Where is conservatism heading in the English-speaking world? This question is currently being answered in the four countries of the Anglosphere — namely, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Britain — in four distinctive ways.
THE UNITED STATES
I will assume that American readers have a rough grasp of the state of conservatism in the U.S. as revealed in the Republican primaries. It is currently — as it has been for many years — a struggle for dominance in the movement between economic and social conservatives.
Readers abroad who rely for guidance on their mainline foreign correspondents (who in turn rely on the establishment media in the U.S.) may have the impression that this is a vicious battle between incompatible gangs of lunatic extremists. But as Tim Stanley writes on his Daily Telegraph blog, the struggle is really a less fundamental one between the country club and the church picnic.
Each of these contenders for the soul of conservatism is accustomed to cooperating with the other. Both are fairly conservative. So, unless Romney is a sheep in wolf’s clothing — which seems to be the principal anxiety about him among Republican voters — this is also a struggle that both sides can afford to lose.
To put it in negative terms: A practicing Mormon such as Governor Romney is unlikely to be morally radical; a Catholic moralist such as Senator Santorum is unlikely to continue the economics of overspending and debt; and a visionary futurist such as Speaker Gingrich is unlikely to tolerate either the government’s Luddite obstruction of innovation or its enforcement of a new morality of subsidized bohemianism.
All conservatives can ultimately live with the victory of any of the leading candidates. All will gain somewhat by the adoption of their favorite policies. All will be disappointed from time to time — but very few to the extent that they will leave the Republican coalition.
American conservatism remains vigorous and fundamentally healthy. Its rhetorical excesses and its internal battles — however inconvenient from the narrow standpoint of party management and electoral discipline — are evidence of that health and vigor. What it needs to acquire from the primaries is a leader who has both the firmness to adopt a strong program of reform — combining, say, the Ryan plan and tea-party principles — and the rhetorical skill to persuade the American people of its necessity.
Such a leader is easier to describe than to find. Reagans and Thatchers don’t grow on trees. Do other conservative leaders in the Anglosphere give Americans either hope or guidance?
Conservatism is thriving both in Australia and in Canada — but doing so in very different ways. It is advancing in Australia by boldness and in Canada by caution.
In Australia the key moment in internal conservative politics occurred in December 2009 when Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal party by defeating his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, over the latter’s support for Labor legislation introducing a carbon-emissions trading scheme.
Abbott’s election was greeted with glee by both the Labor government and the left-wing media, which saw him as an unelectable right-winger. But he won a moral victory by holding Labor to a draw — 72 parliamentary seats each — in the 2010 election. Today his Liberal-Country Coalition enjoys a 10 percent lead over a faction-ridden Labor government uneasily reliant for its tiny majority on three independent MPs.
Abbott is a brilliant but unorthodox conservative politician. He emerged from the social-conservative wing of his party — and some free-marketeers are uneasy about him — but his program includes bold cuts in spending and the repeal of recent Labor “reforms” (including the carbon-emissions tax that narrowly passed this year). He is stealing away blue-collar voters — until recently Labor’s core vote — both because of his robust personality and because he defends ordinary Australians against the bright ideas of new Labor elites. He manages to combine populism with pragmatism in a rare, if not unique, mix.
In a 2011 study of Abbott that should be read in full here, Paul Kelly of The Australian summed him up as follows: “[Abbott] has a conservative set of values that he champions yet his policy outlook is highly flexible and pragmatic. . . . Because Abbott is seen to stand for enduring values he gets away with multiple policy switches with impunity.”
Currently Abbott is expected to win an election that must be held some time in the next 18 months — and to do so on a program that is boldly conservative but not dogmatically pure.
Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, offers a very different approach — but one that makes good sense in the Canadian context: He underpromises and overdelivers.
Conservatism was seen until recently as a doomed philosophy in a Canada permanently governed by a large and ideologically sprawling Liberal party with brief intervals of power granted to a “Progressive Conservative” party that, as its name suggests, was like a schizophrenic confined in a state asylum.
Harper has been described (by an admirer) as “Canada’s Nixon” — a cerebral politician who quietly calculates the steps necessary to gain his objectives and then, having also calculated the opposition to them, methodically sets about achieving them.
