Peter Cuthbertson responds to Simon Burns MP's recent suggestion that UK Conservatives should support Hillary Clinton.
For reasons good and bad, many conservatives are unhappy with the record of the Bush administration. Chaos in Iraq, increasing government spending and – following victories in 2000, 2002 and 2004 – a major electoral defeat in 2006 all contribute to a sense of disappointment as the current administration approaches its final year. However, it would be entirely mistaken for British Conservatives to do as Simon Burns suggests and welcome the resurgence of a party that has produced the viciousness of Howard Dean, the hypocrisy of Al Gore and the economic policies of John Edwards.
The Democratic Party has also produced substantial historical figures - among them the great cold warrior Harry Truman and the supply-side tax cutter John F. Kennedy. But their field of candidates for the presidency in 2008 lacks the principles and judgement that distinguished such predecessors. All propose policies that would harm British interests.
First, economic. For the second successive election, Democrats running for president do so attacking the free trade that brings America, Britain and all other trading partners greater prosperity. In 2004, John Kerry grotesquely compared employers who outsource labour to the traitor Benedict Arnold. In the run-up to 2008, the three frontrunners for the Democratic nomination again compete to reject free trade most fiercely.
John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have all indicated their scepticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the latter’s husband. For Edwards, “agreements like NAFTA … have cost jobs and devastated towns and communities”. On his campaign web site, Barack Obama boasts that he “voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement and has said that NAFTA should be renegotiated”. Hillary Clinton wants “a little timeout” – a moratorium on any expansion of free trade. This is not mere campaign rhetoric. Obama and Clinton were both in the Senate in 2005 when the Central American Free Trade Agreement narrowly passed, and like the vast majority of Democrats in both Houses of Congress they each voted against. While the top-tier Republican candidates – Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain - express no such sentiments and stand by promising records on free trade, the Democratic Party is equally united in embracing a move in the opposite direction. Much to the chagrin of many Europhiles, the United States remains Britain’s largest export market and the top destination for overseas investment. When protectionism rears its ugly head in her number one trading partner, Britain cannot afford idly to support the protectionist side.
Second, in foreign and defence policy, the difference in how each party’s candidates views Britain is best expressed by the Margaret Thatcher Center’s Nile Gardiner, on their conspicuous visits to London to pay tribute to the great icon of Anglo-American conservatism:
“Giuliani, Romney and Thompson, to their great credit, understand the value of the Anglo-American special relationship and see Thatcher as the embodiment of that,” Gardiner says. “In contrast, Clinton and Obama never talk about Britain — for the Democrats, it’s all about winning popularity in ‘Europe’ (i.e., with the EU, France and Germany). Conservatives understand that Britain is and will remain Washington’s most important ally.”
That difference in priorities also shows itself in the parties’ attitudes towards European integration. By contrast with the continental rhetoric of Democrats, the Bush Administration has shown signs of resisting the pro-Brussels establishment view in Washington, the behaviour of Paris and Berlin over Iraq has made the EU an object of hostility rather than indifference for the conservative grassroots, and the Giuliani campaign has on board the robustly eurosceptic Gardiner to advise on European issues. For British eurosceptics, whether America opts for the Republicans or the Democrats in 2008 may determine whether they see the rejection or revival of the infuriating phenomenon of being told that Washington backs European integration and therefore saying no to Brussels means rejecting Europe and America.
British interests aside, there could still be a case for British Tories welcoming a Democratic victory if this produced a government whose policies they found more ideologically compatible. Here one must acknowledge the old pub bore cliche that American politics is, but of course, very far to the right of anything to be found in Britain (and so the left-of-centre party in the US actually most closely resembles the right-of-centre party in Britain). This superficial, GCSE-level political analysis can look extremely convincing to anyone who gets most of their international news from the BBC and their documentaries on American politics from Michael Moore. But under closer scrutiny it soon falls apart. American conservatives would be very surprised to hear they live in a right-wing paradise, and British people ought to be credited with being just as capable of common sense conservatism.
As indicated above on trade protectionism, the Democrats are on some issues to the left of anything considered acceptable by mainstream British political parties. While political eccentrics such as Tony Benn and Alan Clark have advocated protectionism, it has long been strictly a doctrine for these fringes. When the Conservatives (in 1906) and Labour (in 1983) did propose protectionism in a serious way, they faced their worst results of the twentieth century.
On immigration, the notion of an amnesty for those who break the law to enter Britain is now a tool for publicity-hungry Liberal Democrats who want to be leader. While such liberal immigration policies are still commonly advocated in the media, they are conspicuously absent from the manifestos of either main party, both well aware of how right-wing public opinion is on the issue. This year, the man Simon Burns describes as “the most rightwing Republican president since Herbert Hoover” was finally defeated in his efforts to grant twelve million illegal immigrants an amnesty of this sort. Ronald Reagan, presumably the second most rightwing Republican president since Herbert Hoover, did actually grant such an amnesty in 1986.
On ‘positive’ discrimination and other forms of racial preferences, institutions across the United States act in a way that would be illegal in most of the developed world to exclude better-qualified candidates for jobs and university places because of their ethnicity – or lack thereof.
On abortion, America’s famously strong pro-life movement is matched by extremely lax abortion laws by British or European standards, until recently allowing the baby to be legally killed even during the birth - and still allowing abortion right up to birth.
The point is not that America is a left-liberal paradise, either – but that it is absurd to treat the country as fitting neatly on an identical spectrum to Britain, either left or right. A cursory glance at the platform of the Democratic Party puts to bed any notion that in British terms they are a right-of-centre party.
On the compensation culture and ambulance-chasing lawyers, America notoriously leads the world, with a tort system that burdens businesses, taxpayers and especially doctors, increasing medical and other insurance costs. Why? Because trial lawyers are such a tremendous source of income and support to the Democratic Party, which returns the favour by vigorously opposing common sense tort reforms.
As with their financial backers in the legal profession, similar points can be made about the Democrats and trade unions, with scrapping the secret ballot for union elections a top priority for Democrats since taking over Congress.
On the size and scope of government, America has a major advantage over most of Europe. But this is an advantage compromised by the Democrats’ ostrich-like refusal to countenance reform of America’s social security and medicare programmes to reduce their costs in preparation for when baby-boomers retire, and the associated demographics. Without these reforms, American tax rates will have to rise to French levels to fund these entitlements.
Simon Burns writes of “the budget surplus of Bill Clinton”, but of course America has a separation of powers. It was only the obstruction of a Republican Congress that prevented President Clinton from spending the increased tax revenue as the economy boomed in the late 1990s. Like the welfare reform act that passed while he was president, this budget surplus happened mostly in spite, not because, of Bill Clinton and his party. Conservatives would struggle to find inspiration from the modern Democratic Party.
Where the cliché-ridden pub bore may be on stronger ground is in analysing the conservative movements on either side of the Atlantic. Although the American left is not conservative by American or British standards, the wider conservative movement is immensely stronger in the United States than in the United Kingdom. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge recount so well, the gradual growth of this movement to a massive force of many millions was disconcerting at the time to many east coast establishment Republicans – but few would now deny this conservative movement is a major part of the reason the Republicans have won seven of the last ten presidential elections.
If Britain is looking to America for inspiration, it should look neither to the Democrats nor to the Republicans – as Simon Burns rightly notes, a Conservative government must always be willing to work closely with American administrations of either stripe. Far-sighted political strategists would instead be wiser seeking inspiration from the conservative movement that over decades turned the principles of a few into a mass popular movement that so often sets and leads the political agenda.