The Agenda

Rafael Behr on the Next Phase of Tory Modernization

Rafael Behr of the left-of-center New Statesman has a perceptive article on the evolution of the Conservative Party as the coalition government struggles with a stagnant economy yet as one crucial element of the Conservative domestic policy agenda, namely school reform, is increasingly seen as a success. Specifically, Behr emphasizes the rising influence of Michael Gove, the erstwhile public intellectual who serves as Education Secretary:

Above all, Gove is cherished in No 10 as the architect of the coalition’s most successful policy manoeuvre – poaching academy schools from Labour and rolling them out as a countrywide revolution. The ground is being prepared for education reform to be sold as the government’s totemic achievement in an election campaign. Thus Gove has placed himself at the centre of the “global race” story. It is his schools and “rigorous” new curriculum that are supposed to equip our children with the skills they will need to compete with diligent Indian and Chinese graduates.

The “global race” narrative Behr invokes represents the Conservative attempt to anchor Euroskepticism in a broader narrative about Britain’s emerging role in the global economy:

The grand tour of non-EU trading partners is part of an explicit strategy to present Britain as a stand-alone hub for international commerce. Old Europe, suffocating in bureaucracy, is envisaged falling behind the dynamic Asian and Latin American powers.

This world-view has become central to the Cameron project. It is a mainstay of the Prime Minister’s rhetoric now that the inchoate “modernisation” project that defined the first years of his leadership has been abandoned. The vital motif, repeated at every public outing, is the “global race”, in which Britain must make itself competitive. Naturally, that requires conventional Tory remedies: lower corporate taxes, fewer labour protections, benefit cuts to prevent indolence.

Some emblems of the earlier attempt to rebrand the party survive – the commitment to overseas aid, for example, and support for gay marriage. Compassion is still officially a watchword for the Prime Minister’s blend of Conservatism, but his tone, with its implied threat of subjugation by foreign rivals, is tougher.

The British political scene is, for obvious reasons, markedly different from the landscape here in the U.S., yet the Cameron Conservatives are trying to find an attractive “liberal nationalist” frame for policies that embrace economic dynamism and global trade. This is a project U.S. conservatives ought to follow with great interest. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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