The objective of replacing both the Liberals and the “Red Tories” as governing parties by a genuinely conservative party was surely too ambitious even for a Nixon. There must have been many disappointments, second thoughts, and adaptations along the way. Still, that is what has actually happened, and Harper was a leading player at every stage of the game.
He first set about undermining the Tories by helping to found a rival conservative party, Reform; then he amalgamated Reform with rump Tories to form the Conservative Party of Canada; next he led the CPC into minority government on a “softly, softly” program of moderate reform; finally, last year, he gained a clear majority and made the CPC the natural party of government in an election in which the Liberals fell into third place.
This is an impressive record by any measure. Still, conservative Canada-watchers such as Mark Steyn, David Frum, and indeed me have sometimes suggested that Harper’s gradualist conservatism in government was so gradual that it was unlikely to shift Canada rightwards — to a smaller state or a more self-reliant society or a more patriotic national self-image — to any real extent.
After six years, social conservatives do feel let down — though not very far down, since they had modest expectations of a political leader who has avoided issues such as abortion and embraced conventional views on immigration. For other conservatives, however, that judgment looks questionable in ways large and small.
Building on the earlier budget-tightening of Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, Harper has cut the size of government to one of the smallest in the advanced world. Canada’s tax burden is now similarly low, at about 31 percent of GDP. And its budget deficit, though somewhat higher as a result of the 2007–11 world recession, is on course to disappear by 2013. Overall, Canada’s economy is one of the freest, according to the Heritage Foundation’s index.
More subtly, Harper has embarked on a series of measures to restore the cultural atmosphere of Canadian life along pre-Trudeau lines: promoting the armed forces and restoring pride in Canada’s military record (a very glorious one in truth); installing royal portraits in Canadian embassies; imposing a language requirement — French in Quebec, English elsewhere — for permanent residents; and, just recently, giving government support to repealing the anti-free-speech powers of Canada’s misnamed Human Rights Commissions. Even on immigration, which has risen under his government, Harper has made it serve Canada better by tightening refugee provisions, cracking down on fraud, shifting from permanent to temporary worker visas, revoking passports fraudulently obtained, and moving from “family reunification” to economic need as the main basis of policy. Canada’s postwar drift from lumberjack to cross-dresser, as in the Monty Python song, has begun to reverse.
Moreover, the pace of gradual change is accelerating. Having complained in early 2011 that Harper had disappointed the Canadian West by failing to tackle federal intrusions on its rights and interests, journalist Kevin Libin had to return to the topic post-election and concede that Harper had now delivered on every count. See full article here.
Abolishing the Wheat Board and the federal gun registry may seem modest measures from the outside, but abandoning Canada’s obligations under Kyoto was neither small nor gradual; it was a sharp and frontal challenge to a U.N.-sponsored world consensus. And it was accepted with relatively little resistance within Canada — suggesting that Harper had gone a long way towards establishing conservatism as the nation’s new governing philosophy.
But it is Britain’s David Cameron who has attracted the most attention in the U.S. as a possible model for the GOP and American conservatives. New York Times columnist David Brooks has espoused Cameron’s “Big Society,” his new brand of social or communitarian or “localist” conservatism, and, unlike other intellectual supporters, has even made a decent stab at explaining what it is. Other writers critical of the current contenders for GOP leadership have followed suit.
Mr. Cameron arrived in Washington yesterday. His arrival had been heralded by a short overture on the Foreign Policy website by Spectator blogger Alex Massie, about the lessons Cameron represents for the American Right. Although leavened by admissions that Cameron’s “localism” hasn’t really achieved much, that the Cameron Tories in opposition endorsed Labour’s runaway spending, which helped precipitate the crash, and that his government’s supposedly draconian budgetary plans are “only different in degree” from Labour’s (in fact they are slightly less severe), Massie’s main theme is the standard Cameron narrative that the GOP should learn to “detoxify” its image in order to win new voters, as Cameron succeeded in doing by “going Green” and avoiding traditional Tory issues. But as the joke about such an election goes: Great campaign, pity about the result.
For those eccentrics interested in a more thorough dissection of the Cameron narrative, please go to my own analysis in NR here.
