Fraser Nelson takes to his Daily Telegraph column today to extol the virtues of Mitt Romney, in a puff piece entitled “David Cameron need take no lessons from Barack Obama, but he might listen to Mitt Romney”. But by fundamentally misunderstanding today’s Republican Party, he fails to make a convincing case.
You might expect Nelson to perhaps talk about some of the reasons why David Cameron should pay heed to Mitt Romney rather than President Obama on his upcoming trip to the United States. But all we really get is this solitary paragraph:
“In the Republican primary contest, meanwhile, the candidates have been very precise about debt. American conservatism is now defined by plans to tackle it, and the candidates compete on which taxes they’d cut to kick-start the economy, increase employment and balance the books. Romney’s 59-point plan for growth is easily the most moderate, yet is still more radical and holistic than anything produced in Britain. He has ruled out tax rises, and pledged to cut state spending by 5 per cent on day one. Cameron, by contrast, is aiming for a 3.3 per cent cut over five years.”
Would that this were true.
American conservatism, defined by plans to tackle the debt? If there is one thing – and there are a lot at the moment – which distinguishes British and American conservatives, it is the fact that British conservatives (perhaps with the exception of the ultra-hardcore Eurosceptic fringe) live predominantly in the real world, while American conservatives have decamped en masse to cloud-cuckoo land, where huge swathes of the federal budget can be eliminated at a stroke without causing any undue suffering to those who have been coaxed and encouraged over the years to depend on various government programmes, and with no political repercussions.
Romney’s plan may well be more radical and holistic than anything produced in Britain, but that doesn’t really matter because nothing remotely resembling it is ever going to be implemented. The British Tories, on the other hand, are willing to risk alienating public opinion and their petulant Liberal Democrat coalition partners to actually implement a programme of needed budget cuts. So who should get the praise, the man who gives tough speeches about slashing trillions from the federal budget with no earthly chance of ever actually doing it, or the man who treads more carefully and holds together a precarious coalition to deliver more modest budget cuts that are actually attainable?
That’s not to say that the British conservatives are in the right with regard to the slower pace at which they have chosen to tackle budget deficits and spur economic growth while in government. Many people, myself included, are frustrated at the glacial pace at which much needed supply-side reforms are being implemented in the UK (often thwarted by EU regulations and/or the Liberal Democrats). A little more ambitious, far-reaching zeal would not be a bad thing at all, though how possible this is as long as the Liberal Democrats are partners in government remains in doubt. And so at first glance, once can understand why some British political pundits look at the fiery rhetoric emanating from the Republican primaries on the economy and find the British conservatives lacking. But to look closer, and to remember the different respective points that Britain and America occupy on the left-right political spectrum, is to realise firstly that the British conservatives have very little political scope to move further to the right, and secondly that the policy positions that the Conservative Party occupies do not differ greatly from the Democratic party in many cases.
And this is the crux of the matter. Even as the Republican Party in America continues to lurch further and further to the right and stake out ever more extreme positions on all manner of issues, the British Tories and their supporters in the British press as yet are unable to sever the psychological link which tells them that they should cheer the Republicans and boo the Democrats. This mindset may have worked in the past, when there was a greater degree of comity and moderation in American politics and the two parties were not so greatly divided, but it does not work today.
It seems to be of entirely no matter to the Republican cheerleaders in the British press that the majority of Democratic party policies are equivalent to or to the right of many current Tory principles (even the long-cherished and now-abandoned public health insurance option is significantly to the right of having a single-payer National Health Service), or that many members of the new Republican tea party congressional intake would (if they actually possessed a working knowledge of the world beyond their own borders) look at Britain with disdain, regarding us as some type of socialist dystopia.
Sadly, the time has come for the British Tories and their allies to acknowledge that they no longer have a serious, thinking partner on the other side of the Atlantic. This is probably just a temporary blip, as all such overcorrections to the right or the left tend to be countered by a return to more moderate positions (as will either happen in 2012 when Obama beats Romney/Santorum, or in 2016 when Obama’s heir runs against a chastened GOP desperate to win back the votes of the women and minorities that it is currently shedding so carelessly). But for the time being, British conservatives have nothing to gain by cosying up to the Republican Party of John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
The Conservative Party’s American role models may have embraced tea as their emblem, but their economic policy prescriptions are not based in reality, and are going a long way toward making the Republicans look callous, backward and foolish. There is no need for the Tories to damage their still-fragile brand by standing next to them, wearing a T-shirt that proclaims “I’m with Stupid”.