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Churchill's Lessons for the GOP


Each election harkens to another or to several. Thinking about the recent Obama defeat of Mitt Romney, however, it is hard to find a corollary in the USA. What does commend itself as an example to the Republican Party after its demoralizing defeat is the Conservative Party defeat in 1945's Parliamentary election. Part of the relevance is the way the Conservatives came back.

If you think that the Republicans feel left in the electoral lurch, consider the Tories in July, 1945. Winston Churchill was established as the wartime hero whose bulldog leadership saved not only Britain but also the allied cause. Over the years he has been regarded as perhaps the greatest leader Britain ever produced. But only a couple of months after the defeat of Hitler, Churchill--who had been cheered wildly on V-E Day--went down to ignominious defeat.

What makes the decision of the British voters to change leaders after the war similar to that of the Republicans in 2012 is that both elections left their respective parties feeling devastated, not just defeated. Both felt they had the programs their respective nations needed and both felt that their opponents' programs would lead to severe national setbacks.

Republicans warned that a near-majority of Americans was becoming addicted to government programs, and then found that that near-majority, when coupled with the Democrats' usual turnout among academics, entertainment industry people and a large share of the wealthy, made for a solid Obama win (51% to 48%). Immediately came a sense that history was passing Republicans by, that they have become the party of "the old, the male, the white". The demographic shifts in the country seem to leave no room for cheer. The hispanic vote is growing fast and tending ever more to the Democrats (70%). The black vote dropped a bit for the Democrats, but is still at ruinous levels (about 6 % for Republicans). The number of Asian voters is growing, and also simultaneously moving even more (70%) to the Democrats. Republicans did a bit better than expected among young people than in 2008, but the totals are still roughly two to one, not a good omen for the future. Older people, especially whites, voted for Romney, but, of course, that demographic is not promising.

But if you think that Republicans feel flattened, imagine the dispiriting surprise of the Tories in 1945. They had believed that they were the natural governing party and the ones to return the nation to a successful peacetime economy. Yet the voters chose the Socialists (Labour). People tend to vote for the future, not the past, and at the end of the war the British public was worn and weary. They looked to government to rejuvenate them.

What followed was England's great experiment with socialism. That was socialism in the old sense of nationalization of industry. Almost all of that failed. Meanwhile, the hardships of wartime, including a stringent rationing of food, continued for years under Labour.

Instead of retreating, the Conservatives under Churchill emphasized their commitment to free enterprise and a strong defense. But they did so in a manner that demonstrated concern for the average person and what average families were going through. There was much less said about business.

In the next election, the Tories lost narrowly. In foreign policy, Churchill's alarm about the increasing confrontation with the Soviet Union still seemed discomforting to voters. Churchill's policies were meant to prevent war through strength, but the Government (Administration) of Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee hoped that the equivalent of "leading from behind" would soothe the Russian bear and keep Britain safe.

Of Attlee, someone said, "At least he is a modest man." To which Churchill retorted, "He has a lot to be modest about." (This is reminiscent of ?Theodore Roosevelt, another Alpha political male, who responded to a comment that William Howard Taft "meant well": "He means well feebly."

By 1951 it finally was apparent that the Soviet Union under Stalin had brutally taken over all of Eastern Europe and that Communists had won the civil war in China. The USSR had not only an A-Bomb but was developing the H-Bomb. At home the socialist experiment had failed. Socialism--even social democracy, which is the less severe strain of the disease--turned out in practice to be dreary, grey and depressing. Nobody got rich, but poor people continued to suffer and the middle class was hard-pressed.

But, instructively, even the Conservative victory of 1951 was relatively narrow. It was not until 1955 that the Conservatives came back strongly. They ushered in an era of prosperity. Here one sees that political progress is slow and incremental. Huge sudden shifts are rare.

The Conservatives continued to butt up against the fervent opposition of most of academia in the 50s. Churchill was the subject of invective and bitter mockery. "Better Red than Dead" was a left wing motif in the early days of peace marches and sit-downs. But unlike the Republicans, they still had more or less equal footing in the media. There were even a few culture satires against the left, such as a delightful film, I'm All Right Jack, that laughed at union goons for a change, as well as upper crust toffs, and the songs of Noel Coward ("Wait Until We Drop Down Dead", for example).

Churchill, at 80 and ailing, retired finally in 1955 with a wave of young Tory leadership behind him--largely in the Bow Group, a "ginger group" of writers and activists that in a small way pressaged the rise of think tanks in today's UK as well as America. (The Bow Group was the model for the Republican "Ripon Society" founded fifty years ago in the US.)

The main lesson, therefore, is that politics is often unfair, but it also is cyclical. Being out of power actually allowed the Tories to regenerate and come back stronger. That is the challenge and opportunity of the GOP.

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You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

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