Lessons from Britain and Canada Could Save the GOP

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Nov 21, 2008 11:47 AM
Lessons from Britain and Canada Could Save the GOP

Much has been written lately regarding how the Republican Party might re-form itself into a winning operation. Of course, this debate has been around for a long time, but our recent losses have reignited the debate. This time, however (perhaps having learned from liberals that “progressive” sounds better) -- the moderates have re-branded themselves as “modernizers”, “reformers”, or “pragmatists”. And to give their revolution some historical credibility, they have given themselves a new hero: British Conservative Party Leader David Cameron.

In their minds, Cameron is the crusading moderate who wrested control of the Conservative Party from…well…conservatives -- dragged it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century -- and now stands ready to become Prime Minister in the 2009 Election. They are right on two counts: the first being that Cameron is a moderate and the second being that he is a political genius.

Indeed, there is much we can learn from Mr. Cameron, and even as a staunch conservative I think that elements of his template could be the keys to future Republican victories. However, the idea that he would be on board with their reverse-RINO-hunt is complete and utter rubbish -- and it shows great ignorance of how Cameron has revitalized British conservatism. If we really want to implement the Cameron model, we must first understand the details of what he did…and what he did differs starkly with the ideas currently being floated by angry moderates hungry for conservative blood.

Cameron has repositioned his party closer to the center of the political spectrum. However, moderation in itself has not always worked for him. In fact, one of his biggest plans to seize the middle-ground blew up in his face. After his election as party leader, Cameron almost immediately adopted environmentalism as his key issue and launched a new party slogan: “Go Green, Vote Blue” (Blue being the color symbolic of the party). That slogan is long gone today (it’s one of the few pieces of the Cameron experiment not to have succeeded).  Now, to be sure, environmentalism is still a big part of the party’s appeal. Actually, the party has always been seen as strong on that front considering the left-wing Labour Party’s association with not-so-green labor interests such as coal miners. However, it is still safe to say that the “Go Green” marketing gimmick flopped.

Most of the program did, however, succeed. If you go to the party’s website or watch their ads you will see a much more hopeful message than you did a few years ago. Gone is the old logo, a rather intimidating hand grasping a torch. It has been replaced by a very happy-looking tree. Everything about the new message is hopeful, sunny, and forward looking -- and the focus is now on “quality of life” issues like family, healthcare and education.   Granted, the old “taxes and national security” message is still there, but it comes packaged as part of a larger message that the Conservative Party cares about people. Cameron also makes a point of being modern and tech-savvy, as illustrated by his “WebCameron” video blogs. These are all fantastic moves, and the Republican Party should move quickly to implement them (of course, technology is philosophically neutral). By the way, the people who are broadening this discussion here in America are conservative governors like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal. They are the real “American Camerons” in my mind. 

Another big part of the Cameron approach was to solidify and reassure all wings of his party, including the “traditionalist” right wing. In fact, one of the first moves was to give plum positions in his “Shadow Cabinet” (essentially the cabinet in-waiting) to the two right wingers he defeated to win the party leadership. Runner-up David Davis was given the hugely powerful post of Shadow Home Secretary, while third place candidate Liam Fox became Shadow Secretary of State for Defense. Furthermore, two of Cameron’s predecessors as party leader scored influential positions as well, with William Hague (leader from 1997-2001) becoming Shadow Foreign Secretary and Iain Duncan Smith (leader from 2001-2003)  heading up the party’s new Social Justice Policy Group. All of these people became genuine players on the Cameron team, and Cameron has benefited from this inclusive approach. Far from jettisoning the right wing or the traditional leaders, Cameron has made a point of including them in his revolution.

Another thing that David Cameron would never consider is taking social issues off the table. In fact, he is largely responsible for putting them back on the table as a way of making his party look more compassionate than the left wing alternatives. Now, the Brits don’t deal with the same social issues we do – abortion is considered a non-issue -- and the main issue is keeping marriages and families from breaking apart rather than debating gay marriage. However, Cameron has revolutionized the social debate by hijacking the left wing term “social justice” and lumping the protection of marriage and the family in with other “social justice” issues such as healthcare and education. Of course, that wasn’t really a Cameron idea. It was the brainchild of the more “traditionalist” former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who founded the “Centre for Social Justice”.

