British Conservatives Face the Future

November 15th, 2011 at 1:03 am | 47 Comments |

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Anyone who gets drawn into the attempts to modernize the Republican Party inevitably ends up reading about the experiences of the UK and Canadian conservatives. The Canadian Conservatives went through many years in the wilderness before they eventually secured their current governing majority and the British Conservatives are also actively debating how to modernize their own party.

When an American reads the literature that these debates produce, diagnosis its impossible not to feel some longing for the discussion that is taking place in other countries.

The FrumForum offices recently received a copy of “Which Way’s Up?”, a policy manifesto by conservative MP Nick Boles. Boles has played a central role in the efforts to modernize Britain’s conservatives. Its clear from reading this book that the topics that they care about are a little different then what conservatives in America are thinking about.

Here is Boles on the 2008 economic crisis:

Until the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it was generally accepted that free markets provided the most efficient way of allocating resources to different economic activities. But firms like Lehman operated in the ultimate free market and ended up destroying themselves, nearly taking the whole capitalist system down with them.

This doesn’t match with the Republican rhetoric which blames the weak economy on the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and government subsidized housing, despite the fact that the actual instruments that caused the crisis were unregulated derivatives.

Some Republicans may flinch at the thought of reading any further but they would find that Boles actually has a lot to say about (British) deficit reduction and decentralization. (Decentralization is a particularly important policy in a country where many key decisions are made in London.)

Yet Boles writing is notable for how it is concerned about the plight of Britain’s poorest:

We have observed that the countries with the lowest levels of income inequality and the lowest levels of social problem have strong education system which seem to achieve good results for the vast majority of children and not just an elite few.

Boles not only acknowledges inequality, he relates it to education:

Britain’s education system will help reduce inequality only when we give those at the bottom of the income scale some of the power that those on the top have.

Imagine any Republican politician in America saying: “Yes we have income inequality, and its terrible that our public schools are not up to the task of creating more opportunities for economic mobility. We need to see either higher standards or a more aggressive push for charters and vouchers!”

Instead, the current Republican position is to not support No Child Left Behind because it imposes standards on states. They have also ceded a lot of ground for Charter school advocacy to the left. They also think that the current problem is that teachers are being overpaid.

Boles does not call for solutions that align with the British left, he wants it to be easier to take over failing schools and to make it easier to set up privately funded schools. (At times, his writing reminds me of the arguments made by charter school advocates.)

What’s also important to note about Boles is that his book is a lot more intellectually honest then anything you are likely to read from a American conservative publishing houses. Boles will acknowledge Britain’s inequality but he doesn’t argue that redistributive policies need to be adopted to correct it.

Boles knows that the inequality of outcomes can only be justified if there is equality of opportunity. Paul Ryan claims he supports that, but unfortunately, his speeches argue that America provides an equality of opportunity that doesn’t exist.

Its likely that a truly modernized Republican Party won’t look exactly like the conservatives in the UK or in Canada, but I suspect it might have to be as willing to confront hard truths as conservatives in those countries are.

Recent Posts by Noah Kristula-Green

47 Comments so far ↓

  • dittbub

    In Canada and UK those conservatives have to confront the hard truths in a multi-party environment. In America’s two-party environment the republicans don’t have to confront anything. They can continue to live in their imaginary make-believe land and they will be voted into office once the democrats screw something up. Or even not. Republicans will get seats in an off-year election.

    America is an a cycle and it needs to be broken.

  • Gypsum Fantastic

    Much as FrumForum’s championing of British conservatism fills me with national pride, I fear this is slightly misleading. Nick Boles is at the vanguard of the liberal wing of his party, which includes Cameron himself. These “modernisers” are defined by technocratic, market-oriented policy solutions, decidedly liberal social views (see Cameron’s embrace of gay marriage, which put him to the left of Labour) and, above all, a relaxed attitude to Europe masked by a nominal euroskepticism. The grassroots of the party are violently against all of this, and are much closer to their American brethren.

    They essentially agreed to support Cameron in exchange for a parliamentary majority and a referendum on the EU. He has delivered neither of these, and now the grumbling from the ranks is getting increasingly vocal. Check out the comment threads at the Coffee House or ConservativeHome sometime. With the exception of a small minority, they HATE Cameron, consider him a left-wing traitor leading the country into the abyss. All this may just be sound and fury, but it could become a lot more serious if there are many more setbacks.

    In other words, this post would be like a British writer lauding Jon Huntsman or Mitch Daniels as tribunes of a resurgent American right. The only difference is, the Tory left wing holds the reins of power. For now.

    • ASmith

      A largely correct analysis – Cameron is despised by the Party faithful on the right, rather like Tony Blair was lambasted by the Labour left.

