British Tory Leaders Now Look and Sound Like New Deal Democrats

Britain’s Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove speaks during a final general election campaign event in London, England, December 11, 2019. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)
The Conservative Party has never had any principles beyond holding power.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P olitical parties are protean by nature. It’s difficult to say anything about them that holds true over long periods of time. The Republican Party, for instance, has oscillated between pro-tariff isolationism and free-trade internationalism at fairly regular intervals during its history. Sometimes, however, recurring behaviors within parties persist over time, giving them a distinct flavor and identifiable character that remain consistent throughout their history.

The British Conservative Party is a case in point. At the end of the 19th century, the leader of the Liberals, William Harcourt, made the astute observation that the Conservatives “never yet took up a cause without betraying it in the end.” Over a hundred subsequent years of the Tories in government and in opposition have done nothing to weaken this claim. The unflinching willingness of the party to divest itself of any previously held principle or policy in order to win a majority in the House of Commons would be impressive if it wasn’t so completely amoral. Apart from a few brief periods of respite when some person of principle has managed to wrestle the reins of power away from agents of the status quo, the Conservative Party has operated with only two guiding principles in mind throughout its history: It is in favor of being in power, and it opposes being out of power.

The reply might come that every political party wants to be elected and triangulates its positions on some issue or another with that goal in mind, but a crucial distinction is necessary here. Most parties in Western democracies want to be in power in order to do something; the Tories will do anything simply to be in power. As Peter Hitchens has observed on numerous occasions, the Party’s only genuinely consistent purpose is to obtain office for the sons of gentlemen (“gentlemen” here meaning rich men from the right background, not well-mannered men of sound morals — think Rupert Murdoch, not Jimmy Stewart).

This was demonstrated yet again this week when the government announced that it intends to throw the politics of Margaret Thatcher overboard and embrace those of Franklin Roosevelt. More than any other Conservative prime minister in the past hundred years (yes, including Churchill, I maintain), Mrs. Thatcher actually wanted to lead the country during her premiership more than she wanted to be its leader. Her agenda, as Charles Moore has shown in his excellent recent biography, was driven by philosophical convictions and the unwavering execution of national policies that embodied them.

For most of her tenure she was regarded with suspicion by the parliamentary Conservative Party. She acceded to its leadership only because of the ingenious maneuvering of her great friend, Airey Neave. Mrs. Thatcher remade British conservatism in the classically liberal image of its American counterpart, and most of the affection that American conservatives have for the Tory Party can be traced to this brief convergence of outlook between Reagan Republicans and Thatcher Conservatives in the ’80s. However, by the early ’90s, Thatcher’s party had grown tired of her and proceeded to remove her from office shortly after her third general-election victory. The patrician paternalism of the ’60s and ’70s reasserted itself at the top of the party, and the Tories began to try on different sets of values in an attempt to coax the British electorate back into its embrace.

The 2020 iteration of British conservatism looks and sounds a lot like the left-of-center social-democracy politics of the pre-Sanders Democratic Party. Boris Johnson’s new electoral coalition is made up of a large number of traditionally Labour constituencies, and he has made clear that he intends to turn on the spending taps in an attempt to secure reelection when the time comes. Having modelled himself on Sir Winston Churchill for most of his public career, Johnson is now attempting to imitate FDR. No words of admiration for Stalin yet — but perhaps he can resist the urge to complete the Yalta set when it comes to his political role models.

But resisting urges has never been Boris’s strong suit. In an interview with Times Radio last week, Johnson declared,“This is the moment for a Rooseveltian approach to the U.K. The country has gone through a profound shock. But in those moments, you have the opportunity to change, and to do things better.” These sentiments were elaborated upon by the cabinet secretary, Michael Gove, in a speech he gave last week to the Ditchley Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Anglo-American relations. Gove began by offering his own variation on the now-familiar theme, set forth in recent years by J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy, of the class malcontent whose furor is driving 21st-century populist politics. Gove then proceeded to advocate the Roosevelt treatment for these social, economic, and political ailments:

FDR managed to save capitalism, restore faith in democracy, indeed extend its dominion, [and] renovate the reputation of government. He set his country on a course of increasing prosperity and equality of opportunity for decades — and enabled America to emerge from a decade of peril with the system, and society, that the free citizens of the rest of the world most envied.

According to Gove, this will involve “a change in structure, ambition, and organization” for government in the UK, with a view to enlarging the “ambition in scope” of the state. The section of Gove’s speech most likely to make American conservatives wince is this hymn of praise to “experimentation”:

The experience of FDR and his administration was that it was only through big risks, and radical experiments, that progress could be assured. Many of the programs initiated as part of the New Deal failed on their own terms. But, overall, the re-orientation of government to help the Forgotten Man, to restore hope in place of fear, to change government so it worked for all citizens and to be bold and restless in experimentation of new ways of working succeeded.