Cameron saw the genius of Duncan Smith’s idea, made it a major piece of the platform, and put Duncan Smith himself in charge of party policy on that front. So, again, Cameron didn’t throw the SoCons overboard – he incorporated them, revitalized them, and utilized them to his advantage. In fact, family issues seem to animate Cameron like few others. Watch his recent rant about a high-profile domestic violence case and British social services – I don’t think anyone can say with a straight face that this man doesn’t care about social issues.

On some issues, Cameron has even put forward some proposals that (for Britain) are extremely conservative. For instance, he has been extremely solid on reforming the UK’s bloated welfare state. Instead of swinging to the center and embracing these big government programs, Cameron is proposing a welfare-to-work program he says is “the biggest shake-up of the welfare state for 60 years.” One might point out that Margaret Thatcher took office only 29 years ago, so if Cameron can live up to his rhetoric, then he actually intends to go further than Thatcher in his crusade to get Brits off welfare.

The key thing to remember about David Cameron is that he dramatically changed the way his party approaches the issues. He shifted the focus onto new issues and made conservatives think of themselves as smiling, forward-looking change agents rather than brooding, tax-obsessed fear-mongers. Still, he didn’t change the basic values that the party holds dear. In a lot of ways he’s like Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. Both are seen as a little moderate because they try to be optimistic pragmatists rather than ideologues, but they also fit into the broad conservative mainstream in their respective nations.

… Then again, maybe we’re totally off base in looking to Britain as the best template. Canada probably compares much better to the United States, and their Conservative Party has also risen from the ashes in the last few years - and they did it with a rather drastic swing to the right. Traditionally, Canada had two major parties: The dominant Liberal Party and moderate Progressive Conservative (PC) Party. However, the PC Party imploded in the 1993 elections, as PC Prime Minister Kim Campbell lost 293 of the party’s 295 seats in Parliament. The defeat fractured the Canadian right and ushered in the 10 year reign of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, but it also laid the foundation for the rise of real conservatism in Canada.  As Campbell and the PC Party crashed and burned, the far more conservative Reform Party of Canada blew onto the national scene by taking 52 seats in Parliament (they previously had one).  Despite the fact that Reformers’ seats were concentrated in Western Canada and they never came close to forming a government, the demise of the PC Party enabled them to become the second largest party in parliament and the voice of the Canadian Right.

By the early 2003, Canada’s battered conservatives were ready to re-form into a competitive party, but the national situation had changed drastically since they were last in power. The moderate PC Party was now only the fifth largest party in Parliament, holding only 12 seats. On the other hand, the right-wing Canadian Alliance (the re-named Reform Party) was the second-largest. They held 66 seats and had established themselves as largest force on the right.

 The PCers had been holding out on a potential merger for several years, knowing that they would not be the dominant force in the new party, but in 2003, they finally gave in. Newly elected PC leader Peter MacKay was both more open and more conservative than his predecessor, and merged with the alliance to form the new Conservative Party of Canada. The right-wing had united into a cohesive national force again, and that force was headed by former Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper…who had been with the Reform Party since 1988 (before they ever won a seat in Parliament). So, the right had not only united, but it had also coalesced around a far more conservative message than Canada had seen in recent history. The revitalized party gained seats in the 2004 election, depriving the Liberals of a majority in Parliament for the first time since 1993, and then forced another election in 2006 - when they stormed to power and installed Harper as Prime Minister. I might also point out that the most moderate (or “Red Tory”) wing of the old PC Party largely abandoned the new Conservatives and defected to the Liberals. It didn’t hurt the Conservatives and didn’t even help the Liberals (who suffered their worst popular vote loss in history when Harper was re-elected this October).

Regardless of where you stand on the issues, it is hard to see how the moderate strategy of purging conservatism and running to the center could work. Their supposed hero, David Cameron, succeeded primarily by rebranding and revitalizing traditional conservative ideals. Steven Harper’s path to victory is even more illustrative of how true conservatism can be made relevant in the 21st Century. If you think conservatives are in the wilderness here, think about what it must have been like to be stuck in an unelectable Third Party that could only compete in Western provinces! Of course, that didn’t stop Stephen Harper from merging the PC Party into his machine and becoming Canada’s most conservative Prime Minister in at least 50 years.

Both Britain and Canada’s Conservative Parties show that the road back to power might be a long one. However, they also show that there is a way back and that it does not involve abandoning our principles for the sake of winning.

Townhall's Adam Brickley contributed to this column.