Donal Blaney: Lessons for Britain from the American conservative movement
Taken from Donal's speech at the ConservativeHome Awards
Why is it that at the same time our conservative cousins have been so successful across the wider Anglosphere – most notably in the United States, Australia & Canada – the British Conservative Party has languished in the polls and lost three successive general elections.
Even when the Republicans lose control of the House and Senate, the Democrats can only seize power by running conservative candidates who back gun ownership, oppose abortion and extol the virtues of lower taxes.
Rather than focusing on the merits or otherwise of tax cuts, A-Lists, modernization and so on, I want to focus in these remarks on the lessons for British conservatives to learn particularly from the American Conservative Movement.
What is the American Conservative Movement? It is more than just the Republican Party. It comprises:
- think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute;
- generic pressure groups such as the Club for Growth, and members of the broader Christian Coalition;
- issue-based pressure groups such as the National Rifle Association and Americans for Tax Reform;
- activist training organizations such as the Leadership Institute and GOPAC;
- activist mobilization groups such as RightMarch.com;
- campaign service providers such as direct mail consultants, campaign management consultants, opposition research consultants and so on;
- conservative academics, lecturers and professors;
- bloggers and websites, perhaps personified by the Drudge Report;
- mainstream print and broadcast journalists such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter;
- publications such as Human Events and National Review;
- Fox News; and
- monitoring organizations such as Accuracy in Academia and Accuracy in Media.
Thinking through those various categories – components of a conservative revolution that saw Reagan’s victories in 1980 and 1984, the capture of Congress in 1994 and President Bush’s narrow victories in 2000 and 2004 – it is plain to see that we have little by way of comparison - yet.
Our opponents on the left, of course, are well-resourced and better organized than those of us on the right.
Yet rather than relying on the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats to advance their agenda, they pursue their self-styled progressive agenda in the media and among voters and opinion formers with discipline, vigour and an unrelenting resolve.
That was no different to late-1960s/early 1970s America. The American Conservative Movement lay supposedly in ruins after the crushing defeat suffered by Barry Goldwater in 1964.
And yet within a dozen years, the conservative Ronald Reagan came within a whisker of capturing the Republican Party’s nomination for President. How did this happen?
The key to the success of the American Conservative Movement – and despite last week’s results in the Congressional elections, the American Conservative Movement is still to be regarded as an ongoing success and a model to be followed – is a fusion between:
- organizational entrepreneurs,
- reliable and substantial income streams from benefactors and, crucially, individuals,
- a non-dictatorial central party machine that truly tolerates debate and divergence of views,
- a movement whose members co-operate with each other willingly and where petty jealousies are less prevalent than is the case in Britain, and
- the primacy of a principled core philosophy that underpins policy development, campaigning and – ultimately – legislative action.
So what are the specific lessons for British conservatives to learn from our American cousins?
- The successes of centre-right parties are not just a product of the Party machine – they rely on a thriving conservative movement that is independent of the party machine but broadly supportive of the Party itself;
- The arrogation of power to the centre is not desirable as it breeds suspicion and demotivates life-long activists: given that for over 100 years the Conservative Party was nothing more than a collection of 600 or so independent conservative associations, this should not be too hard a concept to be grasped;
- There are a host of areas where the Conservative Party will not – and indeed cannot – act. For example in the area of youth campaigning, the Party’s youth wing, Conservative Future, cannot in today’s media age be critical of the Party itself in the way that its predecessors, such as the FCS, could.
- Members of the broader conservative coalition should speak to floating voters who share their outlook – there is little point in having a libertarian canvass a traditionalist Christian and yet both strands of “conservatism” need to be mobilized to ensure victory at the polls;
- Donors, large and small, can get more bang for their buck by supporting groups within the broader conservative movement rather than by simply donating to the Party machine itself;
- On policy, the victories of our cousins in the US, Canada and Australia were built upon the foundations of a core small-state philosophy, standing up for the little guy who is continually being beaten on the head by a state and a bureaucracy that is controlled by the so-called progressive left and which is hell bent on advancing a politically correct agenda wholly at variance to the values and beliefs of most voters.
Britain mastered the concept of a think-tankocracy in the 1970s when the Centre for Policy Studies, IEA and Adam Smith Institute undertook the philosophical re-education of the political classes. In recent years new think-tanks, such as Reform, have developed.
We have also seen issue-based groups such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Migration Watch and the Globalization Institute come to the fore, along with powerful and respected blogs such as ConservativeHome.com, Iain Dale’s Diary and the legendary Guido Fawkes.
The birth of 18 Doughty Street gives conservative views a presence in the broadcast media while other doughty organizations continue to bang the conservative drum in the print media, foremost among which are the Telegraph, Mail and Spectator.
And yet so much more needs to be done until we can sit back and enjoy power again.
In commending the model of the American Conservative Movement as the basis for the recovery of the broader British Conservative Movement – and while recognizing the important differences between British and American conservatives and voters – I would like to finish by commending a list of 49 Laws of the Public Policy Process produced by Morton Blackwell, the President of the Leadership Institute – and the man who trained Karl Rove.
If you take nothing else from these remarks and learn no other lesson from across the Pond, please take a time to read these 49 gems. They are rules and guidance that you will find invaluable and, if adhered to, I have little doubt that they will help bring you and the broader conservative movement the successes we all so desperately hope and pray for.
I close with words of wisdom from Ronald Reagan – this is the sign he had on his desk in the Oval Office:
“There’s no limit to what can be achieved if you don’t care who takes the credit”.