A pilgrimage to the wrong shrine

Hague has chosen a curious moment to travel to the US to learn from the Republicans

BRITISH POLITICIANS see America as a magic spring of political vigour. Margaret Thatcher liked to put it about that she was as close as could be with Ronald Reagan, even though there is more in Reagan's memoirs about the Queen than about the Iron Lady. Kenneth Baker traipsed round some of the worst schools in the world in south-east Washington, followed by several television crews, to promote his scheme for getting corporate money into our schools.

Tony Blair, not to be outdone, likes to go to Washington to attend seminars on the "middle way", organised by Bill Clinton's aide, Sidney Blumenthal. And now the hapless William Hague has chosen this moment of all moments to announce that he is off to the United States to learn from the Republicans how to be a compassionate conservative.

Since the Contract with America and Newt Gingrich's triumph in the 1994 mid-term elections, the Republican Party has fallen apart. Clinton thrashed Senator Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election. Now Gingrich is gone, and the Republicans has lost two Speakers of the House in less than a month, which certainly meets Lady Bracknell's definition of carelessness. Most disastrous of all, the Republicans have totally miscalculated the impact of their attempt to impeach the President, and will certainly be punished at the polls.

Americans were shocked by the way the Republicans in the House of Representatives turned the impeachment into a straight-down-the-line party issue. And they have seen how Trent Lott, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, the senator from Mississippi who comes out of the same clique of ultra-conservative Republicans who ramrodded the impeachment charges through the House, tried to do the same in the Senate.

Republicans got a sharp warning when they failed to make the usual mid- term gains in the elections last November. And now they face electoral disaster next year. One well-informed Washington political observer told me recently that he thinks the Republican Party could drop 40 seats in the House in 2000. The general prognosis is that they will lose control of the House and could lose the Senate as well.

Now, a lot can happen in 21 months. The Republicans may recover, though it is hard to see what they can do to erase the image they have given themselves of reckless fanatics out of touch with everyone except a handful of rich right-wing paymasters.

It is conceivable, too, that "moderate" Republicans such as George W Bush, the Governor of Texas, whom Hague is going to visit, may recapture control of the party from the right, though I shan't hold my breath. What is far more likely is that the British Tories, with exquisite timing, have chosen to publicise their sisters-under-the-skin relationship with the Republicans at precisely the moment when the Grand Old Party, as it likes to call itself, is headed for its worst hiding since Herbert Hoover.

Why would the Tory leadership want to do that? Well, for one thing the memory is yet green of how a trip to Washington saved the party's bacon in 1992. Late in 1991, Shaun Woodward, now MP for Oxfordshire West, and then newly appointed as the party's communications director, flew to Washington with two colleagues to learn the mystic skills of American political use of the media at the feet of the Republican pollster, Richard Wirthlin. The great man told Woodward and his mates to focus on one issue: tax. They flew back with a strategy, and it worked.

So, at least, the matter is remembered in Tory circles.

Then there is the legacy of McKinsey, the management consultants, where the Leader of the Opposition received his postgraduate education. Opinions vary about the quality of the advice you get when you call the firm in. But one thing is beyond doubt: every McKinsey graduate is taught that the fount of wisdom is to be sought in the US. If in doubt, Hague surely believes, do as the US Republicans do.

There is, however, more to it than that. Hague is quintessentially a Thatcherite. And the essence of the Thatcher message was borrowed from the teachings of the American conservatism of the late Seventies and the Eighties, not coincidentally the years when a young Hague was beginning to form his ideas about the world.

The political lesson of the Nineties is that Thatcherism and its parent, Reaganism, have not worked as their missionaries promised us they would. Communism may be dead, and socialism discredited, but there was no Reagan revolution. There is such a thing as society, Margaret, and there is more to political wisdom than getting government off the backs of the people.

That is why Conservative governments have been chased from almost every country in western Europe, and why even in eastern Europe people have had second thoughts about the market. That is why Bill Clinton has twice been elected President of the United States. And it is one of the reasons why the Republicans are not waving but drowning in the US, even while the economy soars upward.

The other, of course, is that Republican conservatives in the United States have made the mistake of listening only to those who share their ideology. Which makes them soulmates for our own home-grown conservatives.

Godfrey Hodgson is the author of `The World Turned Right Side Up', a history of American conservatism since 1945

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