A Word of Advice for Britain's Tories
From the August 28, 2007 Globe and Mail
August 28, 2007
by John O'Sullivan
As Britain's Tory leader, David Cameron, tells his troops to prepare for a possible autumn election, the first step toward ultimate success is to face reality. Prime Minister Gordon Brown will probably win that next election and, if he does not, the likely reason is that he will have been defeated by events in the real world. "Project Cameron," it seems, has been of modest import. Its first phase - "I'm a celebrity, get me out of Opposition" - never really took. It won few converts and gave a general impression of frivolity and cynicism that Mr. Brown has shrewdly exploited. Its second phase - the in-depth conservative policies at long last - has hit an obvious obstacle: Any serious conservative policies are likely to clash with the fashionable postures of phase one, generating both ideological confusion and media embarrassment.
So "Project Cameron" has not really improved matters. But, on the other hand, the crisis of Toryism was never as deep as Britain's more masochistic modernizers believed. A Tory revival is perfectly possible, although not guaranteed, if the party keeps its head and acts sensibly.
Let me suggest to the party leadership how that might be done:
First, don't strategize in public. It gives the impression, mentioned above, of insincerity and cynicism and subtly devalues any political or moral commitment you make. Policies should be justified on the grounds that they are good for the country, not that they are useful devices for getting elected.
Second, rediscover the concept of intellectual investment. "Project Cameron" is rooted in the assumption that the current intellectual and cultural climate in Britain cannot be seriously challenged. It must therefore be appeased. But even if the Tories could be elected by appeasing a fundamentally inhospitable culture - which is doubtful - they would then have to steer by the same stars in government, probably onto the rocks.
Once you accept that victory in the next election is unlikely, however, you can begin the long process of persuading the country, including the media, that such values as patriotism, self-reliance, and enterprise - and such approaches as choice, competition, and diversity of provision in public services - are both admirable and sensible.
Third, don't be afraid of novel ideas. Remember, you are thinking and persuading for the long term. You can afford to launch initiatives that might initially strike people as risky or eccentric but that make sense when properly explained over time. My own pet notion here: Replace the fixed school-leaving age with one where children can leave when they pass a (stiffish) examination. That would give disruptive pupils a real incentive to learn; they might even find they liked it and remain to study. Okay, maybe you don't favour this particular idea. But a willingness to be intellectually and politically adventurous would make the Tories exciting again.
Fourth, get over your obsessions with immigration, crime and Europe. Treat them for what they are: important issues of real concern on which the Tories are instinctively more trusted by the voters than Labour. Advance sensible policies on them that reflect both popular views and Tory principles. Include them in a wider menu of policies.
On Europe, for instance, understand that Britain's economic and political future lies more with Asia and North America (in particular with the so-called anglosphere) than with the European Union. Isn't this a novel idea requiring long-term intellectual investment? Certainly, but it is one with better prospects of ultimate electoral and practical success than the necrophiliac policy of merging gradually into some new European semi-state entity. And almost any response would be better than the current Tory attitude of primly averting one's gaze, like a maiden lady frightened by something nasty in the woodshed, whenever these topics intrude on polite political conversation.
Finally, don't get hung up on the division between power and principle. Power is sought to implement principle; yet principles can also be implemented from out of power. If the Tory Opposition had not fought for a referendum on the European Constitution three years ago, former prime minister Tony Blair would not have agreed to it; if Mr. Blair had not done so, the French would not have felt compelled to hold a referendum too; if the French referendum had not been held, the Constitution would have sailed through. So the Tory Opposition significantly altered history on that occasion - a better service to conservatism than the John Major government's acquiescence in the further advance to European integration under the Maastricht Treaty. There's a general lesson here. It is quite common for strong and intellectually self-confident oppositions to drag governments in their ideological direction. That should matter more than simply getting one's bottom onto the Treasury bench.
And, if you happen to develop policies for good government inspired by these lessons, well, they may come in handy, since not even the loss of the next election is certain in politics.
As the boys running the New York lottery say: "Hey, you never know."
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.