On May 6, 2010, the British Tories hope to win their first general election since 1992, the year of John Major’s against-the-odds, massively surprising victory. If 2,000 British people had voted differently, Major would not have had a majority. The last time the party of Margaret Thatcher had won convincingly was in 1987, when the Iron Lady’s economic revolution was at its height.
The party suffered its worst modern-day defeat in 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power. In that election the party won just 31 percent of the national vote. The Conservatives made little progress in the two subsequent elections: The party won 32 percent in 2001 and 33 percent in 2005. When David Cameron became Tory leader, in the aftermath of this third successive defeat, there was speculation that the Conservatives were finished. It was certainly obvious to Cameron and his advisers that the party couldn’t rely on “one more heave.” Substantial change was necessary.
In seeking that change, David Cameron has met significant internal resistance, with many of the party’s Thatcherites objecting to his reforms, but he has pressed on regardless. Cameron recognizes that a large part of the Tories’ problem has been an inability to come to terms with Thatcher’s legacy.
She was the party’s most successful peacetime leader and cast a long shadow over her successors. Her free-market economic policy transformed Britain from Europe’s sick man to its enterprise capital. She was also a great leader on the world stage: She stood shoulder to shoulder with Ronald Reagan during the Cold War and restored the standing of the British armed forces when she defeated Argentina in the Falklands campaign.
But if the Margaret Thatcher of party folklore was an unbending ideologue, the Margaret Thatcher of government was a pragmatist. She did not tamper with a large part of her country’s post-war inheritance. The welfare state, the National Health Service (still Britain’s most beloved institution despite its poor performance on most international measures), and the British Broadcasting Corporation were all left untouched by her eleven-year reign. She was also a skillful tactician. She delayed confronting Britain’s most militant trade union — the National Union of Mineworkers — until her second term in office. She did not attempt to fight too many battles at once.
My instinct is that if Margaret Thatcher were leading the party now, her approach would not be so wildly different from Cameron’s. She had firm beliefs, but she was a creature of her time. So, too, is Cameron. He begins where every successful political leader begins: today.
The most important fact about Britain today is the size of the state. In 2010 the British state will consume more than 50 percent of national income. During the 1980s, the British economy became more like America’s. During the years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown it has been thoroughly Europeanized. Brown was Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer (the powerful cabinet minister who is responsible for economic and financial policy) until he replaced him in 2007, and in that position he raised taxes more than 100 times. Brown and Blair may have been elected under their “New Labour” brand, but in fundamental respects they have governed as “Old Labour,” extending state dependency well up the income scale.
Britain, after 13 years of Labour rule, has become two nations on many levels. The average public-sector worker earns more than his private-sector counterpart for the first time. London and the south still resemble the Britain of the Thatcher years. They power the rest of the economy. Meanwhile, parts of the north of England, as well as Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, are almost “Sovietized.” Seventy percent of Northern Ireland’s income is accounted for by state activity.
During the fat years, up until the credit crunch, Gordon Brown did not prepare for rainy days. He even said there would be no return to rainy days, hubristically telling the nation that he had abolished economic boom and bust. Welfare and the other great public-sector services went unreformed. The proceeds of the pre-bust years were spent on new entitlement programs and higher pay for a much larger number of public-sector workers.
#page#David Cameron, reflecting on the fact that Brown has doubled the national debt, promised an “age of austerity.” His finance spokesman, George Osborne, told the nation that the cupboard was bare. All the money has gone, Cameron warned, adding that he would raise the retirement age and freeze public-sector wages. He also warned of big cuts to welfare spending. We’ll be the most unpopular government in history, Tory spokesmen told journalists, but just as Margaret Thatcher rescued Britain in 1979, we’ll have to rescue Britain in 2010.
The economy was never meant to be the main theme of the Cameron leadership. He wanted to craft a new conservatism focused on social challenges. The big themes of his early leadership constantly reminded me of the George W. Bush of 1999. Cameron promised to mend Britain’s broken society and focus on reforming education, supporting marriage, and fighting poverty.
Cameron’s defining sound bite was something of a rebuke to Margaret Thatcher. While prime minister, she had said that “there is no such thing as society.” Conservatism’s opponents have repeatedly used the quotation, taken out of context, to reinforce the idea that hers was a politics of selfishness, concerned only with the individual. Cameron reinforced this criticism, declaring that “there is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state.”
But that second clause is important. For Cameron, the most important institutions lie between the individual and the state: His is a politics of civil society. He promises more active citizens, a more responsible society, and a smaller state. Only if Britain builds up the family, local schools, and the not-for-profit charity sector, he says, will the demands on the state be reduced. For him, the badly educated, welfare-dependent individual, who has never had the love and support of a strong family, is a key source of Britain’s problems. Where a libertarian party would simply decree that it is the individual’s responsibility to build a strong family, get his children into a good school, and find work, Cameron’s conservatism wants to help people secure these goods.
The nature of Cameron’s conservatism matters, and not just for Britain. If he is elected prime minister, he’ll be one of the most important center-right leaders in the world, if not the most important. His attempt to redefine conservatism will be every bit as bold as that of George W. Bush, but, I hope, more electorally successful in the long term.
As the conservative world watches the Cameron experiment, it is important that it learn the right lessons. Center-left news media make a great deal of the extent to which Cameron has made the party more gay- and green-friendly. It is true that Cameron has accepted homosexual equality and that 5 percent of the next parliamentary Conservative party is likely to be gay. It’s also true that Cameron is a believer in the dangers of climate change; the most famous photo opportunity of his leadership involved his heading off to a Norwegian glacier, pulled along on a sleigh by huskies. It would be wrong, however, to believe that the gay, green conservatism has been decisive in reviving the party’s electoral fortunes. The “detoxification” of the Tory brand helped moderate left-wing opposition to Cameron, but it is traditional conservatism and Labour’s manifest failings that explain the likelihood of a Tory victory.
Twice the Tories have tanked in the polls during David Cameron’s leadership: once in 2007, when Gordon Brown became prime minister, and once at the start of this year. On both occasions, fortunes were revived by tax-cut pledges: in 2007 by a promise to abolish the inheritance tax for all but millionaires, and this year by a promise to stop a £6 billion “jobs tax” threatened by Labour. Tough policies on immigration and crime are also much more important to Tory voters than are some of the more counterintuitive policies cherished by the party’s “modernizers.”
In terms of foreign policy, Cameron will be a friend of America. Other than being a fierce advocate of free trade, he probably won’t differ from Obama on big issues. He believes in staying the course in Afghanistan, but he is not an interventionist in the mold of Bush or Blair. In the medium term, he will oversee deep cuts in U.K. defense spending as one contributor to closing the massive budget deficit, estimated at 12 percent of national income.
If a Cameron government is elected, it is unlikely to be remarkable for its geopolitical impact. But it will matter insofar as it reverses Britain’s renewed decline. Margaret Thatcher had to fix a broken economy. With Britain having the biggest budget deficit in Europe and the worst rates of family breakdown, Cameron has to fix a broken economy and a broken society.
–Mr. Montgomerie is editor of ConservativeHome.com.