- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2001

Is Britain's Conservative Party finished for good? Does its second consecutive parliamentary defeat at the hands of Tony Blair's Labor Party mean that the Conservative Party is doomed to lasting irrelevancy? As one who has followed British politics for many years, it is my judgment that the Conservative Party is about to become the "insignificant other" in Britain's 2lst century politics. That dismal fate may hold a warning for the Republican Party and its future.
Premature burial of the Conservative Party has been traditional in British political history for more than a century. In the 1906 election, the Tories went from 402 seats to 156 as the Liberal Party roared to triumph. Bye-bye Tories? Hah. It was the Liberals who by 1925 had become a spent force and the Conservatives the dominant force in British politics.
In mid-July 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, leader of the Conservative Party, left the Big Three conference at Potsdam in defeated Germany to vote in the first British national election since the beginning of World War II. At the outbreak of the war, all British parties agreed to suspend elections in the interests of victory. With V-E Day in May, elections were now possible.
But Churchill, free world hero, never returned to the Potsdam conference. Instead, it was a new prime minister, Clement Attlee, leader of the Labor Party, who reconvened at Potsdam with President Truman and Josef V. Stalin. The election was a smashing, unforeseen defeat for Churchill. No wonder when the new Parliament convened, an exultant, gloating shout was heard from the Labor back benches: "We are the masters now." But they were not masters for long.
Within six years, this same Conservative party, whose post-1945 election demise was widely predicted, returned to power with Churchill once more as prime minister. The Tory campaign strategy an early version of "compassionate conservatism" was simple and it worked: The British public wants nationalization and the welfare state? Well and good, but it would be under Tory auspices. In short, the Tories "re-invented" themselves.
The Conservatives introduced an Industrial Charter, a steal from the Labor Party. True-blue Conservatives sneeringly called the new platform "pink socialism" because it spoke well about trade unions. But Conservative Party conferences supported the reforms under the slogan: "You can't unscramble the omelet." In other words what Labor had done supposedly could not be unscrambled but it could be better managed. That election strategy worked. The Conservatives kept winning election after election from 1951 on until they were thrown out of office because of a "sleaze" issue the Profumo-Christine Keeler sex scandal.
The old pre-Blair Labor Party was a divided, ideology-driven, ultra-left, union-dominated, Marxist-based organization over which Attlee had no real control nor did his successor, Hugh Gaitskell. The party's controlling elements the left of the left preferred to lose elections rather than give an inch on the socialist ideology or on Clause Four of the Labor program nationalize anything that moves.
As a result of the Labor split, the Conservatives won four consecutive victories starting in 1979, including the three terms for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the fourth term of her hapless successor, John Major. The end of Conservative rule came in 1997 at the hands of Mr. Blair.
New Labor's ally in his two stunning electoral triumphs was Thatcherism. Mr. Blair was shrewd enough to recognize, as few others in his party did, that Thatcherism was much more than an economic reform program. Mr. Blair perceived the obvious: The British voter liked what Mrs. Thatcher had done and it was not some passing mood. So Mr. Blair did in the 1990s what the Tories had done in the '50s.
In the '50s, the Conservatives took Labor ideas, modified them into Conservative ideas and thus won over many members of labor unions, the so-called Tory worker, what in the United States have been called Reagan Democrats. In the '90s, Mr. Blair took Thatcher ideas and turned them into New Labor Party ideas and regained the essential Tory worker base.
Even worse for today's Tories, there is no Churchill, let alone a Thatcher, sitting on the opposition benches to oppose the triumphant Mr. Blair. Even more ominous for the Tories: In their first defeat in 1997, they ended up with not a single parliamentary seat in Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, which with England comprise the United Kingdom. And in this election, they have won a single seat outside England.
So much for what is called the United Kingdom. And in their second defeat, they managed to win only one additional parliamentary seat and the second lowest share of total votes cast since 1880.
And what has all this to do with the Republican Party? The new Bush administration came to power by a hair. The 2000 election, like this month's British election for a terminally ill Conservative Party, is a wake-up call for the Republican Party, which, remember, won both houses of Congress overwhelmingly in the November 1994 election. President Clinton countered by stealing "the Contract With America" goals and got himself re-elected in 1996 without changing the left-liberal ethos of Congressional Democrats.
The moral of this history lesson is that a political party that doesn't recognize political-cultural changes in an electorate is doomed. Machiavelli once wrote that "the ruin of states is brought about … because they do not modify their institutions to suit the times." Machiavelli's lapidary pronouncement may well apply to political parties, as Britain's Tories are going to find out.

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times columnist.

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