LONDON — The once-mighty Conservative Party, which dominated the British political scene for most of the 20th century, has now fallen on very bad times.
While the political right in America is riding high, with President George W. Bush and the Republican Party victorious on all fronts, in Britain the factionalism and rivalries have scorched their way through the ranks of the Conservatives in a pattern that makes divisions in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party look mild. Some want the party to move rightward, some leftward. Some want a more modern and “politically correct” approach, others insist on upholding traditional values.
All are agreed that the party has lost its way, and criticism inevitably turns on Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith, an upright and quiet man who is having a miserable time as leader of the opposition.
Of course it is true that in Britain opposition leaders have always found the role a bed of nails. Conservatives are used to being in power and in favor. When they fail to make headway on either count they turn on their own leaders. Even Margaret Thatcher, when she first became Conservative leader, had to endure endless sniping. So did Ted Heath before her.
All that changed as the opinion polls swung in her favor and she began to look like a winner. After she became prime minister, the carping and criticism went on for a while but died away completely once she started delivering election victories.
But for Duncan-Smith the prospects of election victory and of the premiership look distant. The agile and energetic Prime Minister Tony Blair has stolen some of the Tories’ best clothes (such as privatization and support for the market economy), and most Britons feel reasonably well off, despite the signs of world recession.
In these circumstances it was inevitable that the opposition would find difficulty in establishing firm ground on which to oppose Blair and his so-called New Labour Party. These difficulties have been compounded by a number of tactical errors in the handling of the Conservative Party.
The British Conservative Party is an amazing alliance of differing views and philosophies. It is like a team of thoroughbreds harnessed to a coach, all of which have to be coaxed and driven with extreme subtlety if the coach is to stay on the road.
Thus there are Tories who love the free market and economic liberalism and Tories who, on the contrary, want maximum protection from the rough world of market capitalism. There are Tories who want to be radical and dismantle government and Tories who want a strong state and plenty of authority. There are high Tories and low Tories, landowners and blue collar workers, traditionalists and progressives.
What welded them together in the past, under immensely skilled leadership, was the belief that these opposing visions and hopes could and would be delivered not by central and authoritarian laws but quite simply by the massive creation of wealth, based on freedom, enterprise and low taxation. Once created, the wealth could then be shared by empowering the humblest with ownership and funding the highest-quality services in education, health, transport, city life and the countryside. Thus good public services could go hand in hand not with higher taxes but with lower taxes. Economic liberalism and social liberalism could be combined to produce a cohesive and confident nation, ready to stand up in the world and make a full contribution to global order while bowing to no one.
This was the magic that the Thatcherites worked for a time with amazing results. From being the sick man of Europe, Britain reinvented itself in the 1980s as a pace-setting and dynamic nation.
But as the years went by, while the surgery of Thatcherite reforms worked wonders, not enough attention was paid to aftercare and convalescence. Nerves began to rattle as the improvements in public services came through much too slowly and as too many groups felt left out of the new prosperity and freedom.
Under attack from a modernized and pragmatic Labour Party, the heirs and successors of the Thatcher era began to lose the thread. It was even suggested that high spending and high taxation were the way forward and that the Tories should follow socialist instincts. As Blair began to promise more state activity, more regulation, more promises of “rights” to every conceivable lobby, more involvement in a socialist-dominated Europe, a paralyzing “me-too” mood seemed to grip the Tories.
All the good words, like “caring,” “sharing,” “community” and “inclusiveness” seem to have slipped into Blair’s hands. Some Tories even went as far as to turn on themselves and denounce their own past as “the nasty party,” thus demoralizing even more the Conservative rank and file who were proud of the achievements of the Thatcher years.
This brings us to the present day and to Duncan-Smith’s tribulations. He needs to keep his nerve, of which he has plenty, resist the intrigues and calls for his replacement — which would achieve nothing — and gather more articulate, visionary and experienced people around him, drawing on the best talents of all the different strands in the Conservative Party. He needs to analyze and illuminate the new ways in which both society and the wider world now work, leaving far behind the old ideologies and cliches of the last century, and regain the moral high ground from the socialist elites and authoritarians currently enjoying government and power both at home and in Europe.
Above all he needs to recapture some of the best words and phrases that his opponents have so successfully annexed. He will then have a united party, a real team in harness and a coach rolling forward to a clear destination.
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