As the poor old GOP comes to terms with its presidential defeat, it is getting a lot of advice from liberal and journalistic well-wishers on how it must change in order to win or even survive. This gloomy kind of postmortem is probably overdone for a party that got 47 percent of the popular vote and retained control of the lower house of Congress. Nor can one help noticing that the advice given this time is suspiciously similar to the advice given on previous occasions when the GOP had lost an election: namely move to the left and adapt to America’s progressive pop culture. This panacea is marketed under different brand labels, but the mixture is pretty much the same advice.
On this occasion, however, one element from past asessments seems to be missing. We are not being told that the best model for a GOP makeover is David Cameron’s “de-toxification” of Britain’s Tory party. That was a theme we heard a few years ago from several commentators, some of them good friends of mine, notably David Frum and David Brooks. Never having believed it, I naïvely thought that the chorus would die down when Cameron failed to win a majority in an unlosable election against a Labour government presiding over economic collapse. Instead, when that duly happened, the theory of Cameron’s model conservatism stopped breathing for a moment, and then quickly revived, getting off its sick-bed and holding forth about the virtues of David Cameron’s “Big Society,” his shrewdness in forming a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and his prudent toughness in embracing austerity based on tax hikes today and spending cuts down the road.
Well, 33 months later, the Cameron model looks distinctly Heath Robinson (British English for Rube Goldberg). No one any longer talks about the “Big Society,” because no one understood what it meant when they did and — more depressingly — because Britain is moving steadily in the opposite direction, towards a more statist and welfarist society. Last week, for instance, the Con-Lib coalition — one in which the Liberal Democrat tail wags the Conservative dog most of the time — announced a new universal old-age “social care” scheme to be financed by maintaining a low threshold (of about $500,000) for the payment of estate tax, which will become an increase in real terms as inflation and house prices rise. When in opposition, the Tories had promised to raise the threshold to about $1,500,000. It was almost the only popular item in their manifesto. Labour alone promised to defend the existing estate-tax threshold, which the Tories denounced as an attack on the middle class. The coalition’s decision last week amounts to trebling the tax by comparison with the Tory manifesto pledge. It’s an abandonment of principle and a betrayal of their middle-class supporters in areas such as Southeast England, where quite modest houses are now subject to estate taxes.
And how is deficit reduction going? The answer has to be: not very well. The coalition’s budgetary plans under Tory chancellor George Osborne have gone completely awry. As the British economy has faltered — it looks as if it’s about to enter its third recession under the present management — the chancellor has postponed spending cuts and added additional expenditure items. Public spending as a share of GDP has risen from an alarming 48 percent under Labour to 49.9 percent today. The coalition’s budgetary plans — allegedly the basis for the Con-Lib coalition — are laxer and more spendthrift than those in Labour’s last budget under the widely respected chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling. And as the mirage of future tax cuts grows ever more evanescent, real new tax hikes loom. To fill the voracious appetite of the regulatory and welfare state, the Lib-Dems are calling for a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than $3.2 million (in addition to wealth taxes on other items, too, such as jewelry).
Some conservatives justify such wealth taxes as a better (and more capitalist) way to raise revenue than income taxes. Even the estimable Tim Montgomerie argues in his London Times column that they hit the undeserving rich rather than the hard-working poor. Even if we grant this — which we shouldn’t since the undeserving rich pay 27 percent of income tax in the U.K. and property taxes are already among the highest in advanced countries — the real significance of this debate is that it illustrates the drift leftwards of British opinion, including conservative opinion, during the short life of this government. To quote the shrewd Scottish political critic, Iain Martin, responding to Montgomerie: “All sorts of ideas which a decade ago would have been regarded as potty are now mainstream; the government owning enormous shareholdings in banks springs to mind. Adding one trillion pounds to the national debt is another. A government with Conservatives in charge of the Treasury is dragging millions more into the 40p tax band with such relentlessness that one wonders whether George Osborne hopes eventually to make 40p the new flat-tax rate paid by middle class Britain.”