But it might be quicker and simpler to read some recent British newspaper headlines. In particular, the London Sunday Times ten days ago led off the news with a front-page banner headline shouting: “Tax Battle Rages over How to Hit the Rich.”
The story beneath it described how the so-called Quad of leading Cabinet ministers who set the political strategy for the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government — two Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats — were now debating new, or at least higher, taxes for the forthcoming March budget. Similar stories about higher taxes have been in every daily paper since then.
If one goes behind the headlines, moreover, one discovers a curious and complex quadrille being danced by the Cameron Tories and their Liberal Democrat partners over tax policy.
Both parties agreed in the coalition negotiations to a Lib-Dem proposal to take people earning $16,000 or less out of taxation altogether. The Tories extracted no quid pro quo for this.
It is a very different story for the higher tax brackets. Tory backbenchers have been arguing for several months that the 50 percent top rate of income tax should be reduced to 40 percent.
Good reasons for this change have been piling up: The 50 percent rate becomes a punitive 58 percent when local and social-security taxes are added; it sends a message that Britain is hostile to successful enterprise; it deters high-earners from settling or staying in Britain; and it raises very little revenue into the bargain. And on top of all that, the British economy is stuck in a mild recession and would benefit from the stimulus of a cut in the higher tax rates — or so a politically mixed group of economists recently declared.
In this new atmosphere, Liberal Democrats — who had been loudly boasting all year that they would stop their Tory colleagues from cutting taxes on the rich — now announced that they were not ideologically opposed to this particular cut. Of course, it would have to be “paid for” by other taxes on the rich.
But why by other taxes? Might not this and other tax cuts be financed by cuts in public spending? The proportion of Britain’s GDP now taken by the public sector has recently risen to about 50 percent. It has been rising, along with Britain’s net indebtedness, throughout the two years of the coalition government. Surely the Tories must now be pressing their Lib-Dem partners to accept spending cuts in order to finance the desired growth package of tax cuts? Right? Well, apparently wrong.
According to press reports, it is the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, who has set his face against any further spending cuts.
A desire to conciliate his Lib-Dem partners? Perhaps.
A fear that spending cuts would depress demand and delay any tentative recovery? Possibly — if cutting expenditure were the whole of the policy. But the idea is to cut spending in order to finance a tax cut in order to stimulate the economy. When the public sector is half of the economy, it should be easy to find cuts whose recessionary impact would be modest compared to a tax stimulus of about the same size. Yet no such search will be undertaken.
That suggests a more direct political motive. George Osborne enjoys the reputation of being a shrewd political strategist because his steering of the last election campaign did not result in an outright Tory defeat. Looking ahead, he may calculate that the Tories cannot afford to cut spending at all if they are to win the Middle Ground next time. Thus they cannot cut taxes for the rich, however sensibly and profitably, unless they hike taxes on the rich at the same time. Thus the Sunday Times headline.
Or, to borrow the logic of Angela Lansbury in the movie The Manchurian Candidate: “Are they asking, ‘Shall we levy new taxes on the rich?’ No, they are asking, ‘Which new taxes shall we levy on the rich?’”
This sets the scene for an elegant tax quadrille in which the Lib-Dems advance, kneel, and proffer a new tax on the rich; the Tories bow, indicate reluctance, and retreat; whereupon the Lib-Dems return with an alternative tax on the rich, at which the Tories quibble, turn on their heels, and . . . you get the idea.
In the last ten days the Lib-Dem proposals have included a “mansion tax” of 1 percent annually on homes worth $3 million and above; a cut in tax relief for the pensions of those in the higher tax brackets; a new and higher rate of council tax for those with homes worth more than about $500,000; and a so-called “tycoon tax” that would require millionaires who legally avoid the highest tax rates — by, for instance, giving large sums to charity — to pay not less than 20 percent of their income in tax.
Unfortunately for Mr. Osborne and the Tories, almost all these proposed taxes would hit not only “the rich” (however broadly defined) but people living in large houses (often purchased from the highly taxed incomes of the pre-Thatcher years) in the south of England, many of whom are retired and dependent on fixed incomes far lower than those they enjoyed in employment. Most of these are Tory voters, at least for the moment.
