Mark Steyn wrote last week that: “John O’Sullivan used to argue the British Tories would have done better to lose to Neil Kinnock in 1992 and be out of power for four or five years, rather than to lose to Tony Blair in 1997 and be out of power for 15. (If my recollection is mistaken, I’m sure John will correct me.)”
I meant to reply more promptly but, like everyone else on “The Corner,” I got distracted by Super Tuesday’s actual results, the McCain boom, the Romney withdrawal, the Huckabee boomlet, and much else.
No, Mark’s memory is not wrong: I did point out after the fact that the Tories would have done better to lose in 1992. I’ll explain why below. But given the row developing between those conservatives who won’t vote for McCain on the grounds that he’s really an anti-conservative and those who denounce the denouncers as suicidal, mad, hysterical, and even immature — or, so as to remain absolutely impartial: McCainiacs and Anti-McCainiacs — I’ll return to the question of whether it is ever right to abstain or vote against one’s party, and if so when.Disraeli or Die?
Take the Anti-McCainiac case first: Surely there are such things as “conservative principles” which particular conservative parties and politicians may sometimes betray? Transparently there are — unless you take the view of British ex-Marxist and High Tory columnist Bruce Anderson who holds today as he held at Cambridge that “No one can be right against the party.” But Bruce is here in a brave but small minority. Most people can imagine circumstances — the Norway debate in 1940 in the House of Commons when a Tory rebellion brought Churchill to power is the classic case — when party loyalty is a secondary consideration.
Then there is the McCainiac position. Disraeli expressed this best in his rebuke to Bulwer Lytton who was rattling on about his principles: “Damn your principles, stick to your party.” As Disraeli also declared when someone (Bulwer Lytton again, I think) said that he would support his ministry when he was right: “That’s no use. Anyone can support me when I am right. What I need are people who will support me when I am wrong.”
Nine times out of ten or more, the Disraeli principle is the best guide. Democratic politics can only work if most people stick to their party most of the time. If every congressman or voter always acted on his principles, there would be no way of establishing either a stable voting majority in legislatures or a stable government. All would be flux.
That being so, if we take both arguments into account, then we must presumably decide that party loyalty is the norm and rejecting it is something to be risked only in extreme conditions when vital conservative principles, or the welfare of the party itself, or an overriding national interest are at stake.
As Mark remembered, I had argued that some of these conditions had applied in the recent past. In fact I maintained that two of the three in extremis justifications had recently applied on two different occasions.
The first occasion was the first of the two British elections of 1974. On that occasion I was not in favor of reelecting Ted Heath. He was promising what a Marxist group (which asked its members to vote Tory) called the most extensive program of socialism and state control–including control of wages, prices, and dividends, and the establishment of a tripartite Labor Union-Corporate Business-Government council that would determine economic policy — ever proposed in Britain. I voted for an independent conservative candidate. That vote was not cast from any Leninist “the worse, the better” reasoning but because I thought that Heath’s solutions would make a terrible national situation much worse while also being harder to oppose because they would likely be supported by both the government and the Left.
As it happens, things worked out well: Heath was defeated and succeeded by Thatcher who reversed Tory policy, adopted sensible free-market policies, won power four years later, and instituted Thatcherism. Something similar happened in the U.S. when the failure of the Carter administraion and the over-reaching of the Soviets led to Reagan’s 1980 victory (though Gerald Ford’s policies bore no relationship to the Heath madness and would not have justified Republican abstentions.) But those of us who rejected party loyalty in favor of conservative principles in Britain have to concede that it might have turned out very differently–and much worse. I can justify the risk we took only by the extreme folly of the Tory government’s policy–and by our knowledge that some Tory leaders, imprisoned temporarily in the Heath orthodoxy, would take the Tories in a more genuinely conservative direction if given the chance by defeat.
The second occasion — that mentioned by Mark — was very different. In 1991-92 the Major government’s embrace of a fixed exchange rate in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism was weakening the Tory party, inflicting a needlessly prolonged recession on Britain, and inviting a massive financial crisis. Both major parties supported ERM membership–Labor fervently, the Major Tories moderately, the Thatcherite Tories with the gravest misgivings. It would have been ideal if the Major government had left the ERM before being forced out by a crisis. But Major, Heseltine, Ken Clarke, and the Europhiliacs would hear no arguments against what they believed was a major and irreversible commitment to “Europe.”
It seemed to me — and to others — that if Britain remained in the ERM, the inevitable financial crisis would damage the government fatally. So it would be better to lose in 1992, hand over to Labor, watch them overwhelmed by the same financial crisis, smile as they became indelibly associated with “crisis” and “incompetence” (as their passionate advocacy of ERM membership deserved), and return to power in a landslide a few years later. I didn’t vote against the Tories — and ERM membership was too technical an issue to arouse a popular rebellion against it even ifs effects were highly unpopular — but I did hope that the Tories would lose in their own (and the national) long-term interest.