Reviving U.S. conservatism: lessons for the U.K.
It’s conservative leaders’ job to support their people
For all conservatism’s successes over the last two centuries, the world today somehow needs a thoughtful, principled, vigorous Right more than ever. In one sense, this should come as no surprise. One of conservatism’s foundational tenets is that human nature does not change. So neither does man’s tendency toward folly — in politics or in other pursuits.
On the other hand, it was not that long ago when Anglo-American conservatism seemed historically triumphant. The economic stagnancy, cultural malaise, and strategic abasement that defined the 1970s – and which Western elites assured us would persist as long as we resisted the moral and practical superiority of communism — were gone.
Just a decade after President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to power, the U.S. and U.K. economies and social confidence had been revived. Marxist totalitarianism was not only a memory. It was a punchline, an object of derision — along with its fellow-traveling useful idiots on both sides of the Atlantic.
The supposedly dangerous, naive, and divisive philosophical war U.S. and U.K. conservatives waged against the Left — at home and abroad — ended not in the promised disaster or even in a “near run thing.” It was a rout. The elite scorn heaped on conservatives’ patriotic, faithful, middle-class majorities in those years only made our victory all the sweeter.
This is why progressive elites still hate Reagan and Thatcher today
This is why progressive elites still hate Reagan and Thatcher today, long after their deaths. Not simply because they were on the right, but because they convinced governing majorities that they were right. It’s the same reason conservatives around the world still venerate and celebrate them today. Indeed, as far as I know, British and American conservatives aren’t even allowed to give a speech in each others’ countries without rehearsing their heroic legacies.
But the decisiveness of Reagan and Thatcher’s victory in the 1980s also helps explain why both the British Conservative Party and the American Republican Party have struggled to define themselves ever since. As the old business maxim goes, “Nothing fails like success.”
The familiar pillars of Reaganism and Thatcherism — investor-friendly tax relief, budget cuts, and robust foreign policy to name but a few — have not delivered the political or policy victories since the end of the Cold War that they did during it. The history of the Anglo-American Right of the last generation is one of missed opportunities, and a failure to build on Reagan and Thatcher’s hard-won victories.
On the peace dividend. On cultural rot. On China and globalization. On immigration. On Big Tech authoritarianism and pornography. On the addiction, isolation, and mental illness consuming the young. On the Marxist takeover of our public and even corporate institutions. On Covid, for goodness sake.
For 30 years, conservative parties’ natural constituencies — hardworking, everyday families — have borne the brunt of these social dysfunctions. Yet for 30 years, conservative parties’ leaders in Washington and London ignored them. Instead, when they did govern, they delivered fiscal profligacy, cultural license, deference to big business even as it went woke, and trade with Communist China even as they stole our jobs, technology, and strategic initiative.
The post-Cold War GOP and Conservative Party establishments have missed so many opportunities, so badly — indeed, at times, so proudly — that they sowed dissent on their right. A new generation of anti-establishment conservatives has risen in the United States, the U.K., and across the West. Many of their intellectual leaders go so far as to condemn party bosses’ stubborn adherence to Reaganite and Thatcherite policies. The political class, in turn, accuses the upstarts of abandoning or betraying conservatism’s principles altogether.
Sometimes it seems like establishment conservatives and populist-nationalist reformers fight each other more ferociously than either fights the Left.
This is a mistake. I don’t mean in the pure political sense that we should be training fire on our opponents rather allies. On the contrary, I think vigorous internal debate is essential to conservatives’ political revival.
No, I mean it’s a mistake to either attack or defend Reaganism and Thatcherism as somehow at odds with 21st century populist, nationalist conservatism. Properly understood, Reaganism is populism — just ask Mikhail Gorbachev. And Thatcherism is nationalism — just ask Leopoldo Galtieri.
Argument leads to wisdom, but quarrels usually only to confusion. What both sides in this dispute — indeed, what all conservatives — need to understand is that reviving the Right in the 21st century is not a matter of smothering the dynamism of free enterprise and individual liberty. But nor can it seek to somehow “liberate” individuals from the fundamental human claims of family, faith, and nation. Rather, it must ground personal freedom in social solidarity — to build a one-nation conservatism worthy of Reagan and Thatcher, of Burke and Brexit.
In this project, the most important lessons we can draw are not from 1979 or 1980 anymore but from 2016.
II. Beginning of the story: 2016 and The Turning of the Tide
The “official” narrative of that year is that the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election reflected revolts of a resentful working class. This was certainly the perspective of the political and corporate establishments based in Washington and London — to say nothing of Manhattan and Brussels.
Far too many temperamentally pugnacious, anti-establishment conservatives accept this narrative, too. It’s false.
Think back to 2016 and the lead-up to the historic votes that summer and fall. Was it really Trump and Brexit’s middle-class fans who were angry and resentful? Or was it their wealthy, entitled enemies, appalled at the very idea of being subject to uppity, un-credentialed moms, dads, and football fans?
