Commentary Magazine

What the Tories Have to Teach Us

Britain’s Conservatives are poised to return to power after a dozen years in the wilderness, even as America’s conservatives have the look of a movement whose desert wanderings have only just begun.

This is an amazing reversal of fortune. Over the past third of a century, British Conservatives have played poor relation to their trans–Atlantic counterparts. Even when they held office, as they did for an impressive stretch from 1979 to 1997, British Conservatives imported policies, slogans, and political technology from across the Atlantic.

Margaret Thatcher adopted Lady Liberty’s torch of freedom as a party symbol. Did Richard Nixon win votes in “Middle America”? John Major would seek them in “Middle England.” George W. Bush invoked “compassionate conservatism,” and so then did Iain Duncan Smith.

The influence was felt even more in the technical arts of politics: micro-polling, affinity marketing, direct mail, advertising. Young British politicos interned at the Republican National Committee, read American political books and memoirs, mastered the rules of the Iowa caucuses, parsed the factions of the American conservative movement, and obsessively watched The West Wing. What young Republican ever bothered with the rules of the House of Commons, or read the deliciously scandalous diaries of the Tory pol Alan Clark, or watched Yes, Minister?

Now the terms of trade may be reversed. If the British Conservatives win the United Kingdom election expected in 2010 and govern successfully, the former teachers may discover they have something to learn from their former pupils. But what is it exactly that the former pupils have to impart?


The turning point for Britain’s Conservative party may have been a single slide in a PowerPoint presentation delivered at the party conference after the 2005 election defeat. Party chairman Francis Maude showed attendees the results of an opinion survey on immigration. When the Conservative position on immigration was described to a sample group, almost two-thirds approved. But when that same position was presented to a new sample group as the position of the Conservative party, support dropped by half. Perfectly good policy ideas were fatally tainted by association with a despised political organization. So British Conservatives set out to “detoxify” themselves—to put a more appealing face on their ideas and message.

They chose a new, young party leader, David Cameron, and presented him in different kinds of settings: touring a shrinking glacier and patrolling with cops in the north of England. They changed their party symbol from the blue torch of liberty to a green tree. Some party positions they reversed: now endorsing same-sex marriage, for example. On others they shifted emphasis or tone: a once full-throated enthusiasm for the Iraq war softened into grudging acceptance.

Other positions still continued unchanged but were dropped down the priority chart: skepticism about Britain’s economic integration into the European Union, immigration restriction, tax reduction.

As one architect of the detoxification put it to me: “What you talk about matters perhaps as much as what you say.” So they talked about education and public safety, about the environment and the time pressures on working parents. Then when the economic crisis hit in 2008, and they shifted to talk of debt and deficits, taxes and spending, they were credited with an authentic and necessary response to an immediate problem rather than being suspected of exploiting other people’s sufferings to impose a preconceived ideological program. The result: a party that very suddenly leads in all regions of Britain and in all social classes. Accordingly, there perhaps is the first lesson American conservatives can learn from Britain: While upholding your principles, align your priorities with the priorities of the country at large.

People who care intensely about politics often do not care about the same things as those people who care less intensely about politics. This enthusiasm gap opens a trap for a political movement.

The politically committed rummage through polls and see professed support for their position. They seize on these numbers as an opportunity to mobilize the public. And more often than not, they end up looking odd, obsessive, marginal.

This trap is always easy to perceive when it bites opponents. Conservatives understand why it was foolish for President Obama to commit to a “public option” in health care just because some poll appeared to show public support for it. If you ask a voter who has never considered the issue before in his life whether a “public option” to compete with private health insurance sounds like a good idea, he might well answer yes before immediately and utterly forgetting both question and answer. That’s not the level of support on which a politician should bet his party or his presidency.

It’s harder to notice the shakiness of public support when it appears to confirm one’s own desires or prejudices: Euro-skepticism in Britain, pro-life advocacy in America. But the problem, and danger, is the same. Politicians who substitute their own priorities for voter priorities leave voters wondering: Whom do these guys really work for?

In one important case, Conservatives in Britain did execute a true ideological shift. Britain is burdened with the most statist health system in Europe. Hospitals are owned by the government, doctors and nurses work for the government, budgets are set by the government, programs and prescriptions are approved or disapproved by the government. British Conservatives have disliked this system of state control ever since it was imposed by the Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee after World War II. Yet for all their disdain, they never actually did much about it in all their long years in power. Even Margaret Thatcher flinched from an early attempt to impose an internal market within the National Health Service, declaring that “the NHS is safe in Conservative hands.” Her most ideological lieutenant, Norman Tebbitt, grimly quipped that the NHS was the closest thing Britain had to a national religion.

Today’s British Conservatives have made a virtue out of necessity. They have delivered elaborate panegyrics to the NHS, pledged faith and fealty to the national religion, attacked Labour for tampering with the NHS, even declared themselves “the party of the NHS.”

