Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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Daniel McCarthy: Britain’s bad example for American conservatives

Republicans can only imagine what it would feel like to win four national elections in a row, wielding executive and legislative power for more than a dozen years.

Franklin Roosevelt, who died early in his fourth presidential term, had that kind of tenure. He used it to build the modern welfare state. What could conservatives achieve with an opportunity like that?

The answer from across the Atlantic is: not much, if the Republicans make the mistakes that Britain’s Conservative Party has made since 2010.

That year, the Conservatives returned to power after more than a decade of Labor Party dominance, although the Conservatives needed the help of the UK’s third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, to form a government.

The Tory-led coalition became an outright Conservative majority in 2015, and while the party dwindled to just a legislative plurality after the 2017 election, the most recent contest, in 2019, saw the Conservatives win a commanding parliamentary margin. of almost 50 seats.

The Conservatives also won the highest share of the popular vote any party has won since the 1979 election that made Margaret Thatcher prime minister.

Yet today the Conservatives expect to lose the next election, and what’s more, many of them say they deserve it.

The party’s problems date back to the beginning of its current power lease.

David Cameron, Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016, wanted the party to be something different from what its voters demanded. Voters wanted Brexit.

Cameron allowed a referendum on Britain’s departure from the European Union, but campaigned to remain in it.

An economically globalist and socially liberal Conservative Party was Cameron’s dream.

Cameron hoped to appeal to young voters and urban professionals, and the GOP also needs to improve its margins with those groups. But the same educated young Britons and urbanites that social liberalism was supposed to attract were turned away by the economic nationalism of the Conservative Party’s rank and file.

There are far fewer social conservatives in Britain than in the United States. But what good did Cameron’s party do to dismiss them?

And only with the greatest reluctance did the conservatives try to comply with what the economic nationalists asked of them.

Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum, only to be replaced by another Tory leader, Theresa May, who had also opposed Brexit.

It wasn’t until the party finally embraced Brexit wholeheartedly with Boris Johnson as leader that it reaped the electoral rewards of being on the more popular side of the issue. Johnson delivered Brexit, and the 2019 landslide.

But that was it: Johnson had no other populist cards to play beyond Brexit and his larger-than-life, almost Trump-like persona.

Without Brexit, Boris Johnson would be just another David Cameron, socially liberal and more interested in green regulations than blue-collar jobs.

Johnson imposed strict COVID-19 lockdowns, then came under fire for violating the restrictions himself.

If Johnson did not know where to take populism after Brexit, the party as a whole had no idea where to go after the COVID-19 scandals toppled Boris.

The party briefly made Liz Truss Prime Minister, in the hope that she would be another Thatcher. But Thatcher had been a social conservative as well as a tax reducer, and when the markets reacted badly to Truss, she had nothing to fall back on, neither populism, economic nationalism, or social conservatism.

Now Rishi Sunak is the Conservative Prime Minister, not because he has a strong centre-right philosophy, but because he lacks one: he is acceptable enough to many of the party factions; he is everyone’s second choice.

And so, unsurprisingly, his party will be second choice in the upcoming election, with Labor retaking power not on their own merit, but because the Conservatives stand for nothing and have succeeded at next to nothing.

Unless the Republican Party learns from the follies of the conservatives, it faces the same fate.

One difference is that personally liberal Republicans sometimes have the brains to offer what socially conservative voters want: Donald Trump is a case in point.

But Republicans, including Trump, are in danger of ending up like Boris Johnson if they simply react to populism and nationalism, instead of charting a future beyond current voter discontent.

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