John Osullivan

What, if anything, can the Republicans learn from Cameron?

What, if anything, can the Republicans learn from Cameron?
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In National Review, John O’Sullivan, a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, wrote an essay about what lessons—if any—there were for the Republicans from Cameron’s modernisation of the Tory party. Alex Massie took issue with it. Here, John responds to Alex’s critique.

Alex Massie begins his criticism of my National Review article on the Cameron project of reforming the Tory party by assuring any nervous Cameroons that “Daniel Finkelstein simply demolishes” my argument. Well, the exchange between Mr. Finkelstein and myself is now available at the Corner and on Mr. Finkelstein’s Comment Central at the Times. So your readers can judge for themselves exactly who demolishes whom.

According to Mr. Massie, however, it wasn’t a fair contest in the first place. I entered it handicapped because, like other British conservatives inhabiting a comfortable cocoon in Washington, I must inevitably think British conservatism “fatally muddled by compromise,” dislike the “uncomfortable truth that Britain is not an ideological country,” and fail to grasp that Thatcherism was “a minority pursuit” in the Tory party.

What a lot Mr. Massie knows about me. We must have been friends once. In fact I live in Prague; I visit Britain regularly (eight times in the last year); I recognize quite happily that any party in a two-party (or even two-and-a-half-party) system is bound to compromise; I doubt that any country is “ideological” except in time of war but believe, having lived in both countries, that on any ideology/pragmatism scale America is closer than Britain to the pragmatic end; and finally I recall that Thatcherites were once the clear majority of the Tory party, though doubtless their ranks were as swelled by opportunists as is the Cameron Tendency today.

Still, having established my unfitness to discuss Cameron and the Tory party, and though Mr. Finkelstein had already demolished me, Mr. Massie decides to do so a second time. We might as well pass over those points debated thoroughly with Mr. Finkelstein and concentrate instead on Mr. Massie’s analysis of why I hold my mistaken views. Apparently the reason is that I believe in a “core strategy” or, translated into British English, a Back to Basics one.

In fact I advocate no political strategy in the article at all. It is almost entirely a negative critique of the Cameron “narrative.” And the one positive argument I do advance, as we shall see in a moment, Mr. Massie gets back to front. For the record, though, it seems obvious to me that a strategy aimed solely at winning the “base” is almost as likely to lose elections as one devoted to alienating it. Meanwhile, Mr. Massie is demonstrating the folly of a “base” strategy:

“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.”

That argument strikes me as extremely sensible. Maybe that’s because I advanced it myself twelve years ago in November 1996:


“Current demographic projections (i.e., the Census Bureau's "middle series") forecast that the ethnic makeup of the U.S. in 2050 will be as follows: non-Hispanic whites, 53 per cent; blacks, 15 per cent; Hispanics, 21 per cent; and Asians, 10 per cent. If that had been America's ethnic shape in this election (and if ethnic groups had voted as they actually did), Clinton would have won 56 per cent of the popular vote instead of less than half. Indeed, applying those same criteria to the last seven presidential elections  . . . Democrats would have won every election except 1972 -- and even then George McGovern would have got a respectable 47 per cent of the vote instead of his derisory 36 per cent.

For masochists in the audience, the hypothetical Democratic share of the vote would have been 59 per cent in 1976, 49 per cent in the three-way race of 1980, 52 per cent in Reagan's landslide year of 1984, 53 per cent in 1988 (Hail to the Chief Dukakis!), and just shy of a popular majority in three-way 1992, when Perot would have taken 16 per cent. It goes almost without saying that there would have been no Republican Congress throughout this period -- as, indeed, there mostly wasn't.

So enjoy the Republican majority while it lasts -- oh, say, another 15 years. Max.”

As that, as we now know, was slightly optimistic.

Now, Mr. Massie and I might well disagree on what response American conservatives should make to these discouraging prospects—if I would make any response at all. He comes close to arguing that I am opposed to reform in principle—and to anything other than hoping for the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan. And oddly enough, he produces evidence for this extreme charge. He quotes me as writing:

"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."

Pretty damning, eh? Before I slink away foiled, however, let me quote the next two sentences:

“Instead, think long and hard about how to solve the problems facing America. If you are conservatives, then your reforms will be conservative ones.”

If those two thoughts sound paradoxical taken together, that may be because the reader does not know my full article dealt with the struggle between reformers and traditionalists within American conservatism—and the relevance of the Cameron project to this struggle. Its conclusion was not that conservatives should eschew reform as such but that they should not join a particular camp of reformers whose ideas may already be gelling into an ideology. They should instead shape their agenda by seeking practical solutions to serious national problems (as indeed Lady Thatcher did in the 1980s.) They need not consult doctrine in doing this. If they were conservatives, their reforms would probably be conservative too. But they must focus on dealing with real and looming problems rather than with striking attitudes and ideological positioning.

In short the article argued for practical reform over ideological gestures—exactly opposite to the impression given by Mr. Massie. So I have to end with an old gag borrowed from the late Ferenc Molnar: Apparently those Spectator bloggers who can write outnumber those who can read.