It can be dangerous to be more catholic than the Pope. That was my immediate reaction to John O'Sullivan's piece on David Cameron in the latest issue of National Review. O'Sullivan dismisses the notion that there's anything the Republican party can, let alone should, learn from the Cameronian Makeover.
O'Sullivan is hardly alone in thinking this. That is, British conservatives exiled in Washington tend to disdain Toryism. From their comfortable berths at Heritage, AEI or National Review they tend to think British conservatism is fatally muddied by compromise and lacking the appealing clarity of the dominant strands in American conservatism. They dislike the uncomfortable truth that Britain is not an ideological country and forget that Thatcherism was a minority pursuit even within the Conservative party. They join American conservatives in worshipping at the altar of Ronnie and Maggie, forgetting that times change and so do voters.
Danny Finkelstein simply demolishes O'Sullivan's argument that the extent of the Tory collapse has been exaggerated and that, subsequently, any lack of enthusiasm for Cameron is the product of his moderation and willingness to "appease" voters who deserted the party. O'Sullivan writes, for instance, that:
Now it's true that in comparison to Britain, lower (historically) turnouts in the United States increase the value of turning out the base as opposed to appealing to less-motivated swing voters. Nonetheless, the notion that it was the "modernisers" who were responsible for the Tories' failure to make real advances in 2001 and 2005 suffers from the fact that it's just not true. The public wanted the Tories to change and made it quite clear that the party could not return to power until it had done so.“
"The incautious reader might imagine that the Tories stuck to right-wing “traditionalist” policies after 1997. But certain standard phrases in the narrative, including “after a short flirtation with modernizing” and “they retreated to their comfort zone,” give the game away. In reality, after each defeat the Tory leadership, far from banging on about taxes and immigration, adopted the modernizers’ progressive but vague agenda of diversity, inclusiveness, etc. These ideological gestures, in addition to failing to win over targeted centrist voters, minimized bedrock Tory support. Facing imminent catastrophe at the polls, the Tory leaders then switched to more traditional policies — too late to win the election but just in time to save the modernizers from blame for the defeat."
Elections are really twin referenda: First, do we want to give the current mob another chance? And secondly, have the other lot done enough to deserve a go themselves? In 2005 the answers were "Not really" and "No". That is, the public, aided by the Iraq War, didn't much care for Labour but didn't think the Tories were ready for government either. So the party had to adapt.
The GOP faces a choice: real reform or pretending that nothing has changed. O'Sullivan recommends the latter. The notion seems to be that all that is needed is some kind of return to "core" principles. A Back to Basics agenda, if you like. Much of the American conservative movement now sees George W Bush as a sell-out. Bush wasn't a real conservative, they say. There's some truth to this, but it ignores the inconvenient fact that the public regarded Bush, and the GOP, as conservatives and didn't much care for what it saw.
Equally, if a return to "true" conservatism is all that is needed for victory, why is it that, by the conservative movement's own strict standards, there has been only one truly conservative president since the Second World War? Reagan is the only Republican president who hasn't been written out the movement. This suggests that, far from being a guarantee of electoral success, Reaganism might better be viewed as an outlier, not a reliable template for future victories. The United States may well be, by international standards, a centre-right nation, but common sense dictates that the "centre" bit matters just as much as the "right".
Just as importantly, 1980 was a long time ago. If the electorate looked the same in 2008 as it did in 1980 McCain would have defeated Obama. But it doesn't, does it? By 2012 many voters who would, on balance, be more likely to vote Republican than Democrat will have died and been replaced by younger voters more likely to vote for the Donkey than the Elephant. And at some point the United States will become a "majority minority" nation, ensuring that the GOP, if current voting trends remain constant, will have to win ever-greater majorities from its traditional demographic strongholds just to maintain parity with the Democrats.
Alternatively, of course, they could think anew. But that means rejecting the Rush Limbaugh view that "policies don't matter". O'Sullivan rejects this and, rather astonishingly, thinks the Tories - and by extension the GOP - would be better placed if they tacked sharply to the right:
Bizarrely, then, O'Sullivan argues that the Tories drew the wrong lessons from their calamitous defeats and that there is nothing worth learning from a Tory victory either. When George W Bush won, conservatives liked to chuckle that "elections have consequences". And so they do. Especially for the losing side. Those that deny that there are lessons to be learnt are, of course, unlikely to learn them. Instead they will drive their party into the wilderness for a decade or more. That's a comfortable place for true believers, but it's not a road that leads to electoral recovery and, in the end, victory.“
"And what should reform-minded Republicans conclude from the Cameron experiment? My own advice would be as follows: Don’t waste time thinking of being a reformer."