Sunday, February 19, 2006

Republicans, Conservatives, And What They Have To Learn

There is an interesting article on the Conservative Home blog, regarding what British Conservatives have to learn from their counterparts in the United States if they are to bring about a successful change in British political culture. This follows on from knowledge of Tim Montgomerie's long trip to America, and the publicised visit of Messrs Hague, Fox and Osborne to Washington to try and rebuild links with the White House.

On the face of it, there is a lot to learn from America. The right-wing party there has got a successful hold of all three elected branches of the government; moreover, their left-wing opponents are demoralised and lacking in structure. Before saying that Cameron's Conservatives should adopt wholesale many aspects of the right-wing movement in the US, though, it is important to recognise the scale of the challenge.

The Republicans have won the language war in America. When people talk about increasing inheritance tax, Republicans instantly discredit them by talking about a "death tax". When reform of Medicare comes on the agenda, Republicans talk about the need to avoid "socialised" or "socialist medicine". The very way that 'liberal' is used as a political swear-word shows the huge gulf in political culture; here it is 'conservative' that needs to be rebranded.

The Republicans have succeeded, in short, because rather than having to talk in nasty economic terms about many of their policies, they instead couch their political arguments in terms of freedom and moral values. The right lost this battle in Britain, with Blair and Mandelson realising that if you talk about supporting teachers and nurses rather than increasing taxes, you're on a fast track to support. Now if anyone talks about reducing the tax take, the first question is "what do you cut?"

Furthermore, the strength of the right in America isn't solely down to the Republican party. Conservative grass-roots movements across America, since the 1960s, have been absolutely vital in both winning primary elections and in providing the foot-soldiers (and fundraisers) so crucial in winning elections. They found it difficult to succeed outside of a narrow level to begin with; the classic example being Barry Goldwater's Presidential campaign in 1964. Yet I think few would doubt now that it is the ability to bring religious groups, for example, into directly supporting Republican party campaigns that helps its electoral strength.

The difficulty is that these groups then hold a disproportionate influence on power. The Economist a few weeks ago talked about the problems facing the Republican party in campaigning for the governorship of New York - caused by the Conservative Party in that state, a rump from the Goldwater era, but one which can skim sufficient support off a Republican candidate if they aren't considered right-wing enough. This is a long-running problem; Nixon complained when running for the governorship of California in the 1960s that the conservative movement weren't getting out and supporting his campaign.

This shows one thing about the conservative campaigners on Conservative Home - they are small c conservatives for sure; whether they are big-C conservatives in terms of the party is more questionable. The situation facing the Republicans in New York is surely more analagous to the British Tories than the winning of "values voters" in Ohio and the American South.

The first part of the challenge - that of changing political language cultures - is one that will not be won by fringe conservative activist groups. That has to come from the Conservative party itself; showing the determination not just to attack Labour, but to change the premises on which their campaigns are based, and to change the terms in which debate is framed.

If that challenge is met successfully, then the second part of the transformation is possibly made easier - that is, using activist groups to train candidates and get out campaigning in elections without forcing unpalatable policy decisions. As soon as activist groups become dominant in political circles, then there is a danger of parties being held as hostages to fortune by special interests that may well be distant from the country as a whole.

Conservative Home produced the wonderful graphic a couple of weeks ago that lauded Messrs Bush, Harper and Howard (US, Canada, Australia respectively) for their conservatism, whilst questioning that of Cameron - his support of Kyoto environmentalism, reluctance to cut taxes and increase defence spending, and such like. Does anyone really think that is going to be the best way to combat Blair and Brown before the next election? I doubt it (although thinking about decentralisation of power may well work). Certainly it won't happen without a change in political culture.

Thus, to a certain extent, I can endorse the conclusion of Donal Blaney in the linked article, that:

"Relying on a swing in the political pendulum or for the Party alone to secure a Conservative victory in 2009 is not an option. A true conservative movement is the only answer."

The problem that has faced the Conservatives is a lack of belief in their own party; their leaders have until now not inspired any confidence, and the party has often seemed paralysed in shock or awe at Blair.

The difficulty is understanding what a "true conservative" movement would achieve. What Conservative Home consider a conservative movement would, at the moment, probably drive away many voters from the party; the difference between them and the figures such as Patten, Portillo and Clarke would prevent a coalition of the right being formed to combat Labour.

Nevertheless, the creation of a broader right-wing coalition of activist groups and political party would make a profound difference to the energy of the Conservatives. What's important, though, is that the success of conservatives in the Anglosphere doesn't lead them into the mistaken belief that policies, as well as political techniques should be borrowed. The Conservatives are coming to cross a road; as all children are taught, they need to look left and right so as not to get caught by passing traffic. They should look left, to Europe, for public services reforms. And right, to the Anglosphere, for how to create a successful movement.