So perhaps it is not surprising that the latest twist in this saga may be that Cameron has decided a cut in the 50 percent tax rate is simply not worth all this trouble.
The Cameron Tories have got themselves into such trouble because of a decision they made in opposition: namely, that they would not challenge the fundamental premises of Gordon Brown’s socialist economics. They assumed, as Mr. Massie points out, that the boom would continue indefinitely. So they would not seriously challenge Labour’s spending plans lest they be asked the embarrassing question: “Which schools and hospitals would you therefore cut?” They would not argue that “exit” was at least equal to “voice” — and maybe superior to it — as a strategy for improving public services, lest they be accused of wholesale privatization. They would not maintain that tax cuts were a more efficient form of economic stimulus than increases in public spending, in case they were suspected of wanting to starve the public sector. They would not incorporate the incentive effects of marginal-tax-rate cuts in their tax-and-spend calculations, for fear of being called Reaganites or Republicans. And having abandoned the intellectual tools of anti-socialist economics, they now find themselves fighting on enemy territory and calling for tax hikes on the rich to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
This passivity on economic policy was a subset of the larger decision of the Cameron Tories not to challenge the cultural assumptions of modern metropolitan liberalism across the board. To be sure, there were areas of policy, notably education and welfare, where serious thinking produced effective, sensible, and distinctively Tory policies. But on crime, immigration, public order, human rights, the European Union, national sovereignty, and much else, there was a climate of reluctance to adopt policies, even to think thoughts, that might clash with the prevailing opinions in the governing elites. In government, this climate has worsened, because the Liberal Democrats in the coalition are usually in agreement, often fiercely, with the elites, institutions, and policies that most Tories see as foolish, damaging, or even hostile. This produces confusion and paralysis in official policy.
As a result, almost every day there is a crisis or a serious embarrassment. In the last week there have been three such events in addition to the comedy over taxes on the rich.
First, a Cabinet minister, Francis Maude, urged the electoral necessity of the Tory party’s seeking support from gays and ethnic minorities. That is incontestable in itself; the Tories, like other parties, should seek support from all social groups. But as Janet Daley pointed out in a Daily Telegraph column, Maude did not appear to grasp that the gay marriage he endorses unconditionally would be anathema to the majority of ethnic Britons who are either Muslims or evangelical Christians. That settles nothing, of course; gay marriage must be either supported or opposed on grounds of principle. But it does suggest the hollowness of an electoral strategy that treats all minorities (and all members of minorities) as interchangeably progressive.
Second, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a distinguished political scientist (and, as it happens, an old friend), resigned on Sunday from a official commission established to advise the government on how best to reshape British human-rights law. Should the U.K. regain some legislative sovereignty over such matters from the European Court of Human Rights (as most Tories, perhaps including David Cameron, wish)? Or should the U.K. retain a status quo in which European judges determine such matters as whether convicted terrorists should be deported and whether convicts in prison should have the vote (as all Liberal Democrats and some Tories contend)? Four experts, including Dr. Pinto-Duschinsky, were appointed to the commission by the Tories, and another four by the Lib-Dems, under a supposedly neutral civil-service chairman. Pinto-Duschinsky resigned because, he said, he and others had been marginalized and sidelined owing to his insistence that the wishes of Parliament be respected on human-rights issues. As a Holocaust survivor, he told the Daily Mail here, he was especially outraged when commission members compared parliamentary sovereignty over human rights to Nazism. In effect, the commission was rigged to produce an anti-Tory result.
The third such event is a comic codicil to this. In the same week that Maude advocated gay marriage and Pinto-Duschinsky resigned from the rigged commission, British government lawyers were found to have argued in submissions to the ECHR that two Christian women had no human right to wear crucifixes at their place of work. Comment is surely needless.
Alongside Tony Abbott’s combination of enduring values and flexible pragmatism or Stephen Harper’s gradualist encroachment on power, there seems little that American conservatives should want to copy in the confused, directionless, and easily thwarted record of Cameron conservatism. That may yet change, of course. Until it does, this charming, intelligent, and resourceful natural politician — but oddly passive and detached executive — will find a very compatible ally in the White House.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.