David Cowan: A Tale of Two Conservatisms

This tumultuous political year has been a tale of two conservatisms. On one side of the Atlantic, Thatcherites are celebrating the historic Brexit vote. On the other side, Reaganites are still reeling after Donald Trump won the presidency by tearing apart the conservative rulebook. As we approach the New Year, Thatcherites should reflect on why their movement has continued to be successful unlike their American counterparts.


In 2016, it became abundantly clear that the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The central defining conflict of our times is not a clash of ideologies, as it was during the Cold War between capitalism and communism, but a clash of cultures. Across the world, ‘History’ has returned with a vengeance. Nationalism, tribalism, and religious fundamentalism are driving forward political violence by both state and non-state actors. Whether it be China flexing her muscles in the South China Sea, Russia threatening the freedom of Eastern Europe, or ISIS spreading its barbarous creed of hate, the world is no longer defined by ideas but by identity. 

This has been reflected by the Left’s embrace of globalism and political correctness. By advocating open borders and global governance, they have abandoned the patriotic working classes which had once been the driving force behind the Labour movement and New Deal liberalism. The Left has also become fixated with identity politics and coercing people into strict codes of conduct through positive discrimination, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. This policing of language and repudiation of national identity is an assault on both classical liberals and traditional conservatives through its unthinking intolerance of alternative views and arrogant dismissal of tradition and history. 

As we face these new challenges, the examples of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan remain more relevant than ever. It is just a question of adapting to new circumstances. In America, many Reaganites have failed to adapt and instead find themselves stuck in a political groundhog day where every election is 1980 and every Democratic nominee is Jimmy Carter. Fortunately, Thatcherites in Britain have proven themselves to be more adept at moving with the times and showing how Lady Thatcher’s example can still inspire. 

When Lady Thatcher made her famous 1988 Bruges Speech, her opposition to European federalism was based on the defence of Britain’s free economy and political independence. This Euroscepticism has united classical liberals and traditional conservatives ever since, and prepared them for today’s age of clashing identities. While far-right parties exploit populist anger on the continent, Thatcherites have nurtured an enlightened nationalism which respects both British identity and liberty. They have succeeded in addressing people’s dissatisfaction with uncontrolled mass immigration and unaccountable bureaucratic elites, whilst still supporting free trade and engagement with the wider world. 

The same cannot be said for Reaganism. Anticommunism was the glue which kept together the Reagan movement’s vast array of traditional conservatives, classical liberals, ex-communists, disillusioned left-liberals, and enraged evangelicals. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Reagan movement began to fracture. These different groups could not find a common cause or shared policies to address Middle America’s concerns with deindustrialisation, illegal immigration, and America’s role in the world. This left a vacuum which is now being filled by Trump’s populist nationalism and could define American conservatism for a generation. 

Despite their triumph on June 24, Thatcherites should not rest on their laurels. As Britain exits the EU and searches for a new role in world affairs, Thatcherites will have to continue tackling cultural problems in the spirit of enlightened nationalism. Globalism and political correctness together threaten to deconstruct the history, culture, and institutions which have formed British identity and liberty. By seeking a cultural year zero, the Left is attempting a revolution on the scale of 1789 or 1917, which will roll forward the frontiers of the state into every aspect of how we live and think. Reaganites were slow to learn this lesson, or to do anything about it, so Trumpism is now filling the void. If British liberty is to be conserved, then Thatcherites will have to take the lead in conserving British culture from the destructive forces of the globalist, politically correct Left.

David Cowan is a freelance writer, Conservative activist, and Cambridge University graduate.

Follow David on Twitter.