LONDON—“Death and glory,” cry kamikaze conservatives, thundering about taxes, immigration and crime.
Not in the U.S., of course—our right-wing fundamentalists win elections, and neither party has the imagination, conviction, and party coherence necessary for a clash of ideas. In the United Kingdom, however, the kamikazes are doing their best to sink the new moderate Conservative leader, David Cameron.
From my vantage point as an intern for a senior member of the U.K.’s Conservative Party—meaning, over the rims of teacups and stacks of photocopies—it seems the moderates have won the war for the heart of the Tory party. So-called “wets,” once thought vanquished by the hard-right Lady Thatcher, have had the last laugh since the arrival of Cameron.
Of course, this is an over-simplification. Even moderates have been shaped by the Thatcher revolution. Today’s “Cameron-conservatives”, however, are kinder, gentler Conservatives—the kind you wouldn’t be ashamed of inviting over for dinner.
This makeover has led to the Conservatives’ resurgence in the polls. But that’s not enough for some hard-right Tories. The party’s suicidal revolutionaries prefer ideological purity to victory.
Together, they want to march lockstep over the electoral cliff again, only further than last time. Armed with the evergreen excuse “we lost last time because we weren’t right-wing enough”—three Euro-skeptic, anti-immigration, tax-cutting campaigns notwithstanding—the deluded would-be martyrs argue for more of the same. They cry, “Tory Tory Tory! Banzai! Die for Empress Thatcher,” to borrow the words of Conservative MP Boris Johnson.
Back in the real world, the harsh criticism of David Cameron coming from right-wing dailies is distant sound of gunfire from lost battles. When a right-wing berserker like Simon Heffer claims that “Mr. Cameron says very little because he has very little to say…many natural Tories feel entirely unrepresented,.” he really means “Cameron has failed to patronize the xenophobic, backward looking paleo-conservative branch of the party.”
This sort of internecine fighting is not exactly unfamiliar to American politics —see Lieberman v. Lamont—but in the U.S. ideological battles take place on an individual level, in a thousand different primary contests. There is never a battle over the “heart” of either party, because, quite simply, neither has a heart. Like the Tin Man, each party wanders about, clucking about the need for initiative and ideas, but never managing to find either.
Far be it for me to criticize the sterling leadership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and company; there are underlying structural causes of the Democrats’ serial ineptitude as an opposition party. Among the many flaws of our reified Constitution is that it intentionally undermines the development of parliamentary-style political parties. There is no platform from which to articulate a unified opposition ideology. Instead of a shadow cabinet that directly opposes the government, we have a system that makes minority leaders little more than first among equals.
And as a result, the U.S. electorate has to content itself with the general gestalt of “opposition,” which usually amounts to “blame the government and make promises to do better, without specifying how.” The media has a strange aversion to clear-cut ideological battles, usually condemning such partisan bickering, as if voters would rather have their expressed preferences diluted by compromise. In contrast, in the UK the opposition party forms a (theoretically) coherent set of policies that explicitly set out party-wide policy goals.
Now, since I’ve come in full circle—from condemning the Tory right for its obsession with ideological martyrdom to lamenting the American system that fails to provide any ideological consistency—have I contradicted myself?
No, because this circle can be squared. In the U.S. we idealize bipartisanship as if it were the same thing as moderation, when in fact it is the result of incoherent party platforms. Individual senators can cut deals with the opposition only because there isn’t any ideological coherence within their party. In turn, this empowers radicals because they aren’t pulled to the middle by a party line with broad appeal. And, of course, such shameless horse-trading produces ungainly, ineffective progeny—loose and baggy ideological bastards like the 2004 Medicare bill.
So, whereas David Cameron provides a coherent set of moderate Tory opposition policies without being lauded for bipartisanship, Democrats can only offer an incoherent mix policies ranging from radical left (Kucinich) to neo-conservative (Lieberman). A thousand different voices vie for control of the party message, resulting in a John Cage-like cacophony. In other words, the U.S. lacks both political moderation and coherent party platforms.
Nevertheless, it’s possible for the opposition party to overcome the American system’s weakness—that was, after all, the great achievement of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” itself the high point of Republican party’s ideological fidelity. For a brief moment, the Tin Man had a heart, until it was lost in an avalanche of earmarks, paleo-conservatism, and sleaze. Perhaps a brief sojourn in the wilderness is what the Republicans need in order to rediscover their values—and the benefits of moderate but coherent opposition.
Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Even before his Tory internship, one could not invite him over for dinner without being ashamed.