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Wednesday, November 03, 2004


No values please, we're British

At the time of writing, a Kerry victory in the presidential election remains a mathematical possibility but a political improbability. In the unlikely event Kerry has won, the Republicans will nevertheless have strengthened their grip on the Congress (latest results here).

Either way, many Conservatives in Britain will no doubt be looking at the US results to see whether they can learn how to defeat New Labour by replicating the Republicans' strategy. The key question is how the Republicans have managed to persuade working class voters to support economic policies, such as tax cuts for the rich, that are not in their self-interest.

This question is examined by
Nicholas D. Kristof in today's New York Times, and in the recent book What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank.

The basic answer is that the Republicans have created a series of moral issues to take people's minds off the economy. This 'value'-based agenda features religion, guns, abortion and gay rights.

Could it work for the Tories in Britain? Let's look at each item on the Republican menu.

Religion is a non-starter. In the US, one-third of the population consider themselves evangelical and more people believe in the creationist myth than in evolution. In Britain, just 5% of the population attends church regularly.

Guns? Most British people have never owned one and tough legal restrictions enjoy wide popular support. After the Dunblane massacre in 1996, overwhelming public pressure forced a Tory government to restrict gun ownership still further.

Abortion? During the 1980s, attempts by Catholic backbench MPs to reintroduce restrictions all floundered. Advances in medical science, which enable younger premature babies to survive, may lead to some legal changes but, on the whole, the issue is regarded as settled.

Gay rights? For the baby boomers and subsequent generations, it's no longer much of an issue. The Tories learned the hard way that there is little electoral mileage in opposing sexual liberation. John Major's government in the 1990s launched a 'Back to Basics' crusade, only for the strategy to backfire as the press had a field day, exposing the peccadilloes of one Tory MP after another.

America is a foreign country. The Republicans have had the good fortune to be able to work with the cultural grain, but the same evangelical culture does not exist in Britain (apart, perhaps, from parts of Northern Ireland - but that's another story).

While reactionary 'values' are an asset to the US Republicans, they are a liability to the British Tories. Disapproval of liberal social values still goes down well with the Tories' elderly suburban and rural core voters, but it repels just about everyone else. So if the Tories decided to copy the Republicans, they would reinforce an existing trend, where they appeal to an ageing and declining minority, but lose support among younger and more educated voters.

The Tories have never done well whenever they have tried to poke around in other people's bedrooms (both literally and metaphorically). They traditionally relied for their political success on a reputation for economic stewardship, but they lost that on
Black Wednesday. And since everyone now believes in capitalism, the Tories no longer have anything distinctive to say.

It makes you wonder what the Tories are for.

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