Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 27 September 2013

Will the UK Conservatives become like the Republican Party?

It is probably no exaggeration to say that most people within European countries view the US Republican Party with a mixture of amusement and horror. It is largely why the vast majority of Europeans supported Obama in the last election.  I think a major reason for this is the attitude of so many in the GOP to science.  Most Europeans do not know whether to laugh or cry when half the Republican candidates for President appear to reject the theory of evolution.

The theory of evolution may not be a hot topic in Europe, but that does not mean we are immune to the same tendencies that created today’s Republican Party. I would argue that attitudes to climate change represent an acid test of whether ideology has overtaken evidence in parties of the right. The UK in particular appears to be at a critical point in this respect. While the official Conservative line recognises the importance of trying to deal with man-made climate change, a significant proportion of Conservative MPs are now promoting climate change denial. Deniers are given wide coverage (and often support) in the largely right wing UK press, and perhaps as a result the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, has been quite antagonistic towards ‘green’ policies.

The hypothesis of man-made climate change does not have quite the same scientific status as the theory of evolution. The consensus of scientists on climate change is overwhelming and impressive – as the latest IPCC report makes clear – but the nature of the problem means that uncertainties will remain huge. I have had conversations with some in my own institution who express scepticism. However I have yet to talk to any scientist who is so sure of their scepticism that they would argue against taking a precautionary view, which means taking action now. Climate change denial (the position that we should effectively ignore the problem) is almost exclusively found on the political right, which surely suggests that views are being governed by something other than an objective appraisal of the science.

This is clearly important in its own right. But I think it must also be an indicator of how far a party is prepared to disregard evidence in pursuit of ideological goals. Allow something as important as climate change to be decided on quite misplaced ideological grounds instead of the evidence, and what area of policy will be safe from similar treatment?

I suspect many may think I’m going over the top here. The Conservatives becoming like the Republicans – don’t be silly. The fight in the UK is all about capturing the centre ground, surely? But if that is what you believe, I would ask how much hard evidence you have for that view? Of course the Conservative Party cannot be openly seen to be becoming like the Republicans, because of the observation I started this post with. So there are one or two issues – Gay Marriage, support for foreign aid – where Cameron can say he is facing down his right wing. But on virtually every other major issue, the question is whether current policy will just duplicate the shifts created by Margaret Thatcher (e.g. in increasing poverty) or go beyond it (e.g. in reducing the role of the state). The modus operandi for most political commentators is that the main parties locate themselves just to one side of an immovable centre ground, but we know that has not been true in the past, so why should it be so now?

There appear to be two important (and linked) factors that can explain the growing extremism on the right of US politics. The first is rising inequality, and an ability of those with huge wealth to exercise considerable control over the media and the democratic process. The second is the onward march of neoliberalism as an ideology. Both are strongest in the US, but similar trends are apparent elsewhere. So for Europe not to succumb to the same shifts in the political landscape, we need to invoke some form of US exceptionalism, which means it ‘cannot happen here’? There are obvious candidates, like the importance of religion and racism, but it is not obvious to me that these are critical in explaining what has happened in the US. (If I knew more, I might be able to use other countries like Australia as evidence in this debate: see John Quiggin here.)

I once wrote a post that tried to suggest one reason for US exceptionalism: the lack of a state controlled TV, and the absence of any restrictions of the political positions that TV companies can promote. In the UK, for example, I argued that the existence of the BBC tended to emphasise centrist views, and come down quite hard on political extremes. While I think there is something in that argument, I now suspect I was a little too sanguine about its importance for two linked reasons. First, if crazy ideas like climate change denial can infiltrate their way into one of the mainstream political parties, and these ideas are supported by large sections of the press, then the BBC becomes conflicted between staying with the science or being ‘balanced’ in political terms. Second, if the right wing party is in power, it can apply financial pressure on the BBC to go for balance rather than go with the evidence. We are seeing exactly that happen now in the BBC’s reporting of climate change. The BBC does recognise the issue, but may not have the ability to impose a solution

[Postscript. See also here. The select committee evidence is here: in particular page 8.]

I think this should worry anyone who believes in evidence based policymaking. The danger for those on the right is a belief that this process can be managed and controlled, so that the actual influence of crazy ideas on policy is marginal. Both the example of the Republican Party, and Cameron’s attempts to appease those on the right of his own party and UKIP voters, show the view that the establishment will always prevail is naive.

So what can the Conservative Party, and other centre right parties in Europe, do to prevent them becoming like the Republican Party in the US? In the 1980s in the UK, the Labour Party faced a similar problem. The solution that emerged was to make a virtue of attacking those further to the left, and the values they upheld. The repeal of clause IV from the party’s constitution was a classic example. However there is a key difference: New Labour never faced a serious electoral threat from disaffected Old Labour voters, and those further to the left never had any support in the media. In contrast, Cameron has UKIP and an extreme right wing press to contend with. (I suggest here that the two problems are linked). So in his case standing up to his right wing could be an immediate electoral liability, which is why he has until now been more likely to appease than oppose. The pessimistic conclusion for those who believe in evidence based policy may be that there is nothing that can stop the Republicanisation of the UK Conservative Party.  


