Politics & Policy

The Conservative Interest

McCainiacs and anti-McCainiacs.

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.

What actually happened, of course, is that the Tories won the 1992 election, were overwhelmed by the financial crisis a year later, gained a reputation for economic incompetence that still clings to them, and lost office for more than a decade (and counting) after that. Here the risk for conservatism of re-electing the Tories was actually greater than the risk of electing Labour. Conservatives would have done better to lose. But such clear-cut choices occur only rarely.


What alarms Mark (and me) is that the current GOP situation seems to combine these two sorts of crisis — (a) the likely abandonment of significant conservative principles, especially on National Question issues, by a McCain-led GOP leading to (b) the entrenchment of an immigration policy that is eroding the GOP demographically.

To quote Mark: “Right now, the two-party system seems to have decayed into a one-and-a-half-party system, with McCain largely in agreement with the Dems on immigration, pharmaceutical companies, global warming and much else. A President McCain will get media bouquets for his bipartisanship in supporting the Democrat domestic agenda. Against that, he is admired in these parts [i.e., the Corner] for his stand on the war.” Mark draws some comfort from the possibility that a President Hillary might fight a war for the consequences of which she would then be responsible — but not, it is fair to say, very much.

Where does this lead us? McCainiacs who think that voting for McCain is simply required by party loyalty and that since McCain is conservative on most issues, there is really “no problema,” should look at this question again. They need to summon up more sympathy for the Anti-McCainiacs. Casting such a vote would mean swallowing a lot of principle with little prospect of getting much practical in return. And if a McCain administration were to subsequently bear out the worst fears of the Anti-McCainiacs, then there would be hell to pay within the conservative coalition.

At the same time the McCainiacs are right to point out that it is hard to justify conservative abstentions or even votes against the GOP if the risk-benefit ratio falls heavily on the risk side. That would undeniably be the case if Hillary Clinton were the Democrat nominee since, both because of her virtues and her faults, Hillary promises a bitter partisan campaign and a techno-bureaucrat left-liberal administration with no benefit to conservatives that might temper these dangers.

That argument does not apply quite so effectively to an Obama candidacy — and for an interesting reason. In addition to conservative parties and conservative principles, there is a third consideration: what might be called “the conservative interest.” A political event is in the conservative interest if it strengthens and stabilizes the country. At times that greater strength may be to the disadvantage of the conservative party or come at some (temporary) cost in conservative principles. But when the smoke of battle clears, conservatives will see, sometimes with surprise, that the nation is better for the change from a conservative standpoint.

A British example: in 1923 when there was a three-way split in parliament with no single party having enough votes to rule alone, George V asked the Labour Party to form its first government with the argument (I quote from memory) “Labour must have its turn.”

The king’s decision inflicted a bad government on Britain for less than two years. But it reconciled the working class to the British system of democracy (in the difficult economic circumstances after the Great War) and it demonstrated to everyone that British democracy was not a façade for class rule that the Marxists claimed. Ultimately it meant that the Britain which went to war in 1939 was a socially united country.


It is important not to be starry-eyed about the conservative interest. It is rooted in prudence rather than any more idealistic virtue. It is an amoral basis of calculation, sometime allied with justice, sometimes indifferent to it, but always seeking social stability, as my two American examples will demonstrate.

The first one is the abandonment of Reconstruction after the Civil War in order to reintegrate the south into the United States. That object was achieved but at the cost of the U.S. allowing the installation of Jim Crow laws throughout the south. The reasoning that justified this decision was essentially that the south would have to be held down permanently by armed force if Reconstruction was to be sustained indefinitely. There was little appetite for this in the north in part because most northerners were themselves not yet converted to civil equality between the races. So the rights of black America were sacrificed for 70 years to the object of reintegrating the south in the federal republic. And whatever we may now think of that bargain, its object was achieved. The south was reconciled with the U.S. and, far from remaining disaffected, fought bravely in all its subsequent wars.

My second example is the reversal of the first: namely, the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. It was clear after the Second World War that the post-Reconstruction bargain was now itself unsustainable. Most Americans, including some in the south, recognized that the black Americans who had served alongside them in the Second World War were denied elementary rights in part of the country that they had fought to defend. black Americans themselves were bolder in asserting those rights. Unless their rights were restored, Black America would be increasingly disaffected from the nation and civil unrest might be permanent. The conservative interest counseled the federal protection of civil rights and racial equality. Jim Crow was reversed. And a series of measures, not all of them sensible, was undertaken to fully integrate black America into the nation.

What does the conservative interest indicate on this occasion? It seems possible and even likely that a victory by Barack Obama would be the climax of this long policy of fully integrating black and minority America into the nation and putting the querulous politics of race behind us. As I have argued elsewhere, the mere fact of a President Obama would strengthen and stabilize America just as a Polish pope undermined Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Black and minority America would be fully integrated into the nation as the British working class was fully integrated into the British political nation by George V. Americans would feel better about themselves and the world would feel very differently about America. The conservative interest, as defined above, would therefore smile upon a vote for Obama.

Notice that this analysis does not depend upon the actual policies pursued by Obama. It is the fact of an Obama presidency that would be a long step towards national cohesion. That fact is enhanced by Obama’s rhetoric of one nation. But what if Obama’s actual policies weaken this cohesion? Since he seems to favor more or less open immigration, multiculturalism, bilingual education, racial preferences, and other policies that emphasize and reward ethnic division, he might well obstruct and delay the overcoming of race that his presidency symbolizes and contradict the rhetoric of one nation used by Obama to such good effect with voters of all races. Obama’s proposed policies therefore open a line of attack for Republicans to exploit. Unfortunately for the GOP, John McCain takes almost exactly the same position on these “National Question” issues as Obama — without having the Democrat’s symbolic or rhetorical appeal.

If the National Question is to be the main deciding factor, then the conservative would point to a vote for Obama. Any Republican argument for supporting McCain over Obama has to rest on all the other policies where they differ — taxes, national security, the economy, health, etc. Here, of course, McCain enjoys an overwhelming advantage with potential conservative voters.

From this long-winded and roundabout argument — far longer and more roundabout than I intended — I draw three conclusions. First, McCainiacs and anti-McCainiacs should hold off on the insults and jointly seek to influence the McCain campaign to match Obama’s symbolic appeal of national unity with practical policies designed to achieve such unity. That would involve above all the Senator’s proposing very different policies on immigration, multiculturalism, and the rest. Such influence should be quietly private, unaccompanied by threats, and strategic — i.e., it should point out that McCain has a potential vote-winning argument here. But it should be attempted. Whether or not that fails, conservatives should devote most of their time, money, and effort into electing Republicans who support such policies and into making them a strong reason for voting GOP in congressional races. A Congress composed of Republicans and Democrats who had told their voters they would oppose “comprehensive immigration reform” or its equivalents on multiculturalism and other national questions would be a restraint on whoever is elected president.

And if it should turn out to be Obama, Republicans will take cautious comfort from the possibility that his presidency will advance the wider conservative interest in a less fractured America. For that would be a permanent gain for conservatism under any president.

 – John O’Sullivan is NR editor-at-large.


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