George Jonas

Surveying the conservative scene

by George Jonas
National Post

What's the status of conservatism in the teenage 21st century? For those who need to know, John O'Sullivan's report card in the National Review Online is a must read. I'd also recommend it to those who, whether or not they need to know, would feel better knowing.

A leading scribe of conservatism, O'Sullivan considers the current contest between Republican presidential hopefuls just a reflection of the struggle for dominance between social and economic conservatives. No big deal; it doesn't negate either side's core values.

"All conservatives can ultimately live with the victory of any of the leading candidates," he concludes.

They could have fooled me. I'd have sworn that, given a chance, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich would sink their pearly dentures into each other's backsides if gagging each other with a spoon didn't prove feasible. But then, biting or kissing seats of power, are just varieties of lip service, I suppose.

Is my old friend (I first met O'Sullivan around the time of the Falklands War in London) right? Well, he's rarely wrong about Tory matters. He was a top British journalist and an advisor to Margaret Thatcher when William Buckley imported him to the United States in 1988 to edit the leading organ of American conservatism, The National Review. He did so with distinction for about eight years, then moved to Washington, D.C., to run the wire service UPI, with temporary excursions into Canada to help start up the National Post. His magnum opus, The President, The Pope, And The Prime Minister, chronicles how Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher won the Cold War. (My description, not O'Sullivan's, needless to say.)

O'Sullivan sounds more American than British when he writes these days, although he still sounds British when he speaks. How does a person who writes American and speaks British think? In the case of O'Sullivan, aphoristically, irrigating dry facts with witty ideas, shrewdly offering copy to be quoted rather than paraphrased.

He thinks conservatism in the "Anglosphere," or the English-speaking world, is alive and well in three out of four countries. It "remains vigorous and fundamentally healthy" in America, and it "is thriving both in Australia and in Canada."

Only the "Cameron Tories" of the United Kingdom are faltering.

A decision David Cameron's party made when still in opposition, O'Sullivan suggests, not to confront certain fundamental premises of socialist economics, has come back to haunt Lady Thatcher's heirs. Having elected "not to challenge the cultural assumptions of modern metropolitan liberalism across the board" resulted in their abandonment of "the intellectual tools of anti-socialist economics" to the point where "they now find themselves fighting on enemy territory and calling for tax hikes on the rich to pay for tax cuts for the rich."

This is amusing and also fascinating because O'Sullivan thinks conservatism is thriving in Canada and Australia in very different ways. "It is advancing in Australia by boldness," he writes, "and in Canada by caution."

Indeed; some of us might even call it an abundance of caution. But why would a quality that O'Sullivan thinks hinders the Cameron Tories in Britain help the Harper Tories in Canada?

Here are four possible answers. First, politics isn't a science; second, Britain isn't Canada; third, Harper isn't Cameron; and finally, O'Sullivan is human. He isn't crazy about Cameron, but he likes Harper. He certainly "spotted" him before anyone I know did.

It was in 1999 that he asked me what I thought Harper would be doing in 10 years time. The three of us had dinner in a little bistro the night before. Harper was then 40, running the National Citizens Coalition, a civil rights group for right-of-centre causes.

"Teaching civics classes," I said. "Writing op-ed pieces. Walking the dog."

"In 10 years, he'll be prime minister of Canada," O'Sullivan said. He was wrong. It took Harper only seven years.

Meanwhile in Australia, conservatives are called Liberals to distinguish them from liberals who are called Labour -- but what can you expect from a place where Christmas is a summer holiday and people walk upside down? In that topsy-turvy world, conservatism's moment came when a gleeful left-wing media and Australia's Labour government celebrated the defeat of accommodating opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull by "unelectable right-winger" Tony Abbott.

Hubris delivers. When someone deemed unelectable holds his opponent to a draw, as Abbott did, he wins a moral victory. Labour and Liberals ended up with 72 seats in parliament each, after the 2010 election. Today Labour is in disarray while "unelectable" Abbott's support is firm, probably owing to a program that is, as O'Sullivan astutely observes, "boldly conservative, but not dogmatically pure."

Without saying so, my friend conveys the impression that America's conservatives could learn from Canada's and Australia's as well as from the U.K.'s. From the first two they could learn what to do, and from the third what to stay away from. From Harper, Americans might learn to "underpromise and overdeliver" (O'Sullivan's phrase) while Abbott would demonstrate that principled pragmatism isn't a contradiction in terms (my phrase but O'Sullivan's suggestion). As for Cameron's lesson, it would show that the timorous perish.

"[A] climate of reluctance to adopt policies, even to think thoughts, that might clash with the prevailing opinions in the governing elites," is how O'Sullivan puts it, "produces confusion and paralysis in official policy."

True, though useless to a Republican who loses in November. For one who wins, it's a damn good lesson.