An English Lesson
REPUBLICANS looking for a friendly shoulder to cry on in the coming months could do worse than look up their ideological cousins across the Atlantic. For the Conservative Party in Britain knows what it feels like to be wiped out in a watershed election by a charismatic opponent whose victory brings jubilant scenes on the streets and heady talk of a new dawn.
For the Tories, the cataclysm came 11 years ago when Tony Blair buried them in a landslide. Since then, they have suffered two more general election defeats, enduring their longest spell in the parliamentary wilderness since the mid-19th century.
What might panicked Republicans learn from the Tory experience? That apparently the first response to electoral disaster is denial. In the immediate aftermath of 1997, a few brave Tory souls dared venture that the party would have to undergo radical change, that it had to inch toward the center and demonstrate that it was not as out of touch as the critics alleged.
The party’s new leader, William Hague, duly tried to prove his credentials as a modern chap by wearing a baseball cap — a curious definition of modernity, admittedly, but let that stand as evidence of how passé the Tories circa 1997 seemed — and by attending the Notting Hill Carnival, a big event for black Londoners. It was “compassionate conservatism,” British-style.
But when the polls failed to budge, the brief flirtation with modernizing moderation ended. Under pressure from the Tory right in Parliament and the press, Mr. Hague adopted a “core vote strategy,” aimed chiefly at enthusing the Conservative base. He pressed the right’s favorite button, hostility to the European Union — the British equivalent of opposition to abortion — warning that Labor would abandon the pound in favor of the euro. The response was an electoral walloping nearly as brutal as the one the Tories had suffered four years earlier.
Now the Conservatives faced a clear choice. In seeking Mr. Hague’s replacement, they could pick one of those who had first called for a change in direction, like former defense secretary Michael Portillo, who offered a William Weld-style blend of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism and urged the party to abandon the culture wars and rediscover tolerance as a conservative virtue. Or they could retreat further into the comfort zone, electing a leader with no following in the country but deemed sufficiently hawkish on Europe.
They chose retreat, heeding Britain’s near-equivalents of Rush Limbaugh and anointing one Iain Duncan Smith. He had none of Sarah Palin’s stardust, but the Tory base saw him the way hard-core Republicans now see the Alaska governor — as a true believer. Mr. Blair brushed him away like a crumb on his lapel.
After two years of plunging poll numbers, Mr. Duncan Smith was toppled in an internal coup and replaced by Michael Howard who, à la Mitt Romney, promised economic competence, soundness on the right’s pet issues and an ability to unite the fractious ranks of British conservatism. This approach did for him what it did for Mr. Romney in the Republican primaries: in the summer of 2005, Mr. Howard led the party to its third national defeat in eight years.
Only then, staring oblivion in the face, did the slow stirrings of recovery begin. A senior Conservative official, Theresa May, had already warned that the Tories had to shed their image as “the nasty party” with few women or members of ethnic minorities in Parliament. Now, at last, that message began to be heard. A younger, fresher face emerged and overtook more established rivals for the leadership: David Cameron.
Mr. Cameron’s candidacy was built on a simple premise: modernize or die. He told the Tories they had to look as if they actually liked the country they sought to govern, rather than wishing they could turn back time. They could not hope to form a winning coalition without appealing to the Britons whom Mr. Blair had made his own: women, suburbanites, the highly educated. Relying on angry old white men was never going to get the Conservatives much beyond 33 percent.
To that end, Mr. Cameron set about decontaminating the Tory brand. Central to that mission were forays into two areas of political terrain previously deemed forbidden zones. First, he signaled comfort with gay rights, ditching the party’s previous support for laws restricting sexual equality. Second, he championed environmentalism. He may have endured news media mockery when he took a dogsled ride to inspect a Norwegian glacier in 2006, but it did the trick, confirming that the Tories were changing.
Mr. Cameron’s efforts have paid off: recent polls suggest a Conservative victory at the next election. Of course, the lessons of one society can never fully apply to another. But the Tory experience suggests that a defeated party of the right has to move toward the center, abandon divisive social issues and elect a leader who looks as if he or she actually belongs in the 21st century. With Arnold Schwarzenegger ineligible for the presidency and no other accommodatingfigure on the horizon, the Republicans might have a bumpy decade ahead.