Alex Massie

Carrying the Country First

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An excellent post from Blimpish, making the point that while Labour governments tend to be elected with great enthusiasm, voters are usually more cautious when choosing Conservative ministries. It was only in 1983 that Thatcher won her landslide (Reagan, of course, emulated her example in 1984). And as he says, you don't need to win your party (completely) to win the country:

Thatcher’s latter-day hero-worshippers may believe the British people enthusiastically embraced the full-blooded Thatcherite agenda of sound money, free markets, union-busting, etc.  But it wasn’t the case; leaving aside that what became ‘Thatcherism’ didn’t really exist in 1979, inasmuch as it was articulated, people were generally sceptical - after all, Heath, Wilson and Callaghan had all promised to quell the unions and kill inflation...

...So it would be with Thatcher in ‘79, and in the US with Reagan in ‘80, Clinton in ‘92, Bush in ‘00 and probably Obama in ‘08.  In each case, a leader and their relatively small cabal took the reins of a party and, with the acquiescence but not always enthusiastic support of its members, took them into election-winning territory.  The age of mass politics, with vibrant member movements is over - this is a consumerised model for consumerised times.  The interesting point is that only some of those above definitively changed the minds of their membership - Thatcher and Reagan, yes; Clinton and Blair, no; Bush, ultimately perhaps broke the party; Obama - well, like Cameron, it’s too early to say. I think this a little unfair on Obama, in as much as he has not, I think, felt the need to remake the Democratic party in the way that all the others listed felt their organisations needed fundamental reform if they were to win. In fact everything that makes Obama an unconventional politician gives him room to be a conventional liberal (in American terms). This isn't due to any sleight of hand or massive dishonesty: Bush's failures created space for an old-time liberalism - albeit one repackaged in interesting, fresh, charismatic fashion - to triumph for the first time since Carter (who was himself, in part, the beneficiary of Nixon's failures). The Bush years created such a thirst for change that no Democratic candidate last year really had to worry to much about reforming his or her own party or adapting it to changed times and conditions. Indeed in many ways Democratic ambitions were limited to erasing the Bush administration from the nation's collective memory and returning to complete the unfinished business of the Clinton years...

I think Obama is interested in bipartisanship but only as a means to an end, not, as Establishment Washington would like, as an end itself. And the end is expanding and strengthening the House of Liberalism. Clearly it's far too early to say whether he will succeed in this, even if a moribund Republican party is giving him every opportunity to do so. As for Cameron, well, yup, it's definitely too early to make too many too confident predictions...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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