Whatever happened to conservative pragmatism? Ideology used to belong to parties of the left. The right concerned itself with the exercise of power. On either side of the Atlantic, politics has been turned on its head. The conservatives are now the utopian zealots forsaking centrist broad appeal for ideological absolutism. Liberals and social democrats are the new realists.
Last week more than half the Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against a deal to prevent the US going over the fiscal cliff. This was in defiance of their own congressional leadership, of the fact that Barack Obama won the election and of the overwhelming weight of public opinion. For the rebels the important thing was to keep their no-new-taxes pledge. Never mind the views of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker, or for that matter, the voters.
On the other side of the Atlantic, David Cameron has much the same problem with Tory MPs. Among Republicans on Capitol Hill, the obsession is with taxes. For Conservatives at Westminster, it is Britain’s place in Europe. The Republicans are pulled to the right by the anti-government ideology of the Tea Party; the Conservatives by sympathy among its grassroots supporters with the anti-European, anti-immigration populism of the United Kingdom Independence party. In both instances, ideological purity comes ahead of power.
On matters of substance, the leaders could be said to be broadly in tune with their parties. Boehner is no enthusiast for higher taxes, while Cameron is an instinctive eurosceptic seeking a looser British relationship with the European Union. The difference is that the leaders know they have to operate in the real world. Like many old-fashioned Tories, Cameron believes he was born to rule. His base prefers the pursuit of principle.
Betrayal was once the charge routinely levelled against leaders of the left. Thirty years ago a reluctance to be sullied by the compromises of office saw Democrats in the US and the Labour party in Britain marginalised. Curiously enough, just as these leftists realised that the time had come to drag their parties back towards the centre, the rot began to set in among their opponents on the right.
The turning point for Republicans was George H. Bush’s decision in 1990 to renege on a promise not to raise taxes. The president committed the unforgivable sin of putting national before party interest. Soon afterwards John Major, Britain’s then Conservative prime minister, signed the EU’s Maastricht treaty — the framework for the creation of a single European currency.
Bush betrayed the memory of Ronald Reagan. Major danced on Margaret Thatcher’s grave. So folklore has it. It was conveniently forgotten that Reagan increased taxes and that Thatcher signed up to deeper EU integration. So just as Bill Clinton persuaded Democrats to accept the realities of power and Tony Blair was reinventing the British left as New Labour, conservatives began a long journey away from the centre ground.
The parallels extend beyond those of timing. The Republicans fought November’s presidential election on a platform demonising immigrants, and opposing same-sex marriage and abortion. Recipients of government benefit payments were cast as scroungers forever lost to the Democrats. Mitt Romney duly mopped up the southern white male vote, but women and Hispanics turned out in droves for Obama.
During the Blair years, Britain’s Conservatives fought and lost successive general elections on much the same principles. Elements of these policies do strike a popular chord. The British are not natural Europhiles and the recent pace of immigration is widely seen as a problem. The danger comes when they are presented as a package. The impression left by Republicans and Conservatives is of parties that do not like the societies they presume to govern. In the circumstances, they cannot be surprised when voters are disinclined to support them.
As opposition leader, Cameron understood the electoral dynamics. He fought (and half-won) the 2010 election as a leader leaving behind the Tories’ reputation as a “nasty” party. He hoped to push Europe to one side, and to focus on a cuddlier side of modern Conservatism. Now he finds himself under fire from his base because he backs gay marriage and under growing pressure from Tory MPs to quit the EU.
In both countries the candidate selection process has become the property of activists who sit on the political extremes. In the US, congressional gerrymandering has left power in the hands of voters in closed primary contests. Most Republican candidates need to satisfy the Tea Party rather than appeal to a cross-section. In Britain, candidate choice rests with a shrinking band of local Tory officials for whom Europe, immigration and social liberalism are natural enemies.
To voice a pro-European view is as fatal for a would-be Conservative MP as is supporting higher taxes for a Republican candidate for Congress.
The result: the politicians are beholden to the most committed voices in their respective parties. In the case of the Republicans, that means a sacred pledge not to increase taxes. For the Conservatives it is diehard europhobia. Throw in a deep social conservatism that collides with the realities of ethnically diverse and culturally open societies and the electoral consequences are obvious enough.
In the US Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. You have to go back to 1992 to find an election when the Conservatives last won an overall majority in the House of Commons. The Right faces a stark choice: It can embrace the priorities and mores of modern society, or remain a prisoner to ideology.