Not only the tax debate illustrates this inexorable drift leftwards. Most areas of policy are now moving in the same direction. To take the latest example, the Tories now seem committed to protecting the principle of socialized medicine from any blame for the abuse and neglect of patients in the National Health Service that has led to thousands of deaths. This inertial drift is rooted ultimately in Cameron’s “detoxification” strategy, which amounted in essence to a firm refusal to challenge metropolitan liberal opinion on anything whatsoever and to abandon those conservative ideas that liberals find unpalatable. Indeed, early accounts of the “thinking” of Cameron strategists stress that policy should aim at winning centrist Lib-Dem votes rather than natural right-wing ones. Some even argued that the Tory Party should deliberately and visibly alienate natural conservatives as a way of demonstrating to the target centrists that the party was sincere about rejecting its “nasty” (i.e., realistic) image and ugly supporters. Cameronians were always talking about seizing a “Clause IV moment” — a reference to Tony Blair’s rejection of Clause IV of the Labour-party constitution, which committed the party to full-bore nationalization of industry — when one arrived. And when one was slow to arrive, David Cameron provoked one anyway by committing his government to same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage is a rich topic on which much could be said. In the context of the “detoxification” debate, however, its relevance is that it was a strategy for the Cameronians to demonstrate their metropolitan liberal credentials by mounting a kultukampf against their own conservative supporters. As Andrew Lilco — a supporter of same-sex marriage, as it happens — points out, the practical benefits of such marriage could have been achieved by quite minor technical changes in the law on civil partnerships and any wider acceptance of it left to slower and less contentious social processes. Such a strategy would have achieved whatever it achieved with the least ill will and social upheaval and with the rights of those who objected to it fully preserved. But, as Lilco ironically observed, there was also a path to same-sex marriage that maximized the damage to social relations and to the rights of Christians, traditionalists, and others. Helpfully Lilco gave the recipe for how not to do it:
Go around saying: “The problem with this country is that there are still far too many people that disapprove of homosexual sexual relations. Something must be done about that.”
Say: “The fact that heterosexuals get ‘married’ whilst homosexuals get ‘civilly partnered’ enshrines in law a moral inequality. That is a terrible thing, and that difference must be removed.”
Say: “Anyone who wants to use a different word for heterosexual partnerships from homosexual partnerships is, by definition, a homophobe and a bigot.”
Say: “The central purpose of this new law is twofold. First, it aims to deprive opponents of homosexuality a language in which to express their dissent — we shall take their central moral terms, the thing they say is the ideal and what is right and any deviation from which they regard as wrong, and change its meaning. Furthermore, we shall do so in the context of the widespread use of equalities legislation to crush dissent to modern moral norms. Second, it aims to demonstrate to the country that the Conservative Party is in a process of unceasing revolution, rooting out anyone with old-fashioned socially conservative opinions, because we don’t want their sort as our members even if we have to tolerate them amongst our voters.”
Finally, having done all the above, just to emphasize to everyone that our purpose had nothing whatever to do with allowing homosexuals access to legal partnerships that regulate sexual activity and, instead, everything to do with crushing moral dissent, the law we shall actually introduce to Parliament will explicitly exclude homosexual adultery and homosexual non-consummation (see p26 here, noting that Section 12 paragraphs (a) and (b) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 are the non-consummation provisions).
Now, dear reader, would you like to guess which of these two paths the Conservative-party leadership and government chose? Did they make this a morally neutral measure, adding to available contracting opportunities for law-abiding and peaceable people in a liberal way? Or did they make this a morally censorious measure, aimed at depriving their moral opponents of a language (or even in some arenas, potentially, a legal right) to express their dissent, without even adding to the legal opportunities for homosexuals? Take a wild guess.
Mr. Lilco’s diagnosis is spot-on, and events have turned out exactly as he argued — except in one respect. It is not even clear that the same-sex marriage legislation will become law this year. More than half of the Tory party in the House of Commons either voted against it or abstained. Its opponents in the House of Lords may well be emboldened by that fact when the bill comes before the upper house. They might reject the bill or slow its passage with parliamentary trench warfare. Win or lose, however, the introduction of the bill without any serious consultation or discussion has proven a political disaster. It has split the Tory party, alienated the Christian churches, angered the ethnic minorities whom Cameronians want to woo, and given additional fuel for the rise of the socially conservative United Kingdom Independence party, which now regularly gets 9 to 12 percent in opinion polls. (Recent polls have put the Tories as low as 29 percent.)
“Detoxification” looks more and more like a strategy for reducing the Tory party to a rump party of libertarians and big business on the model of the German Free Democrats — except that its commitment to sound finance and property rights is much less reliable. Social, religious, and patriotic conservatives have been told that they and their opinions are not wanted even if their votes are. They in turn show signs of drifting toward UKIP, which for the first time since democracy was first established offers such voters a plausible conservative alternative to the Tories. Indeed, as I pointed out (yes, well, but I did tell you so) in the Financial Times not long after Cameron was elected Tory leader:
Perhaps the best criticism of this strategy came from a French Gaullist: “Cameron is trying to create the very division of the Right that has been the biggest obstacle to French conservatives since Mitterrand deliberately fostered the rise of the National Front.” Were he to succeed, the Tories might have to wait for a Gianfranco Fini to emerge from UKIP to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Well, maybe Nigel Farage can do it. Or maybe Boris Johnson will steal his Mandate of Heaven. In either event, the Cameron caper is a model for the GOP — of what not to do.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.