The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Once united, British, U.S. and Canadian conservatives go their own ways

President Ronald Reagan, left, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Toronto on June 21, 1988. (Itsuo Inouye/AP Photo)
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It feels quaint to recall that there was a time when the three largest center-right parties of the English-speaking world, the British Tories, American Republicans and Canadian Conservatives, were considered a cozy ideological trio. As legend goes, for much of the 1980s, Britain, Canada and the United States were ruled by a trifecta of visionary conservatives — Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney — who understood politics very similarly, and inspired and validated each other. For a generation, their leadership brought transatlantic coherence to what “being conservative” meant.

Their 21st-century successors still run parties of the nominal right, united in opposition to some broadly understood “left.” But differences among the three — of structure, priorities, electoral success and leadership — now feel more defining than their similarities.

The next head of the Canadian Conservatives will almost certainly be Pierre Poilievre, a broadly liked figure uniting most of Canada’s conservative movement. He’ll likely be elected on Sept. 10 by some large percentage of the more than 675,000 card-carrying members of the party— a possible record electorate for a Canadian leadership contest, heavily attributed to the draw of Poilievre himself.

Poilievre is a fast-talking populist whose elevator pitch is that the rising costs and frustrations of middle class Canadian life should be blamed on unaccountable public sector bureaucracies and incompetent corporate oligopolies. His cry to “remove gatekeepers” seems well-timed for what is proving to be Canada’s summer of discontent, with clogged airports, round-the-block lineups at the passport office, nationwide cellphone outages and the highest inflation in 39 years.

A fierce war against institutions is a novel approach for the party, but the stakes are high: If Poilievre loses, he’ll be the fourth Conservative to fail to unseat Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Britain’s Tories are a mirror image, having been in power a half-decade longer than Trudeau, with their 2019 landslide victory their largest in decades. Dominance at the ballot box has come despite a revolving door of leaders; outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson will have governed for just over three years; his successor will be the fourth Tory prime minister since the party’s first term in 2010.

Each prime minister’s unique interpretation of their job makes Thatcher’s right-wing stridency look less like the party’s core philosophy than just another leader’s idiosyncrasy. Since 2010, the Tories have championed a potpourri of ideologies and agendas, including small-government austerity, “Big Society” paternalism (which among other things, involved legalizing same-sex marriage), open trade, closed borders, punishing covid-19 restrictions, and “building back better” (a slogan Johnson championed more or less simultaneously with the Biden administration).

The next Tory prime minister will be selected in a tight election between two candidates picked by the Conservatives’ parliamentary caucus, with the winner chosen by around 140,000 to 200,000 party members — a somewhat stage-managed contest reflecting the ongoing power of the party’s more elitist wing (who are likely to view the failed tenure of Johnson, who was picked with this system, as an indictment of excessive democracy). Though the caucus’s nominees are bitter rivals, neither Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss have risen on the strength of their ideas, just skill at the game of ambition and alliances that defines backroom British politics. It’s telling that much of the debate among the candidates consists of how to resuscitate the British economy in the aftermath of Brexit — an idea the post-2010 Tory prime ministers have at various times supported, opposed or both.

If Britain’s Conservatives are hampered by too many leaders, U.S. Republicans are hampered by the overbearing dominance of just one — Donald Trump. While it was once popular to opine that Trumpism stood for nothing, it now seems clear that the former president’s leadership has mostly pushed the party rightward on social issues, chiefly abortion, guns, LGBTQ rights, immigration and a war on “wokeness.”

Even as the United States gets more culturally progressive and secular overall, combative social conservatism has proven a pretty stable basis for a competitive right-wing coalition, with the party expected to be buoyed by big midterm gains in November. If Trump seeks the White House again in 2024 it will be because his unapologetically polarizing rhetoric (now increasingly dominated by conspiracy theories about his 2020 defeat) continues to impress the vast number of Americans eligible to pick Republican presidential candidates — nearly 30 million people in 2016.

In the 1980s, the nations of the so-called Anglosphere suffered from broadly similar crises of economic malaise and national disunity. In response, they elected broadly similar leaders whose stubborn faith in market-driven solutions reflected the literal “conservatism” of their generation.

As the three 21st-century conservative parties now adopt sharply different attitudes toward concepts such as state power, migration, markets and religion as solutions to national problems that have become more narrowly particular, the central dilemma of the politics of 20th-century sentimentality arises: Do the old labels still mean anything?

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