Only a few months ago the prime minister stood at the podium of the British Policy Exchange at the launch of Charles Moore’s aforementioned biography and sang the praises of Mrs. Thatcher. At one point in his speech, with the exultant call-and-response fervor of an evangelical preacher, he asked his audience, “What would Maggie do?!”

It’s patently obvious that Johnson’s brand of no-principles politics is as far from the Conservative triumphs of the ’80s as the East is from the West, but (the departure from Thatcherism aside) are these sort of New Deal policies even advisable? Jonah Goldberg has written extensively about the unabashedly fascist nature of many New Deal initiatives. FDR’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, felt the need to warn Roosevelt that the public tended “to unconsciously group four names, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Roosevelt.” Mussolini himself wrote an admiring essay on America’s 32nd president, in which he extolled the decline in the United States of ideas such as liberalism and democracy:

America itself is abandoning them. Roosevelt is moving, acting, giving orders independently of the decisions or wishes of the Senate or Congress. There are no longer intermediaries between him and the nation. There is no longer a parliament but an “état majeur.” There are no longer parties, but a single party. A sole will silences dissenting voices. This has nothing to do with any demo-liberal conception of things.

FDR’s breathtakingly illiberal domestic measures, which included throwing the owner of a small dry cleaner’s shop in prison for charging 35 cents for his services instead of the government-mandated 40 cents, have been largely passed over because of his wartime leadership. After WWII, it’s difficult to take seriously a list that places him alongside Hitler or Mussolini. When the war was winding down, however, Roosevelt approached the multilateral discussions about its geopolitical end-state with the view that Soviet expansionism would be a lesser evil after the war than Britain’s retention of imperial territories. The USSR offended his democratic sensibilities less than the British Empire did. Needless to say, this was to FDR’s eternal shame and to the (not inconsiderable) consternation of Winston Churchill.

Moreover, Roosevelt’s domestic policies did real and lasting damage at home. By the time the war broke out, The United States had still not returned to pre-crash employment levels. After 1932, the year of FDR’s election, other countries that had been badly hit by the crash — such as Japan, Greece, Romania, New Zealand, Chile, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden — all began to see their industrial production levels rise again. The same was not true in the U.S. As the president himself admitted, it was not “Dr. New Deal” but “Dr. Win-the-War” that truly finished off the Great Depression. Many economists believe that some of FDR’s economic policies actually worsened the state of the American economy. The Wagner Act, by raising the minimum wage, made it even more difficult for the poor to find gainful employment at a time when jobs were already scarce. Furthermore, as Amity Shlaes has observed, the volatility of the American stock market in the 1930s was entirely out of hand. Along with the low points brought about by the onset of the Depression, the ’30s also saw seven of the ten biggest “up” days for the Dow Jones in the 20th century.

Why this level of erratic behavior? During the Roosevelt administration, Americans lost confidence in themselves as investors. Under FDR, making a good investment in the stock market involved being able to predict what new seismic piece of economic regulation was currently being dreamed up in the mind of  Rexford Tugwell or another of Roosevelt’s apparatchiks. Expecting a stable stock market and a healthy economy at a time when the success of investors and of businesses depends on their ability to correctly predict the actions of a small group of commissars in Washington is nothing but wish-casting. People might as well consult the Oracle at Delphi or bird entrails for all the economic good it would do them.

Nevertheless, there are worrying signs in Michael Gove’s speech that the British government might be tempted to engage in this kind of central planning of the British economy. Gove laments the dearth of bureaucrats “who have qualifications or expertise in mathematical, statistical, and probability questions.” He further expresses the need “to ensure more policymakers and decision makers feel comfortable discussing the Monte Carlo method or Bayesian statistics,” and he would like to see “more of those in Government … equipped to read a balance sheet and discuss what constitutes an appropriate return on investment.”

This sounds like nothing so much as the deification of mathematical approaches to political issues championed by the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Cummings approaches politics with the wrong theory of knowledge. He believes that the granular particularities of human life and action kind can be boiled down to a manipulable set of numbers that a group of quant-geeks in a government office can move around to make things better for everyone. The way that he and the prime minister, who depends on him to an unhealthy degree, approach the economy is very much according to Leon Trotsky’s means in pursuit of Oren Cass’s ends. British citizens will have to get used to being Cummings’s guinea pigs for the next few years, at least.

The upshot of all this is that Americans should be grateful for a conservative tradition that is anchored in a written constitution with a set of clearly defined political commitments. Lacking the principles of 1776 or any broadly shared sense of Christian duty, conservatism in Great Britain often conserves little apart from the power of the privileged few to practice their experiments on the rest of us.

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