Republicans and Tories: A tale of two legacies

Dec 19th 2002 | COLORADO SPRINGS AND LONDON
From The Economist print edition

Why are the heirs of Ronald Reagan doing so much better than Margaret Thatcher's?Corbis

IN THE 20th century, the British Conservative Party could claim to be the most successful electoral machine in the western world—a national party that seldom spent more than one term out of power and that adapted to change (the loss of empire, socialism, two world wars) with patrician ease. Rather than becoming a party of the embittered landed gentry, the Tories embraced the middle classes by maintaining a stance that was consistently just to the right of the centre of British politics—stressing patriotism, the family, business, lower taxes and individual freedom.

By contrast, America's Republican Party had a more chequered record—and not just because it won fewer elections. For most of the century it was a regional affair, centred on the north-east. Until the 1960s, it was almost absurdly un-ideological: its positions were interchangeable with those of the Democrats. Dwight Eisenhower, the only Republican to break the mid-century Democrat grip on the White House, prided himself on being above ideology. (“His smile was his philosophy”, a contemporary observed.)

Now the positions are largely reversed. After two humiliating election defeats, the Tories are a regional party: they have been beaten back to the English shires, with just one seat in Scotland, none in Wales and hardly any urban English seats. And ideologically, the Tories are a mess, hung up on piffling non-issues such as fox-hunting.

The Republicans, by contrast, are now much closer to a national party (see map). And they are a stridently ideological bunch. On many issues—abortion, tax cutting, the environment, unilateralism—George Bush has dared to take positions to the right of his compatriots.

Why has this reversal of fortunes come about? The answer has a lot to do with individual mistakes and triumphs. But America's new status as the unchallenged citadel of modern conservatism also points to a deeper gulf in attitudes.

Not long ago, the two parties were advancing in lock-step. Two fire-breathing conservatives, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, were followed by two gentler sorts, George Bush senior and John Major, who were then clobbered by two leftish moderates, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. But now, the Republicans are rampant while the Tories fret that they may lose second place to the Liberal Democrats. On November 5th, the day George Bush junior led his legions to triumph in the mid-term elections, Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, was reduced to warning his squabbling party to “unite or die”.

This asymmetry matters to both parties. Republicans and Tories share strong emotional ties, rooted in a sense that together they changed the world. Some Tories date Thatcherism back to Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign of 1964, which ended in failure but redefined conservatism as a radical anti-government philosophy: “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size”, he wrote in “The Conscience of a Conservative”, one of Lady Thatcher's bibles. For their part, Republicans still talk about the influence of Sir Keith Joseph and free-market Tory intellectuals in the 1970s. “They were crucial,” says Bill Owens, the governor of Colorado. He hails Lady Thatcher as the “first western American conservative”.

What has happened? The conventional answer on both sides of the Atlantic is to stress the exceptionalism of the Tories—to spin a tale of their misfortune and ineptitude: how they came up against the demonic Mr Blair, how they have been pulled apart by Europe, how they lost their reputation for economic nous under John Major, how they have chosen poor leaders—most recently, Mr Duncan Smith.

The corollary of this conventional wisdom is that the Tories' way back to power is to copy Mr Bush's “compassionate conservatism”. This year's surprisingly successful party conference in Bournemouth was a deliberate attempt to mimic the multicultural Philadelphia convention that nominated Mr Bush. Blacks, Asians and young people appeared on the stage, as the party's new leopardskin-shoed chairman, Theresa May, tried to usher in the future.

Oliver Letwin, one of the Tories' top thinkers, argues that British politics are now closer to America's. The debate no longer pits socialism against the free market. Rather, it is about the role of the state, with the Labour Party, like the Democrats, favouring an active central government, and the Tories, like the Republicans (and, he adds mischievously, “half of Mr Blair”), trying to devolve control to the local level—giving people more power over their schools, hospitals and policemen.

This looks sensible as a long-term strategy for the Tories. But in the short term, they face problems in imitating Mr Bush—not least because they lack a testing ground for their ideas. As governor of Texas, Mr Bush could point to real examples of compassionate conservatism—such as his successful education policy.

There is also the problem of the man at the top. Mr Bush certainly came from an old political dynasty, but, like Messrs Blair and Clinton, he was of a new generation, and from outside Washington. He broke ranks with his party's extremists by denouncing the Republican Congress for trying to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor”. Mr Duncan Smith, by contrast, is close to a stereotype of Tory stasis: a bald man in a suit with an upper-class name and tough views on crime and the euro.