  1. Depressingly accurate once again Simon, and truly frightening for what the future might hold, given that the evidence free vacuum which Conservatives and many on the right inhabit is not just confined to economics and policy.
    Besides self-interest, desire for power, reinforcement of class-structure/hierarchy and seemingly inexhaustible greed, perhaps the roots of their beliefs, behaviour and actions can be explained by neurology, as recent neurological studies using simple experiments suggest:
    "...scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information...Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences...Participants were college students whose politics ranged from "very liberal" to "very conservative." ... Liberals had more brain activity and made fewer mistakes than conservatives ...liberals were 4.9 times as likely as conservatives to show activity in the brain circuits that deal with conflicts, and 2.2 times as likely to score in the top half of the distribution for accuracy... liberals could be expected to more readily accept new social, scientific or religious ideas.
    "There is ample data from the history of science showing that social and political liberals indeed do tend to support major revolutions in science," said Sulloway, who has written about the history of science and has studied behavioral differences between conservatives and liberals."

    Little wonder that the sea of evidence for both man-made climate change and the folly of their economic policies - most notable austerity - is like water off a ducks back for many on the right. But it helps to explain the asymetric nature of the austerity debate in which one side correctly uses evidence and data, whilst the other (with disturbing ease) relies on sound-bites, false-analogies (eg. 'the economy as a household, so now we must all tighten our belts'), unreliable and disproved evidence (Reinhart/Rogoff, Alesina etc), not to mention inumerable misinterpretations and misrepresentations.
    The truly fightening prospect is that if the experiences of recent years continue (the climate change and austerity debate) and the neurological studies are correct, then no amount of evidence will make them change their minds or policies, resulting in untold economic and social damage and suffering to whole countries and peoples - well, to all except for themselves.
    Please keep up the excellent work of informing us of what is really going on - hopefully the truth will eventually reach the wider population despite the efforts of politicans and our digracefully biased, inaccurate right-wing dominated media.

  2. I'd say that with the Chancellor's austerity, the Health Secretary's previous enthusiasm for homeopathy, and the Education Secretary's persistence in the face of overwhelming criticism from educationalists, the days of evidence-based policy are long gone for the Conservative Party.

  3. Let us hope that on climate change the BBC does not cede its reporting to a coterie of oddballs in the way it has on economics: Stephanie Flanders is leaving for JP Morgan Asset Management, which will allow her, according to the BBC, more time for "for research and developing a deeper understanding of the markets"!

  4. The rationalization about the super-wealthy opposing climate action is fairly feeble. Here in the US I would say the biggest and most influential segments of of corporate America have long lined up behind President Obama's green direction, and when you see the scope for rent-seeking and cronyism if the administration is not careful, that is perhaps not too surprising either.

    I fear the problem is not among the elites but among the mass of the population. Wasn't it Tom Schelling who said that climate action is hard to do because you are basically asking today's American factory worker to bear costs whose benefits will largely accrue to the grandchildren of today's Bangladeshi? That's a hard sell in any country (see Australia), and especially in the US, with its much greater populist and culturally egalitarian traditions (i.e. in the sense described by Tocqueville), where, for better or worse, there remains a large segment of the population that is sturdily resistant to elite direction. I lived almost 20 years in the UK and I have lived in the US over 25 and it is striking to me how much greater is the intellectual and cultural domination of the South-Eastern elites over the UK population than is the equivalent influence of the US bi-coastal elites over here. It is not the super-rich who are dictating opposition to evolution, after all.

  5. Simon,

    I am a keen follower of your blog & sometimes reblog your article with my two cents. Anyway, I thought that I would share that when I reblogged the above it generated some lively debate:

    1. Alf,

      Interesting to see how your correspondent's views embody the traditional Tory policies plus the new strident Austerian approach of Cameron and Osborne. There's a lot of UKIP in there as well.

      What becomes clear is that there is no concerted political effort by any party to map out a policy which debunks austerity and offers the Keynesian route of state investment aiming at full employment and by implication rising living standards.

      All I am aware of is a growing realisation in small snippets across the media that maybe austerity offers a road to nowhere.

      Can anyone really believe Osborne when he offers continued austerity for another 7 years with the aim of achieving a surplus. But at what human cost?

      The operation was successful, but unfortunately the patient died.

      Your thoughts on this and the latest Conservative Party Conference output gratefully received.

      Simon, are you going to blog on this shortly?



  6. “Which brings me to the last, and in my opinion most dangerous, set of adversaries of the evidence-based worldview in the contemporary world: namely, propagandists, public-relations flacks and spin doctors, along with the politicians and corporations who employ them — in short, all those whose goal is not to analyze honestly the evidence for and against a particular policy, but is simply to manipulate the public into reaching a predetermined conclusion by whatever technique will work, however dishonest or fraudulent. So the issue here is no longer mere muddled thinking or sloppy reasoning; it is fraud.” –Alan Sokal.

  7. Does the collapse of the LDs (the centre-left competition with Labour) and the subsequent shift of Labour to the left (e.g. deciding that those mean economists are just being ideological regarding price controls) suggest that Labour might also become a kind of left-wing Republican party? If so, we're facing a dark period of politics: Labour competing with parties like the SNP and the Greens for the ideologically-driven left and the Conservatives competing with the UKIP for the ideologically-driven right. Ugh.

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