Whither Britain’s Conservatives?

Christopher Hitchens wonders, “Whatever happened to Britain’s Conservatives?” Specifically, the party long dominated by upper crust men steeped in noblesse oblige, a sense of military duty, and a desire to further the Empire has been replaced by a party of Al Gores (mid-2000 edition).

David Cameron has become the green challenger. His party’s events feature tie-less informality and earth tones and much grave talk about the need for “organic” attitudes. Confronted with things like youthful crime, which used to bring out the authoritarian beast in his party’s traditionalist ranks, Cameron speaks soothingly of root causes and compassion. He has publicly regretted the way in which his party was too late in seeing the virtues of Nelson Mandela. Most astonishingly of all, he is running against Tony Blair (or rather, against Blair’s heir-presumptive, Gordon Brown) as the candidate who wants to refashion Britain’s relationship with Washington in such a way as to take distance from the American alliance. The press conference at which Cameron announced this new initiative was held on Sept. 11 last, as if to emphasize that the American Embassy could no longer take Tory sympathy for granted. And Cameron has appointed William Hague, a former leader of the party, as his spokesman on foreign affairs. Hague takes every opportunity to criticize the Blair administration for its slavish endorsement of George Bush and to promise that a Conservative government cannot be counted upon for Republican military expeditions.

Twenty or even 10 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that the historic left-right divide in British politics could have taken this form. Old leftist friends of mine from the 1960s are now on Labor’s front bench and staunchly defend the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a part of the noble anti-fascist tradition, while dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries are warning against American hubris. I keep having to pinch myself.

Some of this is dictated by public opinion, which generally regards the Iraq operation as an exercise in hysterical egomania by a prime minister too eager to please his master in Washington. At the moment, British politics are still too dominated by the figure of Blair for opinion polls to be very useful as a guide, but there is a lot of intuitive evidence that Gordon Brown would have a very tough time fending off a challenge from the younger and fresher Cameron—especially a younger and fresher Cameron who chose to appear in so many of the borrowed plumes of environmentalism and multiculturalism.

If you look at it in this light, it can even seem like a plus that the latest leader of Margaret Thatcher’s no-nonsense party is now inescapably linked to certain dreamy voyages of the imagination. But I can’t easily adjust to the fact that for the first time in memory, there is nothing intimidating about the British Conservative Party. For all I know, its current leader might regard that as a compliment.

It’s probably a truism of party politics that the opposition party, especially one in that position for an extended period, comes to stand against whatever the in-party is for, even if that means abandoning long-held principles. One can’t very well get elected cheering on the policies of the sitting leader of the opposition, regardless if one would have enacted precisely the same policies in his place.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anthony C says:

    I think Hitchens caricatures a few of the Tory stances. First off, although the Tories are putting distance between themselves and the Bush administration, it’s being built to a very large degree on two planks – competence (or the apparent lack of it in the Bush administration) and specific issues in which Britain is perceived as getting a raw deal (heavily unequal agreements on prisoner extradition and perceived cover-ups of evidence by the Pentagon in investigations into Blue on Blue incidents during the Iraq War, for example). What they are not doing is shifting away from the Atlantic alliance broadly defined – indeed the Tory front bench is dominated by Atlanticists and is very heavily Eurosceptic.

    Second of all, I don’t think the Tories have embraced multiculturalism. Indeed they have taken quite a strong integrationist line (albeit couched in very mild language) and recently embraced a controversial (but entirely correct) report criticising the manner in which the government does business with the “Muslim community”.

    It seems to me that the main area in which a conservative might take issue with them (as indeed I do) is that they seem committed to embracing the NHS “as is” and to a system of comprehensive education. That and the Blair-lite suit and no tie PR guff. But in fairness, perhaps one shouldn’t be too churlish about that at a time when they appear to be screaming to an 11 point lead in the polls. Ideological purity had them flatlining on 30 per cent in the polls for years, even as the government was about as popular as a dose of the clap.

  2. Fairs fair. Blair stole a bunch of the Tory’s talking points to get elected.