It was the elites who took to name calling
It was the elites who took to name calling — “MAGA,” “Little Englander,” and the rest. On the contrary, the Brexit and Trump campaigns were primarily substantive — on questions of policy and even deeper, constitutional questions of national sovereignty. British and American conservatives did not revolt in 2016. Rather, we put down revolts led by tiny cabals of globalist, Jacobin elites.
On both sides of the Atlantic, populist, nationalist, conservative majorities emerged organically, almost spontaneously — in defense of their countries. Even merely competent political leaders could have and should have united them into large, governing coalitions.
But the establishment leaders of the Republican and Conservative Parties were not up to the task. For all their “little guy” rhetoric, they fundamentally shared the haughty perspective of the Left — looking down on the people they were supposed to serve.
David Cameron and Theresa May simply could not square their establishment values with their people’s populist and nationalist conservatism. In the same way, congressional Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan twisted President Trump’s America first agenda.
Populist/nationalist reformers condemn this as “zombie” Reaganism and Thatcherism. Except… Reagan and Thatcher were precisely the kind of leaders who would have understood and seized the opportunities presented by their nations’ working-class conservative realignment.
Narrowing Reaganism and Thatcherism to mere libertarianism is like ascribing to Winston Churchill anti-imperialist or pro-Soviet sympathies because of his unavoidable wartime compromises.
Too many conservatives on both sides of the populist/nationalist debate misunderstand this today. Reagan and Thatcher were not abstract ideologues, bound to ideas instead of to people. They were leaders of nations who applied their political ideals to serve their countries, not the other way around.
Their tax and regulatory relief and military build-ups were not first principles, but applications of principles that answered specific generational challenges. It’s not a coincidence that this agenda, designed for the late 1970s, has rusted since stagflation and the Soviet Union disappeared.
Today, a new set of challenges has emerged — or rather, been foisted onto working families by a new generation of self-serving, institutional elites. So these must now become the focus of Republican and Conservative leaders.
If they were here, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would be the first ones to say so. They would also fully expect their parties’ Washington and London establishments to miss the boat. That’s exactly what happened in their times, too.
The Brexit vote and Trump election were signals from the British and American people that they were tired of watching elites undermine their national identity, sovereignty, and values. Tory and Republican struggles since are the direct result of party leaders misunderstanding — and sometimes deliberately subverting — their coalitions and their mandates.
And yet, despite all these missed opportunities, the problems that fueled Trump and Brexit persist. The Left has only doubled-down on woke, globalist elitism, and their contempt for democratic accountability and the hard-working, patriotic families who possess it.
So, despite GOP and Tory leaders’ failures to capitalize on the populist, nationalist lessons of 2016 over the last seven years, those lessons can still revive conservatism in the U.S. and the U.K. in 2023 and 2024. But to do so, we must choose to do so. What party leaders lack is not the way, but the will.
III. One-Nation Reaganism/Thatcherism
Back in the States, Republican insiders would rather ride anti-Biden sentiment to electoral success rather than actually serve a working-class, one-nation conservative coalition and agenda. They either don’t know or don’t care that this strategy would only lead to more frustration and dysfunction.
Yes, it’s easier to run against leftist failure and extremism than it is to run for a positive vision and platform. But Reagan and Thatcher showed that for principled conservatives, crafting such an agenda and governing accordingly is not as hard as incumbent insiders pretend.
First, we begin with the end in mind. What is it conservatives seek? This part is actually easy — an America, and a United Kingdom, where individuals and families have the freedom to pursue ordered liberty that leads to human flourishing – what some might call the “good life.”
From there, we identify the obstructions blocking everyday Americans and Britons’ opportunities to pursue the good life.
Illegal immigration, crime, and the breakdown of the family. China and job-outsourcing. Social isolation. Classroom indoctrination. Screen and porn addiction. Encroachments on the freedoms of speech and religion. Unaccountable, globalist authoritarianism from public and private sector elites, including the EU. Unsustainable national debts.
There are principled, conservative policies to address these challenges today just as directly and decisively as tax relief and defense spending rescued the U.S. and U.K. in the 1980s. But they are not going to be popular with the corporate, media, and institutional elites accustomed to setting the national agenda.
Too many Republican and Conservative Party insiders see this as a red line they will not cross. What they still don’t understand is that it’s not up to them. The only conservative majorities on offer in the United States and United Kingdom today are working class coalitions more focused on social solidarity, secure borders, national identity, and equal opportunity than they are on the capital gains tax rate.
It is not the people’s job to support conservative leaders. It’s conservative leaders’ job to support their people. To accomplish this task we will need the populist, nationalist, conservative insights of our 1980s heroes to build a new, One-Nation Conservatism for the 21st century.
IV. The Agenda
Former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s controversial fiscal proposal is a perfect case in point. It was attacked, even by many nationalist conservatives, for being inapt. The fairer critique is that it was incomplete. Coming out of Covid-19, a jolt of adrenaline to the U.K. economy’s animal spirits was perfectly appropriate.
What the plan lacked were complementary reforms directly benefiting the working class “conservatives of the heart” that won the Brexit fight and Tories their majority.
