The Agenda

Thoughts on What the Hell Just Happened in Britain

I’ve been dreading writing this post, as the British political scene is a subject of great interest to me and there is way too much to say. I’ll preface by saying that the notion of a “post-bureaucratic age,” one of David Cameron and Steve Hilton’s main contributions to center-right thinking, perfectly captures my gut instincts about the world. So I begin with an instinctive sympathy for Project Cameron that some of my fellow NR contributors, notably John O’Sullivan. don’t always share. This post will be a bit of a ramble.

One thing to consider is that we’re in a new economic and social environment, and it is natural that the pattern of polarization that obtained in 1979 or even 2005 doesn’t necessarily make sense in the new environment. What is left and what is right? The populist right is as ticked off about financial consolidation as the populist left throughout the English-speaking world. The politics of security has also been scrambled almost a decade after the 9/11 terror attacks. The British public sector has grown so much under Labour that it is widely recognized as a crisis, with almost all parties going further than U.S. Republicans in calling for wage freezes. The idea that a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, relying on a handful of nationalist and sectarian parties, is more natural than a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats strikes me as very wrongheaded, for reasons I’ll explain. Alex Massie has made a strong argument to this effect.

But before I go there, let me mention the Canadian case. The Conservative Party of Canada is a strange beast, very different from the Conservatives in Britain or, for that matter, U.S. Republicans. It is built from the ashes of the shattered Progressives Conservatives and the short-lived Reform movement, which reconstituted itself as the Canadian Alliance before the truly successful marriage ushered in by, among others, Stephen Harper and, a familiar face around these parts, David Frum. One can quibble about how successful the Harper Conservatives have been in office. Andrew Coyne, one of the favorite writers, regularly writes lacerating criticisms of the party for what he sees as its Nixonian embrace of economic populism. And I wasn’t crazy about cutting the GST rather than marginal tax rates, among other things. I also think it’s true, however, that Harper has navigated Canada decently well through a very difficult time. And he’s done it with a pretty robust minority government. I asked a Canadian friend who knows what he’s talking about to send me his thoughts on the subject:

Harper’s governed relatively well, and things have been very stable, without a coalition. I don’t see why more people aren’t talking about Britain following our example. I don’t think Cameron should automatically assume he needs to get in bed with an opposition party to maintain power, but assume that his moderate governing agenda will win the support of at least one opposition party every time there’s a confidence vote, particularly since at any given point it’ll never be in EVERY opposition party’s interest to have a snap election so it’ll be difficult to unite the opposition to vote to bring him down.

And it’d be nice for him to start making the case that PR wouldn’t mean the public “take back” Parliament. It would mean that governments were pretty much always formed by the politicians after the election rather than by the voters choosing between platforms for government at the election. and it would give the BNP permanent representation in Parliament.

These points are well taken, particularly on how to blunt the appeal of proportional representation. (I’m not adamantly opposed to PR or IRV, etc., but I do think it’s a better fit in some contexts than others.) But I still think a more formal alliance isn’t a terrible idea.

Many of my friends, in Britain and in the U.S., see the Liberal Democrats as a party to the left of Labour, untainted by the erosion of civil liberties, the invasion of Iraq, and, perhaps, the dramatic consolidation of the financial sector and the financialization of the British economy enabled by New Labour during its long stint in power. This is by no means a trivial argument. But it’s also worth noting, as you can no doubt guess, that the Liberal Democrats have a different social base. There is an important component drawn, like Clegg, from the ranks of affluent metropolitan liberals, for whom a populism tailored to the particular, and peculiar, interests and preoccupations of the “lower upper class” resonates very strongly.

Rather bizarrely, from an American perspective, this is a constituency that is kinda sorta up-for-grabs, having embraced Granita era New Labour enthusiastically. And the quick and dirty rap on Project Cameron was that it represented an effort to woo, or at least to neutralize, this constituency — to at the very least “decontaminate the brand” so that center-right policies could gain a respectful hearing from those who populate the major media institutions, etc. My friend James Forsyth, political columnist for The Spectator and perhaps the most talented political journalist I’ve ever met, made a convincing argument that Cameron was able to strengthen the case for social conservatism by embracing gay rights and by recasting an emphasis on family stability as part of a broader anti-poverty, and anti-worklessness, crusade.

This is all very subjective, as we’re talking about “thought leaders.” Clearly the Conservatives did well with affluent suburban voters, as they always do. My guess is that they didn’t make very deep inroads in this narrow slice of metropolitan liberals. But this is useful context for understanding the importance of the Liberal Democrats, and how they’re not precisely to the left of Labour.

Indeed, the key areas where they’re to the left, apart from gestures in the direction of lower upper populism (free tuition, a mansion tax, etc.) are civil liberties, foreign policy, and European integration. David Davis, seen by many as a right-wing Conservative, is roughly where the Liberal Democrats are on civil liberties. Indeed, he resigned from Parliament and from his role as shadow home secretary on civil liberties grounds, a move that strikes me as a miscalculation, particularly now. Chris Grayling, in contrast, has cast himself as tougher and more authoritarian, a kind of homage to Michael Howard, perhaps the country’s most effective home secretary, described by a friend of mine as perhaps the most consequential postwar cabinet member who was not a prime minister. Regardless, there is definitely a constituency in the Conservative party for civil libertarianism, and the same goes for a somewhat more independent-minded foreign policy — not quite Anglo-Gaullism, but certainly there was deep Tory skepticism on the Iraq invasion. These aren’t insurmountable divides. And the Orange Book Liberal Democrats, a pro-market faction that sees itself as more liberal than social-democratic, would be indistinguishable from a Conservative like Oliver Letwin, and perhaps to the right of an eccentric green like Zac Goldsmith.  

The real tragedy for me is that the Liberal Democrats are more heavily reliant on the teachers unions than the Conservatives, which means that the most innovative and promising Conservative policy, the embrace of Swedish-style free schools, is now very much at risk, as the always excellent Fraser Nelson explains. Basically, David Laws wants to give local authorities the right to veto new schools in their catchment areas. Wouldn’t it be nice if mom-and-pops could veto the new Tesco? Surely that would drive down prices and improve quality — wait a second, what was that?

My concern, which Nelson doesn’t address, is that this would be true whether or not the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made a deal. For free schools to pass, you’d need the Liberal Democrats to make it a free vote, and woo Orange Bookers by embracing pupil premiums, etc. But then surely that could also happen in opposition. I wonder about this.

There’s much more to say, but you’d be better served by reading Massie and also Matthew Parris in the Times of London, who basically argues that the Conservatives are in a fairly decent position at this stage. We’ll see.

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