Melanie Phillips

31 January 2013

The crisis of conservatism on both sides of the pond

Published in: Melanie's blog

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The agony of the US Republicans, engulfed by an existential crisis since the second term victory of Barack Obama, reminds me so much of the UK Conservatives’ similar crisis after the accession of Tony Blair to power in 1997.

That victory ushered in a three-term Labour hegemony. The Tories, aghast at the inversion of the natural order by which they assumed they had a divine right to rule, looked in bewildered mortification upon the upstart Blair whom they found it impossible to dislodge -- and arrived at precisely the wrong conclusion about both conservatism and British society. It was a fundamental error that I believe the Conservative Party is still making – and if they aren’t careful, the US Republicans will fall into the same trap.

The root of the error was to misunderstand both why the Tories lost power in 1997 and the appeal of Tony Blair. They looked at Blair-- young, telegenic, hip, with his jeans and his guitar and his ‘hey man’ and his ‘I feel your pain’ -- and they were torn between thinking he was a cynical charlatan and alternatively that he won power because he was in tune with Britain’s shift towards a more caring, sharing, emoting, tolerant, liberal society.

Wrong on all counts. Blair won above all because the Tories had made themselves unelectable. The government of John Major, which took over after the reginacide of Margaret Thatcher, had become a national joke, an embarrassment, a synonym for sleaze, arrogance and supreme incompetence.  Moreover, a number of Tory MPs just looked ... well, totally weird. The whole lot of them were viewed as totally beneath contempt and wholly unfit for government.

Blair saw his opportunity – but having concluded about his own party that its left-wing positions had made it unelectable, he took a leaf out his friend Bill Clinton’s book and triangulated his message. While remaining committed under the radar to extreme, indeed revolutionary left-wing positions – the erosion of sovereignty by closer union with the EU, mass third world immigration, multiculturalism, gay rights -- he sent out the (misleading) message that he was instinctively on the side of Middle Britain and would put right what worried them most. This was above all intolerable levels of crime and disorder and poor education standards, which in turn stood proxy for a feeling that society was breaking down.

Utterly failing to understand any of this, the Conservative party promptly fell apart. Not for nothing is it called ‘the stupid party’. Concluding that Blair possessed some shaman-like property to bewitch the electorate, and themselves still viewing every issue through the prism of economics (aka making money), they failed completely to grasp that socialism had not been defeated but had simply morphed into a mind-bending culture war against the fundamental tenets of western civilisation. Failing accordingly to grasp that language itself had been hijacked – with words such as ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’, freedom’, ‘compassion’ and many such others having been turned into their polar opposite and with the term ‘right-wing’ having become a synonym for ‘enemy of humanity’, they made two disastrous strategic errors.

The first was to circle the wagons by making shrill statements about issues like immigration or the EU. But these Tories seemed to be the same old clapped-out, weird and sleazy bunch that had been thrown out; and their shrillness was no more than a retreat to their old comfort-zone which they had themselves managed to discredit, rather than a proper dissection of the true threat posed to ordinary people by their purported left-wing champions, not just in politics but throughout the politically correct cultural establishment.

The second error they made was to reverse themselves and conclude, under David Cameron, that the reason they lost three general elections to Labour was that the Tories were seen as ‘the nasty’ party – and that they therefore had to ‘decontaminate the brand’ by being seen as tolerant, compassionate, equality and freedom-loving as the left. So the Cameroons swore undying commitment to the National Health Service, ring-fenced international aid, created a minister for (ie against) climate change, mounted campaigns against bankers and promoted gay rights.

And when they failed to win the 2010 general election, forcing them into coalition with the extreme left Liberal Democrats, the Cameroons said the reason was they hadn’t been left-wing enough. The outcome is widespread contempt on both left and right for the Conservative party– which has also managed to put itself on the wrong side of the culture war. It is significant in this regard that, even while Americans despair over their future under their President’s leadership, Cameron reportedly swoons over Obama’s political skills.

The recent history of the US Republicans is a very similar series of misreadings and strategic errors. Outraged and bamboozled in equal measure by the mysteriously enduring popularity of Bill Clinton, the Republicans decided that they too had to triangulate. The result was George W Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’ –his now almost forgotten signature motif before he was engulfed by Iraq – which became synonymous with big government and huge rises in public expenditure which all but bankrupted the country.

Facing a ruthlessly partisan media class that was determined to bring Bush down over Iraq and then to install Barack Obama through a wholesale corruption of truth and journalism, the Republicans panicked by circling their own wagons. Ill-served by the inflammatory shrillness of talk radio and Fox News, they failed to stamp upon the crazies and weirdos emerging in the slipstream of the mainstream Tea Party movement and allowed them to define the Republican Party in the public mind. They thus gave the impression they were incapable of thinking other than on extreme tramlines. And in the insulated arrogance of those who believe they are born to rule, they thought it was inconceivable they could lose.

Most disastrously of all, they failed to understand the true contours of the culture war. As a result, they failed to confront properly what needed to be confronted, while simultaneously making enemies of those who should have been their allies. So for example, the Republicans no less than the Democrats bought heavily into the lethal myth of the ‘moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood – while managing, through their undiscriminating anti-immigration posture, to hack off those many Hispanic voters who should have been their natural constituency because these voters are in many respects on the right side of the culture war.

Now there are signs that some Republicans at least are beginning to understand this. While siren voices still insist that the only way back to power is to commit ideological suicide, others like Bobby Jindal and Newt Gingrich appear to realise that the party has to change in ways which don’t have to sell the civilisational pass in order to connect with decency and reality.

We have yet to see whether, issue by issue, they finally get this right. But if they need a good example, they certainly should not look across the pond.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Melanie Phillips
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