April 11, 2013 7:32 pm

The day old-style conservatism died

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The US right wing no longer has the gravitas of the Thatcher-Reagan years
Feb. 20, 1985 file photo, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with her friend and political ally President Ronald Reagan during a visit to the White House in Washington.©AP

There were a lot of pictures of Ronald Reagan in the newspapers this week, and it felt a little weird. It’s been almost a quarter of a century since the president left the White House and close to a decade since he died, and I have grown less accustomed to his face.

It was a blast from the past. There again was the Hollywood smile, the Windsor knot, the pompadour and, in every image, his trusty comrade in ideological arms from across the ocean, Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died on Monday aged 87.

On this side of the Atlantic, the death of Thatcher inevitably brought back memories of Reagan. Over here, the Gipper and the Iron Lady go together (to quote the words of Grease, the nostalgic 1978 movie-musical that signalled the turn towards conservatism). Theirs was a common era.

And what a time it was: battle lines were drawn between capitalists and communists, advocates of laisser faire and campaigners for fair play, employers and unions, entrepreneurs and grandees, Contras and Sandinistas, the crown and the junta, prison authorities and hunger strikers.

But as I read the retrospectives, I noticed the subjects that didn’t come up. I saw no mention of guns or Big Gulp servings of sugary drinks. The distinction between “forcible rape” and other kinds went unaddressed, as did the question of whether a woman so violated could become pregnant. No one held forth on whether man evolved from beasts or if homosexuality could be “cured”.

In other words, many issues that have stirred conservative discourse in the US in recent years – especially during our recent presidential campaign – weren’t on the agenda of Thatcher or Reagan.

Love them or hate them, they were bigger than that. Theirs was a conservatism aimed at fostering prosperity, liberating communist countries and encouraging responsibility. We could – and should – argue about the results, but their high-mindedness was undeniable.

What occurred to me this week is that you have to be pretty old – pushing middle age, in fact – to remember when conservatives in this country had the gravitas of the Thatcher-Reagan years and were looking to tackle the big problems of their day.

Children today think conservatives are people such as Sarah Palin, who sucked soda pop from an oversized cup during a recent appearance to mock efforts by Michael Bloomberg, New York’s mayor, to fight obesity by limiting portion sizes.

It was a sign of our times that on the day Thatcher died, US President Barack Obama was in Connecticut, pushing for gun control measures he proposed after a troubled young man, Adam Lanza, used a military-style rifle to kill 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in December.

The slaughter was the latest in a series of mass killings in the US, and it led to widespread calls for doing more to keep high-powered weapons off our streets and out of the hands of unstable people. In response, Mr Obama proposed measures including criminal background checks for all gun sales, a ban on “assault” weapons and a limit of 10 rounds per ammunition magazine.

But the president was in Connecticut because conservative opposition is making it hard to get Congress to embrace any new gun controls. A compromise proposal is being developed in the Senate that would extend background checks to more gun sales – not all of them – but even it faces obstacles that could prevent passage.

The right’s rejection is based in its customary reading of the second amendment to the US constitution: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Conservatives tend to ignore the part about a “well-regulated militia” as well as the question of whether Americans have the right to bear any kind of arms.

The right has its reasons. There are hunters out there who fear limits on their activities and patriots who see their guns as a defence against tyranny. But none of this speaks to the issues raised by Sandy Hook. In this instance, conservatives are looking away and saying “no” – the knee-jerk, brain-dead “no” of the bureaucrat or the shop steward.

It’s another reminder that US conservatism ain’t what it used to be. Thatcher is dead. Reagan is dead. The living are left to wonder why the militia has so much room for the mentally disturbed.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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