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Eye on the News

Nicholas Wapshott
Cameron’s Compromised Conservatism
Will the Tories bring bigger government to Britain?
9 July 2008

Short of a miracle, widespread disenchantment with Gordon Brown’s Labour government will soon land David Cameron, the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party, in 10 Downing Street. Though Brown has until the summer of 2010 to convince voters that he deserves to stay on as prime minister, the electoral pendulum is swinging against him. The latest polling gives the Conservatives support of 47 percent of voters over Labour’s risible 25 percent, with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats attracting 21 percent.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s chosen political heir, John Major, went down to defeat in June 1997, the Conservatives have had three leaders, each of whom might have reasonably expected to become prime minister in due course. All offered Thatcher’s brand of fundamental conservatism: the promise of sound money, a robust foreign policy, and sharply reduced government. All were defeated. To avoid becoming the latest Tory casualty, Cameron has put clear blue water between himself and the Iron Lady, whose imprimatur he has neither sought nor received. The official Tory website links to the Thatcher Foundation with the telling warning, “The Conservative Party is neither responsible for, nor necessarily endorses the content of the website to which you are going.” So what is Cameron conservatism? And what might we expect from a Cameron government?

In brief, he promises a return to the patrician, corporatist conservatism not on offer in Britain since Edward Heath lost, twice, in 1974. In everything from economic policy to leading by social example—he suggests that good behavior encourages others to behave better—Cameron is resurrecting the values of the aristocratic conservatism that Prime Minister Harold Macmillan successfully peddled in the early sixties. It was Macmillan who—when asked whether he had read Friedrich Hayek, Thatcher’s favorite economist—remarked that Thatcher “would better spend her time reading Moneypenny and Buckle’s Life of Disraeli in her garden,” before adding snobbishly, “if she has a garden.”

It’s no accident that Cameron is a product of Eton, England’s grandest school (though his party’s website does not advertise that fact). Other Eton graduates include Hurd and Macmillan; the two mid-century Tory premiers Alec Douglas-Home and Anthony Eden; the new Tory mayor of London, Boris Johnson; and Cameron’s chief policy adviser, Oliver Letwin. The noblesse oblige that drives them is a far cry from the no-nonsense, meritocratic market conservatism that the state-educated Lady Thatcher promulgated.

Inspired by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and University of Arizona social psychologist Robert Cialdini—rather than by Thatcher’s gurus Hayek and Milton Friedman—Cameron believes that he can champion a “post-bureaucratic age” in which the state will take the lead in shaping society. “While we must be aware of the limitations of Government, we should never be limited in our aspirations for Government,” he declared. “It is not enough for Government to get out of the way. It must get involved.” He argues that Labour has not spent enough: “You can’t get decent quality on the cheap,” he said. “We will give public services the proper funding they need.”

Labour’s error, Cameron suggests, is not having chosen big government, but having applied it poorly. As his justice spokesman, Nick Herbert, puts it: “Labour cannot understand that people don’t want more government, they want government that delivers value for money. In the post-bureaucratic age, the need is for a government that enables and empowers.” To this end, Cameron is proposing that the state intervene in everything from family life to the economy. He backs state funding for charities to help with marriage guidance and homelessness, 12-month-leave for new parents, and state-funded “relationship education” alongside sex education in schools. The Conservatives, he pledges, will provide “a massive increase in the number of health visitors” to advise families on how to raise children. Rather than cut payments to force welfare dependents to work, according to Cameron’s work spokesman, Chris Grayling, the state will provide “employment ‘boot camps’ and community work programs for those who don’t find a job.”

Though “a free-marketeer by conviction,” Cameron believes that “the modern, globalised economy, created to a large extent by laissez-faire economics, demands more than laissez-faire economics for success in the future.” The state will provide cash for businesses, he said, but “not old-fashioned subsidies for hand picked favorites, but modern support for enterprise and wealth creation.” Corporatism, then, is on its way back. Shadow chancellor George Osborne told the British Bankers Association, “I believe there is a deal to be struck between the government and the [financial sector],” while Cameron declared that “business and politicians can come together to help bring about the social change we all want to see.”

Cameron hopes to silence the Thatcherite rump in his party by persuading voters of the virtues of old-school Conservatism. “I don’t want us to be elected on the back of a disintegrating Labour Party,” he said. “I want us to be elected with a clear mandate to make the changes Britain needs.” Abandoning the fundamental conservative legacy of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, he appears to have turned to another American president for inspiration. On a short trip to America in April, Osborne, Cameron’s chief lieutenant, went hours out of his way to pay homage at Hyde Park, New York, to the memory of America’s most successful patrician liberal: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Nicholas Wapshott is a contributing editor and columnist with the New York Sun. His Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage was published by Sentinel in November and will appear in paperback this September.

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