The Tories' organisation is woeful too. Earlier this year, a small team led by Mr Duncan Smith visited Washington. Bragging about his connections later in the evening, one of his advisers was asked whether he had met Karl Rove (Mr Bush's Svengali). “Who?” came the reply.

But are the Tories really the odd one out? They are not the only rightish party to have fallen out of step with the Republicans. Canada's Conservative Party has imploded. Europe's centre-right parties are neither as vigorous nor as right-wing as the Republicans. The more you think about it, the clearer it seems that the Republicans are the exception.

America, the different

It is not just a matter of political success, but of philosophy. It is hard to think of any European party that would have pushed through a tax cut as large as Mr Bush's, that would have junked the Kyoto Protocol, that would campaign so fiercely for the right to bear arms and the death penalty, that would make such a moral crusade out of abortion, that would declare war on an “axis of evil”, that would support Israel so singlemindedly or that would openly smirk at the United Nations.

Leave aside pensions, (which the Tories are keener to privatise than Mr Bush is), and the Republican Party takes a more radical line on almost every issue than its peers anywhere else in the industrialised world. It is also anchored in a populist movement whose scale has no equivalent in Europe. To see why, consider two scenes: Colorado Springs and Grover Norquist's Wednesday meeting.

Nestling under Pike's Peak, the mountain that inspired “America the Beautiful”, Colorado Springs is now one of America's most successful cities—the home of “Silicon Mountain” and much of the US Olympics bureaucracy. It is also one of the most conservative. Almost all the local politicians are Republicans; this year more Libertarians than Democrats ran for the state assembly—and, as Joel Hefley, the local congressman, puts it, “plenty of our Democrats are more conservative than any north-eastern Republican”.

Colorado Springs has long had a military connection, and it remains one of the favourite places for old soldiers to retire. But in the past decade, the town has added two more evangelical strands of conservatism. First, it has spawned a tax-cutting movement, which in 1992 pushed through a Tax Payers' Bill of Rights that bans Colorado's politicians from raising any tax without the electorate's permission.

Second, in 1991, the town's leaders, battling with a recession that had left it the “repossession capital of America”, lured in Focus on the Family, a huge Christian ministry founded by Jim Dobson. There are now 100 or so other Christian organisations in the town. As a charity, Focus is banned from being directly involved in party politics, but the group, which employs 1,300 locals, is enormously influential with conservatives. More than 8m Americans listen to Mr Dobson's broadcasts each week, and it is now de rigueur for Republican presidential candidates to make a pilgrimage to Focus's campus.

Wander around America—particularly southern and western America—and you find plenty of towns that feel like Colorado Springs. While only one in five Americans will accept the moniker “liberal”, nearly a third call themselves “conservative”. For all their disdain for Colorado Springs, the cultural capitals of Hollywood and Manhattan remain the exception, and the much disdained “flyover” land that lies between them is the rule.

Crucially, the Republican Party's base is united by culture, not class. The best predictor of Republicanism among whites is not income, but church attendance. In 2000, Mr Bush lost nearly half the votes of people who earned more than $100,000 a year. The Republican Party is also populist. The archetypal Tory activist reads the establishment Daily Telegraph; the archetypal Republican listens to Rush Limbaugh howling against Washington (and is shocked to find that conservative talk-shows do not exist in Europe).

Nonetheless, the party has far greater intellectual firepower than its European equivalents. To get a flavour, visit Mr Norquist's weekly meeting of Americans for Tax Reform in Washington, DC. This used to be an eccentric affair: the unhygienic libertarian types who came were known as “droolers”. Nowadays, more than 100 people attend: Christians, NRA lobbyists, home-schoolers, free-marketeers, contrarian blacks and, of course, politicians.

The gathering is impeccably egalitarian: grandees such as Governor Owens or Newt Gingrich sit next to interns. The table is littered with bagels and reams of flyers, op-eds from the Weekly Standard, booklets about government waste and papers from the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (each of which is bigger than all the Tory think-tanks put together). People from the White House and Congress give briefings ; congressional candidates who need money are introduced.

