Amidst the fall-out from David Cameron's European veto, whose logic I cannot compute (I have always considered myself far too nice to fully understand either statecraft or Tories), I've been struck by an analogy between American and British conservatism. For rightwing parties and conservative movements, Britain's membership of the European Union has a number of parallels with the US Supreme Court's abortion ruling in Roe v Wade. Just think...
In 1973, at the fag-end of the 1960s, the state takes a historic modernising, cosmopolitan, liberal decision, in keeping with the spirit of an age which is drawing to a close. The decision is supported by many modernising elites from across the political spectrum, but creates strong feelings amongst traditional conservatives, including those who had traditionally voted for the centre left party. This contributes to a conservative victory at the close of the 1970s, led by a conviction politician who spoke the language of traditional social values, winning working class support despite economic policies that later destroyed working class jobs. The rhetoric of family values and nation was turned against both left-liberals and establishment elites, both of whom were held guilty of having betrayed core national values, as manifest in that 1973 decision.
However, the conservative victors of the 1980s did very little to reverse the liberal legacies that they'd inherited, including the 1973 policy itself. They were able to blame unelected, rule-obsessed liberals, for the aspects of modern society that offended traditional values and angered the rightwing media, to great effect. The 1973 decision itself was not really a politically live one until the 1990s, when it became the cause celebre of an entirely new generation of conservatives. Until the 1990s, socialism had been the main preoccupation of conservative animosity, but this spectre swiftly disappeared after 1989. By the mid-1990s, a centrist government was finding that a new, angrier, unreasonable strain of conservatism was making governing almost impossible. The executive was in daily war with the legislative. And it was the historic 1973 ruling that got them angriest of all.
This new, less reasonable conservatism posed a serious problem to the rightwing party. It was both tempting to pander to it, but also dangerous, in view of its unpredictability and its slightly messianic commitment to a single moral issue, to the exclusion of economics or utilitarian policy analysis. The rightwing party wanted its energy, but also feared how its seething anger and obsession with matters of constitutional principle might alienate swing voters. What should they do?
There is a huge amount about the analogy that doesn't work. I don't know exactly how democratically popular abortion is in the US, but I suspect that it is much more popular than Britain's membership of Europe, which attracts very little public support. There is also a vast difference between a secular issue of national sovereignty and a metaphysical issue of 'life' (as it is defined by US conservatives). I doubt Britain's entry to the single market did much to further Thatcher's cause in 1979, whereas Roe v. Wade did much to encourage the 'Reagan Democrats'. Plus entry to Europe was carried out by an elected government, not by an unelected judiciary.
And yet the historic rhythm of each issue is similar, especially the way in which the 'angry white men' appeared twenty years after the crucial (liberal modernising) decision had been taken, and appeared hell-bent on subverting sensible government, without regard for public opinion. The removal of the socialist bogey-man led conservatives in search of a new enemy, which they found in the fallout from the 1960s. The new breed of Tories are just as hostile to their 'wet', pro-European Conservative forbears as The Tea Party is to the GOP establishment.
Today, I can see three reasons why a young, aspiring politician would want to join the Conservative Party. Firstly, because it offers them a comfortable rural existence, combined with access to London's toff circuit. Secondly, because they are ruthlessly opportunistic, and would happily have stood as Labour candidates if they'd been born 10 years earlier (this applies more to political advisors than to MPs). Thirdly, because of animosity to Europe, or at least some commitment to the British establishment that has recently become re-framed in anti-Europe, patriotic terms. Cameron and George Osborne betray elements of all three; but the point is that there is no longer a pool of Geoffrey Howe or Michael Heseltine types, for whom the Conservative Party offers opportunity for respectable and traditional public service. Ken Clarke is last man standing (would his equivalent be John McCain?).
Europe has become crucial to the identity of contemporary British conservatives, just as abortion is to American conservatives. This is not a rational or economic issue any longer, and David Cameron must have believed that his European veto would grant him the form of power over his party that Thatcher and Major never achieved. He appears to be banking on the notion (contradicted repeatedly by Tony Blair) that the adoration of his party would be an invaluable political asset.
But has he fully understood conservatism? Perhaps not. The genius of the US Republican Party over the past 20 years has been to stoke the flames of conservative anger, rather than to douse them with the policy changes they demand. Much of the Republican's political strategy has been neo-conservative, not conservative, that is, cynically and cleverly exploiting 'values' and religious belief, in the service of secular realpolitik - the lesson of Leo Strauss. Karl Rove, I'm guessing, would never have wanted to see Roe v Wade repealed (were that even possible), for that would have immediately dampened the ire of millions of angry, Republican voters. Tony Blair, also, recognised that if politics is fundamentally about 'friend-enemy' distinctions, that destroying enemies is a far smarter route to keeping friends on board, than simply giving them what they clamour for.
Cameron has opted for a far less strategic route, suggesting that he may be more 'con' than 'neo-con' - a naive position to hold, in a modern capitalist global society. His back-benchers will demand more concessions from him, leading eventually to a full withdrawal from Europe, whereupon the cause celebre that drew them from their rural idyls and their Mayfair hedge funds in the first place will be lost for good.