The Magazine

The Michael Moore Conservatives

From the May 31, 2004 issue: Meet Britain's anti-American Tories.

May 31, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 36 • By ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE
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THERE ARE MANY THINGS that can be said against Michael Moore. An odd combination of Howard Stern and Paul Krugman, Moore is the king of all left-wing media, from films to books, who specializes in trashing everything that conservative America holds dear. For Moore, businessmen are always trampling on the faces of the poor, Republicans are always the tools of sinister vested interests, and America is always up to no good in the world. But say this for the pudgy auteur, he has his uses as a timesaver at dinner parties in hyper-partisan America. If the woman next to you admires Moore, she probably dated Dean and is now firmly married to Kerry; if she regards Moore as a bilious blowhard, then she is probably going to vote for George W. Bush.

Things are a bit more complicated in my native England. Take, for instance, a lunch at a famous Conservative haunt in London's clubland in the tense weeks before the invasion of Iraq. As a visitor from Washington, D.C., I would normally have expected a few warm inquiries about the health of Britain's closest ally; instead, I was subjected to a vigorous inquisition from the assembled Tories.

A retired Foreign Office panjandrum denounced the Bush administration for its crass ignorance of the Arab world. A curmudgeonly barrister proclaimed his intention to march for peace. A senior banker complained that he can't visit New York these days without being shocked by the money-grubbing vulgarity of the place. The only person present who didn't regard George W. Bush as a warmongering simpleton was an American émigré who had worked for Richard Perle in the Pentagon back in the 1980s.

This was my first introduction to the world of Britain's Michael Moore conservatives. Think of all the baggage that one finds in Moore's ideological duffel bag--from his first film, the anti-GM attack Roger & Me, through his denunciation of the "thief in chief" in the bestselling Stupid White Men, through last week's standing ovation at the Cannes film festival for his latest conspiratorial anti-Bush film, Fahrenheit 9/11. There is the belief that American politics is shaped by evil special interests (oil barons, neoconservatives, evangelicals); a preference for "sophisticated" European policies over "simpleminded" American ones; and, above all, a loathing for George W. Bush. All of these views are commonly voiced in the most impeccably conservative circles in London. This is not to say that every true blue cloakroom has a stock of Moore's books, though some do, particularly in houses with children at university (he has sold a million copies in Britain); it is more that British Tories have come independently to exactly the same views as Moore.

Of course, the Tory High Command remains officially Atlanticist. The current Tory leader, Michael Howard, based his political rehabilitation, after the disastrous John Major years, on a breakfast club he set up called the Transatlantic Partnership. The Tories like to claim a shared heritage with the Republicans, dating back to the days of Ron and Margaret, and the brighter Tories, such as David Willetts and Oliver Letwin, raid American think tanks for ideas.

But under the surface, things are changing fast. Indeed, the Tories may have taken a subtle but decisive turn away from their traditional allies in the Republican party. On May 20, Howard wrote a piece in the Independent, a ferociously antiwar newspaper that is home to the legendary Robert Fisk, attacking Tony Blair for being slavishly loyal to Bush, and urging him to be a "candid" critic. The language was extremely careful, as you would expect, and Howard stressed both his party's support for the war and its ties to America; but the Independent had no doubt about the meaning ("Howard's message to Blair: Time to stand up to Bush"). Nor did Tory Atlanticists. Charles Moore, a leading Thatcherite journalist, immediately attacked Howard for making "cheap shots" and pandering to antiwar sentiment. At the same time, the Spectator, the house journal of the British right, published a cover story claiming that Republicans are furious with Howard for criticizing Blair. "The White House hates Michael," reported one senior Tory.

If Howard has shifted against Bush--and of course he claims not to have done so--then he is merely reflecting the views of his MPs. George Osborne, the Tory MP for Tatton (and definitely not of the Michael Moore persuasion), reports that John Kerry is significantly more popular than George Bush among both Tory MPs and Tory voters. Indeed, he thinks that Kerry would probably do better in the Tory shires and suburbs than he would do in Labour's urban heartlands. His fellow MPs produce a laundry list of complaints about the Texan in the White House, ranging from his decision to withdraw from the Kyoto treaty to his keenness on God to his general demeanor (he looks as if he "might wail at the moon").