During this time of reflection — civil war? — for the Republican Party, it makes sense to look abroad for models of how a right-of-center party might succeed in the 2020s. An obvious place is Britain. Conservatives are still in government there and, despite the coronavirus pandemic and an economic contraction unmatched since 1709, they are doing rather well. The Tories — as the Conservative Party is often known — currently lead the biggest opposition party, Labor, by about five points in polls, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recovered to where nearly as many approve of the job he is doing as disapprove.
What is the secret of the Conservatives’ success, however marginal it might be? There are several ingredients. First, the British government’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. This was, in many regards, a failure. The lockdown was draconian and widely panned. It was also largely unsuccessful. The U.K. has suffered more deaths per capita than any other major country, including Italy and Spain and about 300 per million of population more than the United States.
But the crisis in Britain also revealed how right-of-center parties can think about the strategic use of government. Public-private partnerships were crucial to providing the organizational flexibility, human capital, and significant financing required to develop COVID treatments and the path-breaking AstraZeneca Oxford vaccine. The Tories were not afraid to use conservative values of sacrifice and individual responsibility to mobilize the state in service of the national interest. Johnson evoked memories of the tremendous effort, driven by a resourceful and free citizenry, to win World War II. He was sensitive to personal freedom but argued that in this time of emergency the national good was paramount. People should wear a mask or get a vaccine in the same way military personnel put their lives on the line. “Let us go forward together,” Winston Churchill beseeched repeatedly as prime minister. Johnson, a biographer of the wartime leader, took note.
Next, the Conservatives learned from Brexit. Commentators have made many comparisons between the political movement to have Britain leave the European Union and Trump’s victorious 2016 presidential campaign. Both demonstrated an important role for populism in center-right parties’ policies and electoral strategies. The Conservatives won stunning victories in working-class districts of northern England in the 2019 election. They resembled Trump’s 2016 triumphs in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Johnson and Trump understand the appeal of traditional national values, for example, putting their country’s people first in government spending, security, trade, and immigration.
Trump, however, did not understand populism’s great appeal is one of unity. The philosophy certainly needs enemies and scapegoats; their presence is energizing. But these “others” are most useful if they are abstract or distant, not our friends and neighbors. Johnson skillfully used bureaucrats in Brussels, the pandemic, and identity politics as adversaries. Trump’s natural preference for personal politics drew his aim toward identifiable Americans, whether they be government workers or celebrities and politicians. The divisiveness made many who were sympathetic to his policies uncomfortable.
This leads to another difference between the GOP and the Conservatives under Johnson. The current British administration is diverse. The Chancellor (the equivalent of our Treasury Secretary) and Home Secretary (our Attorney General) are both of south Asian descent. There are African, Indian, and Pakistani immigrants or first-generation Britons in various high-profile offices within the government. They seek and receive attention. Republicans have talented leaders from minority groups; think South Carolinians Nikki Haley and Tim Scott. They are, however, rare and quiet. A more diverse party will be more successful and, as Johnson’s government demonstrates, need not compromise conservative values.
Then there is the contrasting styles of Johnson and Trump. Johnson often comes across as a bumbler, someone capable of saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time. But like Ronald Reagan, he is a happy warrior, an optimist. Trump is a doomsayer, his inaugural address, you will remember, told of “American carnage” not a “shining city on a hill.” Apocalyptical images motivate people, but I think they tire of them. Anger exhausts. At some stage, people want a leader who will promise them that things will get better.
The Tories will occupy a single PowerPoint slide in the presentations of the army of political consultants national Republicans will inevitably overpay during this period. So, in true management speak, we should ask: What’s the takeaway for them moving forward? Don’t nominate Trump in 2024 might be one way to put it, although that would be overly simplistic. There are elements of Trumpism the GOP should not throw out with the bathwater. But it needs a vision of the future built on principles, including intelligent but limited government, individual responsibility, unity, color-blindness, and optimism. The path is illuminated.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University.