alien & sedition.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
  The UK Conservative Breakdown

Conservatism is in crisis not just in the US, but in Britain as well. I don't pretend to know the nuances of the British political situation, but the latest developments make for an interesting point of comparison with the tribulations of our own American right.

At the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum frets that the Tories, having finally seen a glimmer of hope for their electoral prospects during the malaise of the late Blair years, have been thoroughly demoralized by Gordon Brown's strong start:
The polls are quite a blow: Buoyed by Blair's personal unpopularity, by dissatisfaction with public health and education, and above all by dislike of the Iraq war, the Conservatives were just beginning to whisper of victory in the next general election, which must be held by 2009. But by late last week, at least one of my Tory acquaintances had already lost faith. "We'll lose," he told me, matter-of-factly.
For Applebaum, as for many American conservatives, the worst thing the Tories can do is continue to move left in reaction to Labour's triangulation; she suggests that such a path may lead to the end of the party itself:
Political parties have life cycles much like the human beings who create them. They are born, they mature, they gain wisdom. Then, sometimes, they die -- and not just in Britain.
Her final sentence may imply a warning to a Republican party struggling over its own conservative soul, though the path to extinction may seem to head in different directions depending on one's point of view (for what it's worth, I think the sentiment is overstated when it comes to the Republicans; the Tories have been mired in a far deeper ideological crisis than the GOP).

One of the latest attempts to define a conservative agenda for the British Conservatives might be found in Breakthrough Britain, a report released by former Tory leader Ian Duncan Smith's Social Justice Policy Group. The report suggests for Conservatives a policy slate of moralist ideas, with tax breaks for married couples at the center of it. The Guardian has a good summary.

You can get a decent sense of the thinking behind the report from a column by Duncan Smith published in the Times last December, titled "Breakdown Britain." As the title indicates, Duncan Smith paints a bleak picture of British society, where "in every area life is getting worse." Unable to attack Labour on economic issues -- since the British economy has been robust -- he describes a country wracked by social failure: drug abuse, crime, dependency. Such themes provide the impetus for the new report.

Writing at the Guardian, Polly Toynbee denounces Duncan Smith's "reactionary mood music," and warns current Tory leader David Cameron against abandoning "their present uneasy course towards liberal modernity:"
Here is why the Breakdown Britain theme is a dangerous temptation. Most people are easily persuaded that everything is getting worse, the young are decadent, morals and manners are in freefall, community is collapsing, children are neglected, family is fragmenting and nothing is what it was in a golden age imagined somewhere safely beyond memory, in our grandparents' youth. It is the human condition to believe in perpetual decline. All societies have "something deeply wrong" with them, and Cameron's marriage talisman captures strong political emotions.

But the more he hammers away at this theme, the more he loses his drive for modernity and falls captive to the praise of the Mail and Telegraph.
Toynbee argues that while the Conservatives might reach for low-hanging political fruit -- social negativity, tax cuts, and hardline rhetoric on immigration -- such a party will find itself wedded to "that solid 30% of core Tory voters," a constituency that will strain even within itself to uphold a commitment to old and unrealistic moralist policies. In other words, implies Toynbee's argument, the death of the Conservative Party may result from precisely the treatment Applebaum would prescribe.

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In anticipating future developments we usually assume that there will not be "revolutions": no events that would create new realities in which the rules will be changed.

Shouldn't we assume that there are such "revolutions" round the corner?

For example: The MidEast might explode (due to US and Israel playing there with fire), thus triggering a crisis of global economy which might go so deep that ... well, domestic politics would be turned upside down by a collapse of our economy.

(This is just one example. I can give more.)

The chances for Conservatives lie - unfortunately for us - in exploiting decline, fear/panic, the closing of our minds, exclusionism, Manichean clarity of what is good and evil.

I think the Bushists are on the "right" track, and only for the moment they may feel desperate.

We do not really have a popular answer to meet this populism of fear and Manichean exclusionism.

Or do you see one, Paul?

If we do not have one, it may well happen that history will praise G. W. Bush: He was the first who courageously and farsightedly tried to re-establish "true leadership", although failing tragically failed to reap the harvest. Future may well look at our times with the eyes of people who adore saviours and heroes, and ridicule "quarreling" democrats with poor authority.

Too many people today crave for devine leadership, and their number will grow. That will pave the way for politicians able to catch and deceive people with the seductive word: "Trust me"!

Checks and balances do not allow any "devine" leadership; do not allow "heroes" to rule us; spoil our longing for a king-like President.
So checks and balances must be reduced ... abandoned in the end.

I think that is the challenge.

We must not rely on the momentary liberal recovery. It will be over soon.

As for Cameron: Europe may trail the USA a decade. So for Cameron a simply populist radicalism of the right may not be a viable option. Bad luck for him.

If I were a power-greedy, reckless, adventurous, farsighted conservative, I'd develop the game of conservative extremism.

Cameron's critics among the Tories may have the better instinct of what in the midterm future will pay - for them. (Not for us.)
Leo, you're absolutely right to observe that unforseen events can radically alter a political order. 9/11 undoubtedly delayed the emergence of the current liberal ascendancy in the US -- though it may have ultimately also made it a more pronounced ascendency. But all we can do is build institutions and reinforce our values in the public mind, and hope that what we build will be strong enough to weather most storms.

As to the Tories - one thing I admire about the British is that they're generally too cynical and pragmatic to go in for much extremism. I doubt that a hard-right approach would serve the Conservatives well, unless the forces of historical contingency really do deliver a big surprise.
You may be right.

Maybe my view in my post above is too gloomy, at least in respect of the British. I suppose you are right, the British showed in history that they can react to extreme challenges without hysteria - different to Germans, f.e..

A bloody act like the one in London - perpetrated in Berlin --- and Germany will not react as calm and levelheaded. I suppose here in Germany we would discuss in earnest a deportation of all Muslims.

My nerves are German ... Our two catastrophies in the 20th century are in my nerves. And somehow the actual situation reminds me of 1914 ...

Did you ever hear or read of a comparison of the German Reich before 1914 and the USA today?

It would be unfair to compare the Bushists to the Nazis. But there are some striking similarities to our German arrogance and strategic blindness in the Kaiserreich:
overestimating our army,
belief that we can serve our interests best in using our army,
belief that we can go it (almost) alone,
belief that we are simply the best in the world ...
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