Afterwards, many activists jump into taxis to head for Capitol Hill, and a lunch meeting hosted by Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. Many reassemble for drinks at Mr Norquist's house in the evening. These are the people who go to “Dark Ages” weekends (the conservative movement's answer to the Clintonian Renaissance weekends) or go on conservative holidays (one recent offering: an ocean cruise to celebrate the liberation of Grenada, hosted by Oliver North).

Other political parties have their clubs and meetings. But they do not have the same omnivorous reach, the same devotion to an agenda, and the same sense of struggle. When Hillary Clinton talked about a vast right-wing conspiracy, she was exaggerating—but not much.

Right and wrong

Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine the Tories ever being able to copy the Republicans. It is hard to make morality a political issue in a secular country. David Willetts, the Tories' other brainbox, guesses that barely one in 50 British families say grace regularly before meals; in America, the number is close to half. Lady Thatcher's attempt to introduce God into her party—a strange sermon in Scotland—produced giggles; Mr Major's “back to basics” campaign was a disaster.



If the Republicans' recent past offers fewer hopeful clues for the Tories than both parties imagine, the Tories' recent past may actually offer more ominous portents for the Republicans than is commonly acknowledged. Look back to Margaret Thatcher's three great election victories, and you discover that she never won more than 44% of the vote. She won because the opposition was split. When Labour got its act together, the Tories faced tougher times—particularly once they lost their reputation for economic competence and surrendered the middle ground.

Although Mr Bush has a very long way to go before he reaches the chaotic last days of the Major government, he has problems on both these counts. On economic issues, polls show that voters trust the Democrats more. That may be unfair: America's problems stem from the bubble built up under Mr Clinton. But Mr Bush's tax cut could yet seem politically reckless.

As for the centre ground, conservative Colorado Springs may indeed be closer to the American norm than liberal Greenwich Village; but America in general is a more tolerant, less religious, more promiscuous, less orderly place than Colorado Springs. If the Republican Party is about culture, it is losing the culture war: 8m may listen to Focus on the Family denounce homosexuality, but 20m watch “Will & Grace”, a gay sitcom. Despite Mr Bush's success in November and the right's claims to populism, the Democrats have won more votes at the past three presidential elections.

The Republicans tend to pooh-pooh suggestions that the president is driving too hard to the right. They claim that trends are moving in their direction. They are the party of entrepreneurs rather than government employees, of growing suburbs rather than declining inner-cities, of limited government rather than top-down control, of the expanding south-west rather than the stagnant north-east. Look at their success in the mid-terms.

But the signs are not all so optimistic—as America's most futuristic state shows. Even set beside the Tories' conference in Bournemouth, the California Republican Convention, which took place 10 days earlier in Anaheim, was depressing. The party that spawned Mr Reagan and the tax-cutting movement used to have a lock on the governor's mansion in Sacramento. But this year, despite the blackouts and the Democratic incumbent's consequent unpopularity, the Republican challenger, Bill Simon, still lost by five points.

In California, Republicans have managed to alienate two groups: Latinos and college-educated women. The first may be socially conservative, but they do not dislike government as much as the Republicans do (and they are still seething about an anti-immigrant proposition the Californian Republicans endorsed in 1994). The second are repelled by the intolerance of the religious right, especially on abortion.

The Republicans claim that California is an exception. But even in Colorado, Governor Owen, who coasted to re-election this year by 30 points, says that he takes the idea of “The Emerging Democratic Majority” (an interesting new book by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira) seriously. “What happened to the Tories and the California Republicans could happen to us if we are perceived to be intolerant,” he says.

By any measure, however, the conservatism of Lady Thatcher and Mr Reagan has survived better in America than in Britain. That has something to do with personalities and chance. But it also reflects underlying moods—and by many measures (see table), America is simply more right-wing than Britain.



You can trace this back to the constitution with its stress on the individual; to America's enthusiasm for money-making; to that corny old frontier spirit. Geography also plays a part. America is a land of open spaces: demanding more freedom for individuals never seems awkward. Britain is a more crowded place: people have to share. Meanwhile in foreign policy, the most powerful country in the world has no problem trumpeting national sovereignty. Britain, weaker and still checked by post-imperial guilt, is less nationalistic.

The innate conservatism of his country might explain what Mr Bush has called his “distinctly American” approach. It also explains why the Republicans have such an advantage over the Tories. The wonder is how long it took them to discover it.