If the polls are right, the British public has been convinced. When asked in an August Independent/ComRes poll whether they agreed that “the NHS would be safer under Labour than the Conservatives,” only 39 percent agreed and 47 percent disagreed. Labour’s most decisive advantage had been snatched away—and the way was fully cleared for a Conservative return to government.

American conservatives will look at all this and be confirmed in their determination to avoid at all costs state control of medical provision: once it comes, it is very difficult to reform, and every health problem suffered by any patient anywhere in the country becomes the fault and responsibility of the political authorities.

All true. But there’s another lesson embedded in this experience, the second for American conservatives: Volunteer to do what you will be forced by political necessity to do anyway.


American conservatism talks a much more ideological game than it plays. Conservative politicians vow radical cuts in government spending but make no attempt to enact them. They passionately deny that health care is a right, yet leave in place the laws that require hospitals to treat all comers regardless of ability to pay. Strong talk can succeed in mobilizing and exciting a movement’s base. It also frightens and repels new adherents. Sometimes you need to mobilize. Sometimes, as when recovering from a debacle, you need to reach out.

British Conservatives had been working on detoxification for some time, but their efforts only began to yield success after they selected their new leader, David Cameron, in December 2005.

Cameron’s predecessors could all tell the same life story: either up from comparatively humble origins by hard work and perseverance (Edward Heath, Thatcher, Major, William Hague, and Michael Howard) or service and sacrifice to country (Iain Duncan Smith, a career military man).

These identities powerfully appealed to aspirational voters who had shared a similar social rise, and under them Conservatives held power for 22 of the 32 years from 1965 to 1997. But the Britain of the 2000s is a very different country from the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s: wealthier, better educated, more diverse, less married, governed by fewer social certainties. A generation ago, women were more likely to vote Conservative than men; now women are much less likely to do so.

Cameron—a direct descendant of King William IV and a man of inherited wealth who moved easily into a marketing job —might seem an unlikely candidate for such a country. But with his easy manner, his classless accent, his good (but not too good) looks, and his thoroughly modern family life, he has reversed the long Conservative decline among women. Cameron has not erased the gender gap—men are still 10 points more likely to prefer the Conservatives than are women—but he has pulled female support for the Conservatives back into majority territory, with 53 percent. It did not hurt that he invited cameras into his house to watch his interaction with his wife and children, or that he publicly grieved for the death of his disabled eldest child, a 7-year-old boy stricken with cerebral palsy. Cameron is the man every single mother in Britain would like to meet.

So here is lesson three for American conservatives: The leader you want is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, not the voters you already have.


American conservatism is in trouble for many reasons, but the most direct and immediate is the swing away from conservatism by educated and professional voters, once the backbone of the Republican party, and especially by educated and professional women. American conservatives have become very skilled at speaking to the swing voters of a generation ago: northern white ethnic Catholics and southern white Protestants, the famous “Reagan Democrats.” Conservative Democrats today make up only about 6 percent of the American electorate. By contrast, college-educated white women make up more than 15 percent of the electorate. It is foolhardy to choose leaders who woo the first group if they repel the latter.


The lessons I’m describing here were not readily learned by British conservatives nor were they happily accepted. It took three thumping defeats to pound the lesson home.

Some might argue that there was never any need to learn these lessons, that the economic crisis would in itself have returned the Tories to power, so why compromise? But that hypothetical overlooks recent history in both Britain and the United States. Britain was hit in 1992 by a financial crisis very nearly as severe as 2008. Housing values collapsed and British mortgage holders suffered terribly. By all odds, the opposition party should have prevailed in the parliamentary election that had to be held that year. But Labour in 1992 still presented itself as a socialist party, radically unacceptable to middle-class Britain. Despite the crisis and the ensuing recession, John Major’s Conservatives defeated Neil Kinnock’s Labour and won an unprecedented fourth consecutive majority government.

In the United States as well, an unacceptable alternative has often re-elected a potentially defeat-bound incumbent party. George W. Bush was vulnerable in 2004. As weak a candidate as John Kerry was, he nonetheless managed to hold Bush to the narrowest margin of victory of any re-elected president in the country’s history. What if the Democrats had nominated the more centrist Richard Gephardt instead?

If Gephardt had won his home state of Missouri, he’d have gained 11 electoral votes over Kerry. If Gephardt had also won neighboring Iowa (where Bush beat Kerry by a margin of 0.73 percent of the popular vote), he’d have won the presidency.

As unpopular as British Labour has become—as unpopular as Barack Obama may become—if conservatives present their own version of Neil Kinnock or John Kerry as the alternative to an unpopular status quo, they will be rejected as decisively as were those candidates.


The cycles of politics do not turn of themselves. Cycles turn because people turn them—because they correct past mistakes and prepare for future opportunities. So here’s a fourth lesson for American conservatives from their British counterparts: It is never too early to start learning.

About the Author

David Frum is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for National Review Online.

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