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November 21, 2006

American Tours: Jeremy Black reflects on the changing face of US politics and what it means for British conservatives

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black reflects on the changing face of US politics and what it means for British conservatives.

Research trips and lecture obligations have enabled me to make three visits to the USA over the last four months. These have enabled me not only to consider American politics but also their perspective on the outside world.

As far as the latter is concerned, there is scant grasp, even among intelligent observers, about the nuances of foreign politics, not least those of Britain, but the same is true of foreigners commenting on the USA. In every case, there is a tendency to see abroad in terms of the perspectives and issues of one's own country. Thus, to Americans, Blair is the key factor in British politics - and the other parties, including those within Labour, are ignored or misunderstood.

Within the USA the most striking feature is the demise of the neo-conservatives. This is not so much the case of the hostile views of the Democrats, but rather of the growing anger among the Republicans. Indeed, it is the decline of the neo-conservative position among the latter that is particularly notable as it reflects and opens up reconceptualisations of conservatism and Republican identity: the two overlap and are not co-terminous.

This has consequences for British conservatism and the Conservative Party, although it is necessary to be cautious in drawing overly-close parallels.

Over the last decade, many British conservative writers have enjoyed the handsome hospitality of American neo-conservatives and it is scarcely surprising that some have found it appropriate to echo their hosts' views.

At times, however, this has led to a failure to devote sufficient attention to contrasting nuances in conservatism, national interest and political position. This is most apparent in international relations, with British neo-conservatives unwilling to acknowledge sufficiently mistakes of conception as well as execution in policy.

Furthermore, there is a tendency to complain from an unrealistically purist position about the policies of David Cameron and his team. I can recall one active writer declaring, this September, to a meeting of leading British and American conservative writers that Cameron was "entirely wrong".

In the USA, many senior Republicans have broken free of the idea that they should feel defensive if they failed to adopt neo-conservative views. Cameron has done the same in Britain. On both sides of the Atlantic, this is not simply a matter of electoral calculation (which is not itself an unworthy goal) but also a reflection of an attempt to advance a conservatism that reflects particular continuities and distinctive practicalities. Intellectually, the challenge is to match this new direction.

One problem will be a level of neo-conservative sniping. This is serious, but the real problem is the dominance of left-leaning ideas and that challenge has to be faced. Hopefully the neo-conservatives will prefer to take a positive role in this struggle rather than sniping at new policies.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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