Alex Massie

Lessons from Reagan’s Generosity of Spirit

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I've often written that the modern Republican party's obsession with Ronald Reagan obscures as much as it illuminates. The deification of the Gipper isn't a great substitute for addressing the particular problems the party - and the United States - faces today. Asking "What would Reagan do?" can't provide the answers to every issue.

Nevertheless, there's at least one aspect of Reagan's career that all political parties might bear in mind: his generosity of spirit and, correspondingly, the empathy he felt, genuinely I believe, for people whose circumstances were very different from his own. Among those people, whose dreams and aspirations and needs he understood, so my thanks to Kerry Howley for reminding me that Reagan actually supported a kind of North American Union that would go rather further than the NAFTA treaty Bill Clinton would eventually sign. Thus, on immigration:

In one of his radio addresses, in November 1977, he wondered about what he called "the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won't do? One thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters." As a Californian, Reagan understood the role of immigrant labor in agriculture.

In 1980, according to the book "Reagan: His Life in Letters" (page 511), the then-Presidential candidate wrote to one supporter that "I believe we must resolve the problem at our southern border with full regard to the problems and needs of Mexico. I have suggested legalizing the entry of Mexican labor into this country on much the same basis you proposed..."

During the same campaign, circa December 1979, the Gipper responded to criticism from conservative columnist Holmes Alexander with the following: "Please believe me when I tell you the idea of a North American accord has been mine for many, many years. I have seen presidents, both Democrat and Republican, approach our neighbors with pre-concocted plans in which their only input is to vote 'yes.'

"Some months before I declared, I asked for a meeting and crossed the border to meet with the president of Mexico. I did not go with a plan. I went, as I said in my announcement address, to ask him his ideas -- how we could make the border something other than a locale for a nine-foot fence."

Well, this isn't the way the Republican party talks these days is it? You may argue that things are different now and perhaps they are but I'd still suggest that Reagan's analysis holds up pretty well and that, now you mention it, it applies to other countries besides the United States. (For instance, my uncle, who farms in Aberdeenshire, told me recently that, in terms of seasonal work, he now depends upon immigrant labour because he can't find "locals" either sufficiently willing or diligent enough to do it.)

And I think David Cameron could learn something from Reagan's largeness of spirit too. When you hear the Tory leader speak these days you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain is no longer a country worth living in, let alone saving. Everything has gone to the dogs. There are moments when one wonders if the Tories, keen to prove their seriousness, view toughness (or at least being seen to be tough) as the be-all and end-all. No-one disputes that there's much that needs to be done, nor that the country's fiscal situation is serious. But a little more sunshine wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Not everything, despite the quotidian temptations to believe otherwise, is actually doom and gloom.

That's a lesson the GOP could also recall too. There are plenty of reasonable grounds upon which to disagree with President Obama's policies and even objectives. Suggesting that the End of America is Upon Us demonstrates both a remarkable lack of faith in the United States itself and gives the impression that the party has been taken over by hysterics who've lost all sense of proportion and, in the end, perhaps decency too.

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.

Topics in this articlePoliticsimmigrationtories