How Iraq and climate change threw the right into disarray

By Gideon Rachman

Financial Times

Published: January 23 2007

Ronald Reagan is dead and Margaret Thatcher is in her dotage. The ideological world that those two leaders created is now slipping away with them.

From 1979 to 2004, the right won the battle of ideas in the western world. Conservatives triumphed because they got the two big issues of the era right: they were in favour of free markets and against communism. But now the right is in disarray because it has found itself on the wrong side of the two dominating issues in contemporary western politics: global warming and the Iraq war.

Most people’s first reactions to new political issues are instinctive. In 2003, the kind of people going on anti-war marches – or warning of impending climate doom – looked to many right-wingers like the same people who had been wrong about everything else for the past 25 years. They were the people warning the world was running out of oil in the 1970s; who opposed privatisation in the 1980s and marched against the first Gulf war in 1991. They were the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament crowd; the “East Germany has solved the housing problem” crowd; the “we are all going to die of mad-cow disease” crowd. They were earnest men in cardigans and fierce women in sensible shoes.

The thought that these people could be right about anything was frankly intolerable. But, in fact, they were right about two things: global warming and Iraq.

Global warming poses a fundamental challenge to the- right’s faith in markets. It is, as Gordon Brown, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, puts it “the world’s biggest market failure”.

Worse, most of the proposed remedies for global warming involve things the right traditionally abhors. There is global governance in the form of monster international accords such as the Kyoto treaty. There are restrictions on individual liberty as the clamour grows to tax people out of their cars and off their cheap flights. There is a new emphasis on localism as opposed to globalisation. There is also a backlash against the idea that faster economic growth is always desirable or sustainable.

The Iraq debacle also cuts away at the intellectual and moral self-confidence of the right. The Reagan-Thatcher approach to the world was founded on an unapologetic belief in military strength and an unhesitant confidence in the moral superiority of western democracy. When the cold war was won in 1989, the right embraced an exuberant universalism. The cheering crowds in Prague and the Baltic states – and even the martyred students of Tiananmen Square – seemed like clinching evidence that all men do indeed desire the same things, and that a western formula for freedom and prosperity is infinitely exportable.

It was the confidence born of victory in the cold war that created the confidence to invade Iraq. Failure there threatens to undermine the moral certainty bequeathed to the right by Mrs Thatcher and Reagan, as well as the belief in the efficacy of military force and the exportability of western democracy.

The hallmark of a successful ideological revolution is that it swiftly makes party political labels irrelevant. Reagan’s and Mrs Thatcher’s real triumphs came when their centre-left heirs embraced their ideas. Bill Clinton’s most significant domestic policy achievement was a welfare reform based on ideas first advanced by conservative social critics. Tony Blair, UK prime minister, refused to reverse the trade union reforms pushed through by Mrs Thatcher. His Iraq policy, with its unwavering adherence to the “special relationship” with the US, is Thatcherite to the core.

Of course, there are diehards on the right who still argue that global warming is hysteria and that Iraq will work out in the end. Who knows, they may even be vindicated – one day. But they have already lost the political argument. They are now so far from the conventional wisdom that even Britain’s Conservatives and America’s Republicans – the parties that gave birth to the Thatcher-Reagan revolution – are accepting “leftwing” positions on climate change and Iraq.

The process is further advanced in Britain than the US. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, arranged a photo opportunity in the Arctic, amid melting ice and barking huskies, to underline his concern about global warming. He has also declared that Britain should not have a “slavish” relationship with the US.

With George W. Bush still in the White House, this process of rightwing ideological adaptation is much less advanced in the US. The president’s aides have moved to squish rumours that he will announce a major change of tack on global warming in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. But the Bush era has less than two years to run and much of the rest of the Republican party is already changing.

John McCain, the leading Republican candidate for the presidency, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most important Republican governor, both want tougher action on climate change. And the Republican party is far from unanimous in backing Mr Bush’s new surge of troops into Iraq. These trends within Republicanism are only likely to gather strength if, as seems likely, alarm about global warming and Iraq keeps growing.

All this makes it sound as if the only role left for the Anglo-American right is to roll over and capitulate. But that is far too gloomy. In this new ideological era, conservatives have two obvious tasks – one defensive and one offensive.

The defensive role is to guard against over-reaction to the emerging consensus on global warming and Iraq. The right was not wrong to spot its old anti-capitalist, anti-western foes in the coalitions that first latched on to these issues. There are radical voices that will try to use global warming to create a world in which nobody takes a cheap flight again – and in which globalisation is put into reverse. It will be up to the right to show that growth and greenery can be reconciled. Similarly, the Iraq catastrophe is great news for anti-Americans in Europe and isolationists in the US. Conservatives need to hold the line against both.

But the right can do a lot more than mere damage control. Many of the most important ideas of the Reagan-Thatcher era – privatisation, trade union reform, the re-thinking of the welfare state – were developed in opposition to the intellectual consensus of the 1960s and 1970s. After a long period of intellectual hegemony, a period in ideological opposition might be just what the Anglo-American right needs.