The disappearance of Transatlantic Conservatism: Republicans too religious, extreme for Tories

By Tommy Gilchrist
April 12, 2014

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David in December, 1984. Photo provided by the White House Photographic Office.

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David in December, 1984. Photo provided by the White House Photographic Office.

A quarter century ago, ‘-isms’ reigned in the special relationship between the United Kingdom and United States. Thatcherism – embodied by free market monetarism, discipline over public expenditure, tax cuts, nationalism, ‘Victorian social values’, privatization and a dash of populism – hewed closely to Reaganism’s supply-side economics and traditional social values; this shared vision of “conservatism” reinforced the two nations’ union of mind and purpose as never more remarkable.

Sarah Palin at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Committee. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Sarah Palin at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Committee. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Fast forward to June 2011. It was widely reported in British press that, in response to a request by Sarah Palin to meet her heroine Baroness Thatcher, an aide had commented that no meeting would happen as it would be “belittling to Margaret” and “Sarah Palin is nuts.” Tory (U.K. shorthand for a member of the Conservatives, or the party at large) commentator Tim Montgomerie put it more strongly: Sarah Palin is “an embarrassment for mainstream Conservatives.” These comments come from Thatcherite allies of the politician who, in 1975, met Governor of Alabama George Wallace, famous for his “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech in defiance of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools.

What happened in the intervening period to cause such erstwhile friends, US Republicans and UK Conservatives, to diverge so radically? Beyond a general dislike for taxation and budget deficits, the two now share no common ground on any major issue.

As U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in a 2010 interview with historian Simon Schama, “we seem to have drifted apart; there is an element of American conservatism that is headed in a very culture war direction, which is just different. There are differences with the American right.”

A key difference on the British side of the Atlantic is that our leaders have eschewed the combination of church and state that seems to pervade American politics, and especially the Republican religious right. It has been accepted political wisdom, since the early days of Tony Blair’s prime ministership, that British politicians “do not do God,” whilst David Cameron has said that his faith is a very private thing, not something he wears on his sleeve, and that he “does not have a direct line to God.”

This could not be further from Baroness Thatcher’s position who, in a 1988 speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland whilst still Prime Minister, said the UK is “a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” As noted by The Economist, shortly after her death last year, Thatcher was the last British Prime Minister to “openly and emphatically to acknowledge the influence of Christianity on her thinking, in particular terms not fuzzy ones.” This shift in political thinking in the U.K. reflects the changing demographic landscape; between 2001 and 2011 there was a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 percent to 59.3 percent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 percent to 25.1 percent). 

This separation of religious conviction from political position has allowed all three major parties in the U.K. — Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat — to come to a consensus on a wide array of policies that are, across the pond, still widely debated both between and within Republicans and Democrats.

Reducing the budget deficit and controlling spending are the top priorities, although there is some disagreement over how to do so. Tackling climate change and reducing fossil fuel reliance whilst increasing energy diversification are key policies. Abortion in the U.K. has been legalized since the Abortion Act of 1967. Some fringe Conservatives oppose gay rights and equal marriage, but equality under the law has now been granted in England, Scotland and Wales with latest polls showing support at 68 percent (rising to 80 percent amongst 18 to 34 year olds). Conservatives, who in 1995 announced “you can’t trust Labour on defense”, are now committed to significant cuts in defense spending to eliminate the deficit. Even Margaret Thatcher didn’t dare meddle with the National Health Service — an institution in which the British have an almost religious belief.

All these positions are anathema to Republican conservatives, yet they are the same trends unfolding across the U.S., albeit mostly among Democrats and younger voters. As commented by The Economist’s Bagehot columnist, faith-based views of U.S. conservative politicians such as Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum “don’t make any sense” to most Tories. U.K. Conservatives today are unanimous in their fiscal conservatism whilst Republicanism continues its primary focus upon social conservatism.

Tommy GilchristTommy Gilchrist studied at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, where he studied physical geography. He was formerly an intern with the U.K. Conservative Party. He’s an avid follower of U.S. politics, and you can find his commentary here, on PolicyMic and on his personal blog


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