Fraser Raleigh is a Senior Parliamentary Researcher to a Conservative MP.
The Republican Party is fast approaching the point of no return for moderate British Conservatives. Over the last decade or so they have travelled down different sides of a fork in the road. Since that divergence, the Republicans have become what the Conservatives were in danger of becoming – snarling, obstinate and electorally unattractive. The Conservatives, by contrast, have smoothed their rougher edges and secured successive terms in office. This is no coincidence.
The widening transatlantic divide is clear to see in the so-called ‘culture wars’, which are fought on totally different fronts in the US than the UK. Indeed, they are not really taking place at all here. Issues that were broadly settled almost a generation ago in Britain such as abortion and gun control remain key dividing lines between the American left and right. But even on areas where there is compatibility with British Conservatives, such as defence and small government, the Republicans’ rhetoric has become too brash and fearmongering. They have become the Nasty Party.
The danger for the Republicans is that their relevance as broad party diminishes with every battlement they put up in their unwinnable culture war. Of the remaining candidates for the presidential nomination only Jeb Bush and John Kasich, both with a background as Governor of a key state, really seem to grasp that if the party turns inwards on itself it turns away from the electorate. In Saturday’s New Hampshire primary debate Kasich in particular made a deliberate pitch for moderate – even cheerful – conservatism and emphasised the importance of reaching out to ‘the people who live in the shadows’. He argued that as well as delivering economic growth, conservatism had to help the working poor, the mentally ill, the drug-addicted and the developmentally disabled, as well as appeal to the minority community. This is solid Cameroonian territory.
Kasich and Bush are of course not the faces of this primary campaign, though, with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz making the running following strong showings in Iowa. In some ways the politics are roughly par for the course. Iowa has always been amongst the most conservative states and its primary results can throw up a winner without the broad appeal to make it past the more moderate later states. In the last two elections, the winner of Iowa has not gone on to be the eventual nominee.
Cruz’s conservatism seems to have sticking power, though, and Trump is a far bigger phenomenon that previous instances of the Tea Party lashing out against the establishment. Their appeal is simplicity, not stupidity. They provide straightforward and unequivocal answers to complicated forces that have made people feel powerless, fearful and marginalised in a country they feel is diminished and slipping away from them. Like UKIP, they talk up the failings of the ‘establishment’, the impact of low-skilled immigration and the corrosion of national values.
This line in ‘taking our country back’ has worked well for the Republicans at a congressional and gubernatorial level, gaining 13 seats in the House of Representatives and a net gain of two governorships in the 2014 midterm elections. Indeed, there is still a constituency for this sort of harder conservatism in America, and there are genuine splits among the population on many ‘culture war’ issues. Much of the electorate feel like they are not gaining from the economic recovery and are angry about it, and they have proved to be a useful base to build from for candidates.
Nevertheless, this unbending approach is unlikely to work indefinitely or on a national scale for the Republicans, because American attitudes are gradually shifting away from them on social issues and an angry conservative base offers diminishing returns in the longer term.
The contract with Britain is stark. While the Conservatives made a conscious choice to change to reflect the electorate, the Republicans still think the electorate can be brought to them, or that they can get by without the sections that stay away. To remain relevant and electable, though, a party can’t begrudge social change or half-heartedly welcome it – is has to champion it. The Conservatives supported Labour’s establishment of civil partnerships in 2004, but it took the introduction of Same Sex Marriage in 2013 under a Conservative Prime Minister to prove to a younger generation how seriously the leadership of the party took gay rights. The decision not to waver despite a rebellion from the party grassroots has been vindicated because it pushed the party closer to popular opinion. This is exactly what the Republicans are choosing not to do.
Once the Conservatives realised after the 2005 General Election that not enough people were ‘thinking what we’re thinking’, the next logical step was to change our thinking, not fruitlessly try to change theirs. Public opinion can be moved on many issues, but there are times when it is electorally counter-productive to try. It is a case of adapt of die, and the Republicans are refusing to adapt. Jeremy Corbyn is facing the same dilemma and making the same mistake, as public opinion on the economy and defence show no sign of moving towards him.
Being pragmatic about social change does not mean abandoning core principles. In Britain it has not prevented David Cameron from championing marriage at the same time as opening it up to same-sex couples, or from criticising state-sponsored multiculturalism at the same time as welcoming diversity. These nuances are scarce amongst Republicans, however, because too many of them don’t accept that you have to like the country you seek to govern as it is, not just how you might like it to be.
It is this shift in attitude that has created the chasm between British and American conservatives on so many issues. The Conservatives wisely chose not to pick a culture war with its electorate. The Republicans’ strategy of fighting until the last man, on the other hand, is doomed to fail and has put them further out of reach as a reliable and compatible ally.