Free markets should be used to generate wealth, yes. But policy should ensure that new wealth expands access to assets rather than just inflating the value of pre-existing ones.
That is what tighter immigration laws — especially restrictions on lower-skilled migrants — can do. That is what increased production and refinement of domestic energy can do. That is what bilateral trade agreements — starting with the United States — can do.
That’s what British recission of all E.U. regulations can do. It’s what a crackdown on Chinese Communist Party-connected investment in the U.S. and U.K. economies can do. It’s what legislative protections of speech, religion, and woke-free classrooms can do.
Finally, this is what statism — even of a supposedly right-wing variety — can never do. Whatever rhetorical costume politicians might clothe it in, corporate capitalism is inherently elitist and hostile to the interests of working families. Conservatives’ goal should be to harness the free market — to empower individuals, families, and communities against the elite institutions conspiring against them.
This approach may seem novel to some, but it has been the approach of America’s most successful conservative state governors for several years now.
Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Brian Kemp of Georgia defied the unscientific elite consensus during the Covid pandemic, and their states were rewarded for it.
Several states — like Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Iowa — have reworked their entire public education policies to fund students, not systems, and give all families the options that were once available only to the wealthy.
Glenn Youngkin in Virginia is one of several governors to ban racist, misogynistic “critical theory” from children’s classrooms.
Conservative governors are protecting girls’ sports and women’s shelters. They are codifying commonsense restrictions on abortion. They are cleaning up crime-ridden city streets. They are stripping special privileges from woke corporations. They are passing election integrity reforms that have increased voter turnout. They are holding Big Tech accountable for the epidemic of porn and social isolation they have unleashed on our kids. They are even busing illegal immigrants to pious cities and states who call themselves “sanctuaries” but then protest actual migrants’ arrival on their streets.
The Heritage Foundation has compiled hundreds of more reforms for federal policymakers in Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, part of our ongoing work for the 2025 presidential transition project.
Most of these policies are at once populist, nationalist, anti-establishment, Reaganite, and Thatcherite. They drive the Left crazy not because of any extremism, but because of their commonsense popularity. The extremists in American and British politics today are not the populists but the elites trying to escape democratic accountability. Fighting them requires national unity fueled both by individual opportunity and social cohesion.
Edmund Burke’s little platoons, the family above all, are the most important asset in the portfolio of any nation that intends to remain free. Policy must treat them accordingly — as a unique and indispensable class of social, political, economic, and spiritual investment not merely as a sub-category of consumer spending or brief for some new Directorate General in Belgium.
Policy can achieve these familial and communitarian aims
Policy can achieve these familial and communitarian aims — and indeed only can — in the context of a dynamic entrepreneurial economy. Abandoning free enterprise to help workers is like defunding police departments to help underprivileged neighborhoods or abandoning religion to free souls from the ravages of sin. A populist One-Nation Conservatism should not seek to shelter workers and families from the storms of global capitalism, but make them the storm.
Make private and public, local, national, and international institutions work for them, dependent on them, and answerable to them.
American and British conservatives have always traveled parallel paths, toward success and failure. Our era is no different.
In 2016, Republicans and Tories practically stumbled into a promising future that establishment leaders took great pains to forestall. Since then, Anglo-American conservatives have taken our losses because of an inability to rise to the occasion and seize the opportunities that history and our countries gave us. In 2022, the promised “red wave” midterm election never materialized outside of a few states – predictably the ones with strong conservative governors. And as you know, today the Conservative Party is struggling at a low ebb of its own.
Misfortune invites discord. And to date, on both sides of the Atlantic, establishment and anti-establishment conservatives have accepted its invitation all too eagerly. But with elections in both our countries fast approaching, there is no more time for intramural bickering, let alone the foolish idea that free-market to nationalist conservatives can win without each other. In America and Britain, conservatives’ time for choosing is not next year, but right now.
And our only choice now is neither to praise nor to bury Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but to emulate them.
To identify the problems holding working American and British families back — and apply our principles of freedom, faith, and nation to those problems. This is how we unify the Right, and bring the political center to the Right — and consign woke elites to the tiny political minority they actually comprise.
Pan-ethnic, middle-class, patriotic, populist conservative majorities already exist in both our countries. The job of the Republican and Conservative Parties is not to create them, but to embrace them and lead them – and lead our countries to a stronger, freer, brighter future that American and British families deserve.
I’ll conclude by reiterating a point I made last month, while here for another conference, as it’s something you, our British friends, don’t hear nearly enough from Americans. Thank you, and your countrymen, dating back generations and even many centuries, for everything you have done to protect the timeless principles of faith, family, and freedom — the pillars, alas, of One Nation Burkeanism. Your and your ancestors’ sacrifices, all over the globe, and every single time it has mattered — often with you and only you standing between freedom and tyranny — is part of our cultural inheritance as Americans, as well as a privilege and burden for which we must reinvigorate great fervour, because, as you and I know, the world is counting on us.
Adapted from a speech Dr Roberts gave at the Legatum Institute.
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