As the poor old GOP comes to terms with its presidential defeat, it is getting a lot of advice from liberal and journalistic well-wishers on how it must change in order to win or even survive. This gloomy kind of postmortem is probably overdone for a party that got 47 percent of the popular vote and retained control of the lower house of Congress. Nor can one help noticing that the advice given this time is suspiciously similar to the advice given on previous occasions when the GOP had lost an election: namely move to the left and adapt to America’s progressive pop culture. This panacea is marketed under different brand labels, but the mixture is pretty much the same advice.
On this occasion, however, one element from past asessments seems to be missing. We are not being told that the best model for a GOP makeover is David Cameron’s “de-toxification” of Britain’s Tory party. That was a theme we heard a few years ago from several commentators, some of them good friends of mine, notably David Frum and David Brooks. Never having believed it, I naïvely thought that the chorus would die down when Cameron failed to win a majority in an unlosable election against a Labour government presiding over economic collapse. Instead, when that duly happened, the theory of Cameron’s model conservatism stopped breathing for a moment, and then quickly revived, getting off its sick-bed and holding forth about the virtues of David Cameron’s “Big Society,” his shrewdness in forming a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and his prudent toughness in embracing austerity based on tax hikes today and spending cuts down the road.
Well, 33 months later, the Cameron model looks distinctly Heath Robinson (British English for Rube Goldberg). No one any longer talks about the “Big Society,” because no one understood what it meant when they did and — more depressingly — because Britain is moving steadily in the opposite direction, towards a more statist and welfarist society. Last week, for instance, the Con-Lib coalition — one in which the Liberal Democrat tail wags the Conservative dog most of the time — announced a new universal old-age “social care” scheme to be financed by maintaining a low threshold (of about $500,000) for the payment of estate tax, which will become an increase in real terms as inflation and house prices rise. When in opposition, the Tories had promised to raise the threshold to about $1,500,000. It was almost the only popular item in their manifesto. Labour alone promised to defend the existing estate-tax threshold, which the Tories denounced as an attack on the middle class. The coalition’s decision last week amounts to trebling the tax by comparison with the Tory manifesto pledge. It’s an abandonment of principle and a betrayal of their middle-class supporters in areas such as Southeast England, where quite modest houses are now subject to estate taxes.
And how is deficit reduction going? The answer has to be: not very well. The coalition’s budgetary plans under Tory chancellor George Osborne have gone completely awry. As the British economy has faltered — it looks as if it’s about to enter its third recession under the present management — the chancellor has postponed spending cuts and added additional expenditure items. Public spending as a share of GDP has risen from an alarming 48 percent under Labour to 49.9 percent today. The coalition’s budgetary plans — allegedly the basis for the Con-Lib coalition — are laxer and more spendthrift than those in Labour’s last budget under the widely respected chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling. And as the mirage of future tax cuts grows ever more evanescent, real new tax hikes loom. To fill the voracious appetite of the regulatory and welfare state, the Lib-Dems are calling for a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than $3.2 million (in addition to wealth taxes on other items, too, such as jewelry).
Some conservatives justify such wealth taxes as a better (and more capitalist) way to raise revenue than income taxes. Even the estimable Tim Montgomerie argues in his London Times column that they hit the undeserving rich rather than the hard-working poor. Even if we grant this — which we shouldn’t since the undeserving rich pay 27 percent of income tax in the U.K. and property taxes are already among the highest in advanced countries — the real significance of this debate is that it illustrates the drift leftwards of British opinion, including conservative opinion, during the short life of this government. To quote the shrewd Scottish political critic, Iain Martin, responding to Montgomerie: “All sorts of ideas which a decade ago would have been regarded as potty are now mainstream; the government owning enormous shareholdings in banks springs to mind. Adding one trillion pounds to the national debt is another. A government with Conservatives in charge of the Treasury is dragging millions more into the 40p tax band with such relentlessness that one wonders whether George Osborne hopes eventually to make 40p the new flat-tax rate paid by middle class Britain.”
Not only the tax debate illustrates this inexorable drift leftwards. Most areas of policy are now moving in the same direction. To take the latest example, the Tories now seem committed to protecting the principle of socialized medicine from any blame for the abuse and neglect of patients in the National Health Service that has led to thousands of deaths. This inertial drift is rooted ultimately in Cameron’s “detoxification” strategy, which amounted in essence to a firm refusal to challenge metropolitan liberal opinion on anything whatsoever and to abandon those conservative ideas that liberals find unpalatable. Indeed, early accounts of the “thinking” of Cameron strategists stress that policy should aim at winning centrist Lib-Dem votes rather than natural right-wing ones. Some even argued that the Tory Party should deliberately and visibly alienate natural conservatives as a way of demonstrating to the target centrists that the party was sincere about rejecting its “nasty” (i.e., realistic) image and ugly supporters. Cameronians were always talking about seizing a “Clause IV moment” — a reference to Tony Blair’s rejection of Clause IV of the Labour-party constitution, which committed the party to full-bore nationalization of industry — when one arrived. And when one was slow to arrive, David Cameron provoked one anyway by committing his government to same-sex marriage.