The Conservatives and the GOP: Crossed Paths

In the summer of 2016, I wrote a piece observing the growing parallels between the Republicans under Donald Trump and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. Both parties, I argued, were suffering from many of the same afflictions: institutional failure; growing tribalism at the expense of serious thinking; and leaders with a peculiar kind of charisma who were enabling extreme or outlandish opinions to reach the mainstream.

Today, the picture appears worse for the Republicans than for Labour. The Trump faction has consolidated its hold on the structures of the GOP, and disaffected Republican lawmakers have done little to organise themselves to challenge Trump on policy. Although diminished in influence since Corbyn’s success in the June election, the Parliamentary Labour Party is shaping alternative policy agendas of its own. On key issues such as Europe, the Shadow Cabinet and trade union movement are pushing the leadership towards a more pragmatic course.

Labour is still vulnerable to the same trends convulsing the GOP. The leadership’s allies are playing fast and loose with core elements of liberal democracy like the press, while calls to stamp out anti-Semitism continue to be met with whataboutery or worse in some quarters. Questions remain about Corbyn himself, and how he might act as Prime Minister. Would he use the bully pulpit to further undermine confidence in the media? Can he really be trusted to uphold pillars of the liberal international order, most critically NATO? What would it mean to have a senior aide in Downing Street who has postulated Russia as a counterweight to “western supremacism”?

But Labour is no longer the only force in British politics buffeted by disturbing waves from across the Atlantic. Since the EU referendum, the Conservative Party has in tone and substance sounded more and more like its American counterpart. The extent of this change has not yet been fully realised, but will have profound consequences.

In contrast to Labour, the shift within the Tory Party towards a GOP-style politics has been more ideological than structural. Instinctively close to Republican thinking since the days of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives are once again experimenting with many of the same ideas as the GOP. Under Theresa May the party has become increasingly belligerent towards legal immigration, hostile towards higher education and sour on multinational trade. It is becoming notably lukewarm about multilateral institutions and the benefits they bring.

The Conservatives have also begun to echo changing GOP attitudes to liberal democracy itself, albeit in subtler ways. Pro-Leave Conservative MPs have aimed strident rhetoric at the British civil service, implying them part of a Europhile deep state and calling for officials to be sacked if they do not sign up to the ideological goal of Brexit. Like Republican leaders in Congress, Tory ministers have played about with Parliamentary procedure, downgrading the status of Opposition motions to such a degree that even figures on the right of their own party have fretted about how a future Labour executive might blow past Parliament.

What explains this flirtation with authoritarian and anti-democratic ideas in Tory ranks? Part of the answer lies in moves at the base of its electorate that mirror changes seen in the GOP’s demographic makeup. The 2017 election resulted in a Conservative coalition defined less by class and more by age or values. The Tories, like the Republicans, find themselves looking at a new voter base that has culturally conservative attitudes and wants its leaders to realise them through policy, however toxic for the country as a whole.

Yet again as within the GOP, the decisions senior Conservatives make will play a role in sketching the future of their party. There is always an interplay at work between elite and grassroots. Those ministers currently talking up greater regulation of universities, indulging in colourful rhetoric on terrorism or making a latter-day conversion to the hardest of Brexits are sending powerful signals to voters whether they realise it or not. History will judge whether their choices were worthy of Britain’s oldest political party, and of the liberal democracy in which it has prospered for so long.

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