Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Be a Lot of Newts-That's the Lesson from America for the Tories (and Mr Redwood)

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Be a Lot of Newts-That's the Lesson from America for the Tories (and Mr Redwood)

Article excerpt

Two general conclusions about Britain can be drawn from the American result. Neither offers comfort to Conservatives. The first is that we are in an age of demagoguery by television. Mrs Clinton once described her husband as the 'messenger'; she spoke truer than she knew. To adapt McLuhan's dictum, the man is the medium is the message. Politically, President Clinton and Mr Blair are similar characters. No one knows what, if anything, they believe. Everything they do is designed to create photo-opportunities; everything they say, to provide soundbites. Behind the celluloid smiles, there is a moral hollowing. But it may be that a modern electorate is incapable of seeing past the celluloid.

The second conclusion is less gloomy, but has radical implications for conservative politics on both sides of the Atlantic. The Right has misunderstood the nature of its electoral successes of the 1980s.

Even given his mastery of campaigning techniques - and Mr Dole's sad inability to do so - it is astonishing that Mr Clinton managed to retain the presidency. His character and his competence entitle him to be bracketed with Warren Harding, whose claim to be the worst president of the century was hitherto undisputed. As the Republicans have retained control of Congress, President Clinton will not be able to block the investigations into Whitewater, Travelgate et al. Mrs Clinton will probably be indicted, and if her husband pardoned her he would be impeached. He might even be indicted himself. When the president's party does not have a majority in Congress, the legislative process is often affected by gridlock. This time there could be courtlock as well.

Most of the women whose votes kept him in the White House would not want Bill Clinton as a husband, while a sizable majority of Americans would be unhappy if their children grew up to be like him. Yet they re-elected him, because they are not afraid of him. They do fear his Republican opponents, and especially Newt Gingrich. Mr Gingrich has spent much of the last two years systematically alienating middleground American voters. He won power, not because of his convictions, but because of Bill Clinton's weaknesses. But after the Gingrich victory, many right-wingers in both Britain and the States succumbed to mythomania. Conservatism had triumphed in the Eighties, they would argue, because of conviction leadership: Thatcher and Reagan. It had then faltered under Bush and Major, who lacked conviction, but Gingrich had shown the way back: oh, for a British Gingrich. John Redwood was happy to volunteer for the role. He made a number of visits to the Speaker, tacitly claiming his endorsement.

It is true that Mr Redwood has many of the same qualities as Mr Gingrich; that is the only aspect of the Right's analysis which is grounded in reality.

Ronald Reagan did not win and retain the presidency because of his right-wing convictions. He won because Jimmy Carter had not only made blunder after blunder, he seemed to want to make Americans feel bad about themselves. Mr Reagan was President Feel-Good: he sat on America's front porch and moved effortlessly between uplifting rhetoric and homely language.

As a result, people trusted him. It also helped that the only cuts he enjoyed making were tax cuts; no one seriously thought that President Reagan would ever threaten the entitlement programmes on which many Middle Americans had come to depend. Ronald Reagan radiated benevolence. …

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