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No Magic Bullets

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No Magic Bullets

Britain’s Tories must adapt to a changing country. December 26, 2014

At the end of The American President, President Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, makes a decision. He’s not going to be held back any longer by the hedging and compromise and surrender to big corporations that politicians typically engage in. He will win the hearts of the American people and the heart of Annette Bening. He will be bold. So he calls a press conference and announces the “most aggressive” new regulations yet on climate emissions. His advisors swoon, the press is stunned into silence, and Annette is his. My main thought, however, was this: Kevin Kline will be furious.

You see, it hadn’t been long since I watched Kevin Kline play President Mitchell in Dave. And at the end of that movie, he makes a decision. He won’t be held back any longer by compromise and hedging. He will win the hearts of the American people and the heart of Sigourney Weaver. So he calls a press conference and announces that he plans to create a job for every American and also to cut the budget deficit, neither of which appears to have occurred to anyone before. His advisors swoon (except for the evil one, whom he has to fire) and so on and so forth.

Yet there I was, watching Michael Douglas undermine Dave’s good work with his well-meaning new regulations, which are supposed to help the environment but will make it more expensive to employ people and will increase the deficit.

That’s the problem with politics: ideas pull in different directions. That is exactly the problem right now for Britain’s Conservative Party. The party is doing worse among ethnic minorities than Republican Mitt Romney did in his 2012 presidential bid. In 2010, the Labour Party scored 68 percent of the ethnic vote; the Conservatives won just 16 percent. The Tories also lag among young people, who tend to be much more socially liberal than traditional Tory voters. Yet at the same time, one consequence of globalization has been to widen the gulf between successful middle-class and middle-aged voters and a class of dislocated, pessimistic, older white males. These voters are angry and distrustful, and they’re turning to a new political force, the U.K. Independence Party, to express their dismay, particularly about immigration. The policies and attitudes that attract the young and optimistic push these voters even further away.

So what do you do? For starters, you have to be clear-sighted. You cannot, as a political party, ignore the way that the country is changing if you wish to survive. At the moment, for instance, 88 percent of the population is white. Yet only 76 percent of people under the age of five are white. Just 25 percent of white people are under the age of 20, while 53 percent of mixed-race people are under that age. At the same time, the difference in social attitudes between age groups is stark. Eighty percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 supported gay marriage, legalized by David Cameron’s government. Only 44 percent of those over the age of 65 backed it.

It is electoral suicide to ignore these numbers. The real problem for the Conservative Party, many suggest, is not to get back voters who turned to Tony Blair in 1997, but to win back about 3 million missing Conservatives, many of whom stopped voting (though about one-third have died). It’s tempting to pitch appeals to these mostly older voters, but that’s a short-term strategy at best. To have a future, the Conservatives will have to reckon with the young—and not just by waiting for them to get older and more socially conservative. That may not happen, and, in any case, as today’s young get older, they won’t become any less ethnic. They also won’t forget how the party behaves today. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Conservatives voted, mainly for technical reasons, against the establishment of the National Health Service. The party is still paying the political price.

Ignoring how the country is changing is not only politically impractical; it is also against the nature of conservatism, at least in the Burkean sense. Conservatives reflect the basic identity of a country and protect it. They also evolve with it, even if reluctantly. Yet how does one proceed without abandoning family values, endorsing mass immigration, supporting affirmative action, and gently giving up? Here are a few thoughts.

First, try to change the perspective. Conservatives are—or, at least, want to be—the party of progress on growth, incomes, urbanization, infrastructure, and fighting crime. When these topics dominate the political agenda, the party does better, avoiding, to some extent, splitting older and younger voters. Second, adjust the tone. People on the right are often dismissive of using conciliatory words and dressing a certain way to win a political battle. This is a mistake. Such gestures can win support at little ideological cost. The extraordinary success of Jason Kenney and the Canadian conservatives in winning immigrant support is a good example. Ensuring that new immigrants are met on arrival, made to feel welcome, and helped with integration, while addressing symbolic issues (apologizing, for instance, for the Chinese head tax), Kenney has made new arrivals feel supported and wanted.

Third, combining policies can bring together different age and ethnic groups. David Cameron helped pave the way for gay-marriage legalization by combining it with a proposal for a marriage tax break. The marriage tax break had always been controversial. Young voters and liberal social commentators opposed it. Linked to gay marriage, it became much more sellable.

None of these approaches represents a magic bullet for the Tories. But without question, how to adapt to a changing country will dominate the next decade of conservative thinking in the U.K.

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