Iain is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Attending the National Review Institute’s Conservative Summit this weekend I have been particularly keen to discern what British Conservatives might learn from the current discussions in the American conservative movement. The movement is reeling, having lost control of House, Senate and Governorships around the country. In some ways, it’s a 1997 moment for them. But they have reacted much more quickly and with more resolve than the Tories did then. I certainly can’t remember such a gathering back in the dark days after Blair routed Major.
The number one lesson, I think, is that American conservatives recognise that their policies and values are validated by the instincts of the American people. When the GOP in Congress strayed too far from those instincts, the American people saw no need to vote for them. Like John Major, the Congressional GOP squandered a reputation for economic competence. Like Major, they were plagued with ethics scandals that the public found tawdry. Major didn’t have an unpopular war, but few here believe the Iraq situation swung the people against the Republicans. It amplified the effect, but the root cause of public disaffection was deeper.
Accordingly, pundits like Laura Ingraham and politicians like Rep. Paul Ryan, philosophers like Robert George and superstars like Newt Gingrich all agree that the Republicans have to reconnect to the people, listen to their concerns, and match political actions to the people’s values.
This was best put by Maryland’s former Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, who talked about how he doubled his share of the black vote to 30 percent. He said that his campaign wasn’t about bringing black votes back to the GOP, but about bringing the party to African-Americans. That was not done by adopting ebonics or talking about hip-hop, but by showing how Republican approaches answer their problems. "Go into the neighborhoods and talk to them," he said, "They respect that and will engage with you." My feeling is that this is the correct approach and, sadly, the exact opposite of the Cameronian approach. Rather than, say, adopting Liberal Democrat policies to appeal to voters we lost to that party, we should be showing how conservative approaches answer the problems they are concerned with. And in a nation where vast swathes of the country are as hostile now to Conservatives as they were a decade ago, we have failed to engage in the North and Scotland in the way that Michael Steele engaged with African-American voters.
The most inspiring speaker so far has been Newt Gingrich. If you’ve never visited newt.org, do so. It’s full of interesting ideas and issues most politicians ignore despite their massive ramifications. Newt was, for instance, adamant about the importance of technological progress, with the likelihood that there will be four-to-seven times as much new scientific knowledge in the next twenty-five years as in the last twenty-five years. As he pointed out, this means that talking about 2030 is like someone in 1880 talking about today, oblivious to electric light, the telephone, the automobile and so on, never mind satellites and the internet. Newt also demonstrated his amazing quickness of mind and wit. A questioner asked him about the effects of new water desalinisation technology being able to turn deserts green; Newt pointed out that no-one will be allowed to use it, as it would threaten the Saharan sand-flea. From that would come reminders about how the Earth has been trying to desertify itself for Millennia and that we should not interfere. From that it would be a short step to the poor scientist being the target of Al Gore’s next book, how he is the greatest threat to the planet. I gave him a standing ovation for that answer alone.
Eurosceptics will be glad to hear that John O’Sullivan, former editor of National Review and an adviser to Mrs Thatcher, warned the conference of the growing threat of transnationalism emanating from the EU. He felt that the rise of China and India would likely work against this, and that the threat of transnationalism would make the three great sovereigntist economies of the coming years ally in opposition to suffocating transnational regulation. The American panelists agreed with this. While most speakers who addressed Britain specifically expressed most worry at the role of Islam and seeming lack of national self-confidence, there was little in the way of Blair-worship, for a change; that, at least, is a big step forward.