go scot-free but householders are prosecuted for putting the wrong kind of garbage in the trash can, and where people are too frightened to protest at the erosion of British, Christian, or Western values because of the opprobrium that will follow.

What Makes a Republican?

It is exactly this choice which the Republican party now has before it.  Many pundits on the right have looked at the demographic trends and concluded that the conservative point of view is irrevocably dead.

They see that while the elderly aren't too keen on homosexuality, the young see no reason why homosexual marriage isn't just as valid as everything else.  The young are all in favor of abortion and legalized drugs; tomorrow's voters care nothing for religion, and believe that government does know best and should control most of the economy.

If there were any doubt, Obama's victory lays it to rest: the youth vote of today agrees that, as Obama said, it's a shame the Constitution only talks about things government cannot do and doesn't lay out the things government "must do on your behalf" - at someone else's expense, of course.

So we have a great many writers that formerly were on the right now advising that the Republican party should follow the advice of Ghandi: "There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader."  Such a conservative luminary as David Frum wrote:

College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats - but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time.  So the question for the GOP is: Will it pursue them? To do so will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. And it will involve potentially even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues. That's a future that leaves little room for Sarah Palin - but the only hope for a Republican recovery.

Well.  That certainly might be a way to revive the fortunes of the Republican party, as it seems to be doing for the Tory party in England.  The question is, do we care about parties?  Or do we care about principles?

Abortion is either right, or it is wrong; it's like slavery that way.  It doesn't matter if you are the only one who believes it's evil - the question is a moral absolute, and its rightness or wrongness not subject to a vote.

If there is such a thing as absolute human rights, and fetuses are people, then even if the whole world says abortion is OK, that just makes the whole world wrong.  If, on the other hand, human rights are whatever you say they are and human beings are whatever you define them to be, then pro-lifers have been wasting everyone's time all these years.

In the same vein, socialism either works, or it does not.  If the government can, in fact, run your life better than you can yourself, we should all stop squirming and get with the program.  If, on the other hand, freedom is the only effective way to mass prosperity, then it doesn't matter if the whole nation doesn't care about it, any more than it mattered to Alexandyr Solzenitsyn that he was imprisoned, alone and oppressed, by a nation full of his fellow Russians that was completely Communist.  He was still right, and the Communists were still wrong, every last one of them, and his view was validated for all the world to see before he died.

Change Comes When You Make It Come

Before Margaret Thatcher, England had struggled with increasing socialism and union power for a hundred years.  There was absolutely no reason to think that the trend could be reversed.  Of course there were frustrations; of course there was dissatisfaction; but, generally speaking, Thatcher didn't arise in response to a tremendous voter demand for conservative leadership.

She did something far more important: she created voter demand for conservative leadership by a clear articulation and demonstration of conservative principles, many of which have lasted long after her resignation.  Reagan did much the same.

If, to hold power, we need to be Democrats, then we should just become Democrats.  If the Republican party doesn't stand for anything different than the Democrats, what good is it?  To anyone?  Or is it all just a game, a path to personal power for Our Side fundamentally no different than Their Side, and what we do with the power doesn't really matter?

That looks to be working out pretty well for the Tories, and if power is all you care about, then that's fine.  As Obama's racist pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright said of him and every other politician: "Just words.  Just speeches."

Or should we plan to make an actual difference, and convince the voters not just to pull the lever for a Republican politician, but for conservative principles?

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments
Why so conservative?
November 10, 2008 6:47 PM
I am British and found the article most brilliant.
November 10, 2008 10:08 PM
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