Jonathan Freedland: What the GOP can learn from the UK





[Jonathan Freedland is an editorial page columnist for The Guardian of London.]

REPUBLICANS looking for a friendly shoulder to cry on in the coming months could do worse than look up their ideological cousins across the Atlantic. For the Conservative Party in Britain knows what it feels like to be wiped out in a watershed election by a charismatic opponent whose victory brings jubilant scenes on the streets and heady talk of a new dawn.

For the Tories, the cataclysm came 11 years ago when Tony Blair buried them in a landslide. Since then, they have suffered two more general election defeats, enduring their longest spell in the parliamentary wilderness since the mid-19th century.

What might panicked Republicans learn from the Tory experience? That apparently the first response to electoral disaster is denial. In the immediate aftermath of 1997, a few brave Tory souls dared venture that the party would have to undergo radical change, that it had to inch toward the center and demonstrate that it was not as out of touch as the critics alleged.

The party’s new leader, William Hague, duly tried to prove his credentials as a modern chap by wearing a baseball cap — a curious definition of modernity, admittedly, but let that stand as evidence of how passé the Tories circa 1997 seemed — and by attending the Notting Hill Carnival, a big event for black Londoners. It was “compassionate conservatism,” British-style.

But when the polls failed to budge, the brief flirtation with modernizing moderation ended. Under pressure from the Tory right in Parliament and the press, Mr. Hague adopted a “core vote strategy,” aimed chiefly at enthusing the Conservative base. He pressed the right’s favorite button, hostility to the European Union — the British equivalent of opposition to abortion — warning that Labor would abandon the pound in favor of the euro. The response was an electoral walloping nearly as brutal as the one the Tories had suffered four years earlier....


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