American and British conservatives are frozen in failure


In recent years, the United States and Great Britain have followed strikingly similar political trajectories. Against all odds, populist uprisings captured both countries’ conservative parties, secured power and embarked on projects of national transformation. This effort went poorly (to put it generously), and eventually support for the rebellions waned.

Recently, voters have asked for a rethink. In both countries, this is more difficult than you think.

In 2016, Americans stunned the world – and in many ways themselves – by electing Donald Trump as president. It was a few months after Britons somehow voted to leave the EU. Then, just as Trump came to power on his promise to ‘Make America Great Again’, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister largely by promising to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Neither plan has worked to the voters’ satisfaction.

In 2020, after four years of making America great by putting people at each other’s throats, Trump lost to Joe Biden (not the most formidable opponent). In the recent midterm elections, Trump’s interventions paralyzed the Republican Party. Britain, meanwhile, has gone from one calamity (Johnson) to the next (Liz Truss). The economy is now setting records for poor performance and support for the Tories’ landmark project has collapsed.

Nevertheless, conservatives in both countries find the revolutions of 2016 difficult to reverse. Trump is now such a liability that Democrats must be longing to see him nominated in 2024. Republicans, though familiar with the same polling data, are not certain to drop him. Similarly, Britain’s Tories know that Brexit has failed and they need to mitigate the damage. But they can’t bear to say it. Everything goes to plan, they assert. New opportunities abound and “Global Britain” is on the way to success.

The problem isn’t just that it’s hard to own your mistakes. When a political party sees that it needs a new direction, a change of leadership is often enough. There is usually no need for explicit apologies. And changes in direction don’t always have to be dramatic – or material, for that matter.

There is no need for Republicans to renounce their platform, for example, because they do not currently have one. Voters mainly just want to move on from Trump’s exhausting provocations, ignorance, vanity and impropriety.

The Tories are in a tougher spot. Unfortunately they have policies and if Britain’s prospects are to improve these must change. But the Brexit mistake cannot be undone. Even in the unlikely event that the UK asked to rejoin the EU, the Union will not for the foreseeable future want it back. For now, the UK’s only way out is maximum economic integration as a non-member – through arrangements such as those the EU has given to Switzerland, Norway and other neighbours. This means acting as a supplicant. The Tories wouldn’t be able to hide it and the EU is unlikely to help them.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who took office in October, is at least adjusting the tone – less pompous, more practical. Relations have warmed slightly and the prospects for a deal on Johnson’s troublesome Northern Ireland protocol appear to be improving.

But a much bolder course change is needed, and there is no sign of it. The Tories still haven’t ditched the idea of ​​allowing all of Britain’s EU-derived laws to lapse at the end of this year, unless they have been reviewed and adjusted in the meantime. British companies are furious at the added uncertainty this threat – which has no apparent purpose – will bring to their business. But the policy has not yet changed.

In both the US and the UK, conservatives seem frozen in these losing and destructive attitudes. And the reasons are the same: Both parties are still at the mercy of extremists.

Angry Trumpists and Brexit believers have lost not only their argument but also much of the electoral support they used to command. Still, they don’t go away. Both parties lack leaders with the courage and wit to defeat the extremists, whose energy shows no sign of abating. Last week’s failure to elect a new Republican speaker of the House of Representatives illustrates the extent of the problem. Trump, if you can believe it, called for compromise; his rebellious followers were not impressed.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, soon to be president of the University of Florida, gave his farewell speech last week. The most important divide in America, he said, is not about politics, or red versus blue: “It’s pluralistic versus political fervor.” This is true, and not just for the United States. Zeals have energy, and energy drives politics. The results speak for themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering economics. Previously, he was deputy editor of The Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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