      However, both knew full well that only with a leader in the centre has any party got a chance at establishing a viable government, and so Cameron (like Blair) is completely correct to ignore, betray or manipulate the euroskeptic extremists and out of touch social conservatives that dominate the party membership.

      And maybe that is the message for the Republican Party.

      • ottovbvs

        “And maybe that is the message for the Republican Party.”

        Not really. In a parliamentary system it’s possible to pay a lot less heed to your followers then in our divided govt system.

    • Carney

      Well said. Cameron’s fashionable overreach on “gay marriage” is particularly unnecessary and galling. The transparent insincerity of his lip service on the EU is also obvious and infuriating; clearly hoping to absorb anti-EU sentiment so that it dissipates into nothing, enabling Britain to continue gently sliding into the clutches of the Eurocrats.

      • forgetn

        Sorry, What? So he’s for gay marriage (but not very aggressive about it), Labour is much more divided on the topic. As for the Euro-septic, they’ve been a massive thorn in his side for some months. They see Europe drowning; an opportunity to kick-it!

    • Noah Kristula-Green

      I’ve never been of the opinion that a policy has to be popular, or even widely supported, in order for that policy to be right.

      • ottovbvs

        In that case Noah you have clearly forgotten the dictum of that great British conservative prime minister Disraeli who opined that politics was the art of the possible.

        • Noah Kristula-Green

          I’m talking about getting the ideas right before figuring out how to implement them.

  • Watusie

    Can anyone imagine major a major British Conservative having a Rick Perry “oops” moment? Or Herman Cain’s 5 minutes of infamy from yesterday? Or saying even 1/10th of the number of factually erroneous, utterly moronic things that Michele Bachmann does?

    The difference between the two countries is not just policy emphasis. It is also the fact that in this country the standards for “leadership” are so low that a snake could get across them. On the other hand, British conservatives, very sensibly, don’t fear or resent leaders who are better educated, better informed, and more articulate than themselves. In fact they demand it.

    They also demand it of their media figures. In a population of 62 million, the Today programme has 10 million listeners! None of the Republican candidates – not even Romney – would survive an appearance on the 8:10 slot, especially if John Humphries was the interlocutor.

    • Carney

      The British system rewards verbal felicity and even glibness, with its emphasis on Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday. While being able to articulate and defend a policy, and rally the nation behind it, is an important part of leadership, it’s not everything, and maybe not even the most important thing.

      • Watusie

        If all you know of British politics is PMQs, then you don’t know anything about British politics. Moreover, you cannot have “verbal felicity” unless you are in command of the facts and have done an analysis of them yourself. Contrast that with what happens when Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Herman Cain et al think all they have to do is skim a briefing paper and then wing it.

        Let me put it another way. George W. Bush lacked “verbal felicity”. He was also a terrible president. He was not a terrible president because he lacked “verbal felicity” – he was a terrible president and he lacked “verbal felicity” because he was a second- or third-rate intellect.

        Being ready and willing and able to assess the facts as they actually are – not as your ideology wishes they were – is an essential criteria of leadership and one which is not just lacking in the current Republican Party, but one which is actually frowned upon. Until you lot stop trying to create your own reality and instead join the rest of us in the one that we are living in, you aren’t fit for dog catchers.

      • ottovbvs

        “While being able to articulate and defend a policy, and rally the nation behind it, is an important part of leadership, it’s not everything,”

        Tell that to Churchill in 1940 or FDR in 1933. The fact you don’t consider this to be probably the most vital attribute of leadership in democratic societies tells us you know zero about the theory and practice of politics.

      • forgetn

        Yes, and they like answers that make some sense. Imagine that! How low the standards are in America, that any moron can say just about anything (remember Backmann’s infamous there was no terrorist incident during Bush’s presidency…).

      • jakester

        Trouble is Carney, mot only can’t these modern dumbos articulate a policy, they can’t even formulate one.

  • Houndentenor

    No, what we have on America is a “conservative party” that spends more when they are in power than their “liberal” counterparts and then claims to be the party of smaller government. It’s a party where the majority of candidates for president claim not to believe in evolution. There’s no equivalent to the far-right religious zealouts in the UK. At least not enough of them to have control of a major party.

    • Carney

      what we have on America is a “conservative party” that spends more when they are in power than their “liberal” counterparts

      False. Conservatives certainly have spent more than they should have in power, but to claim they have spent more than the left would have in the same timeframe is silly nonsense.

      • TerryF98

        The numbers do not lie, Facts are stubborn things for wingnuts.

      • ottovbvs

        “False. Conservatives certainly have spent more than they should have in power, but to claim they have spent more than the left would have in the same timeframe is silly nonsense.”

        Ok Carney back up your assertion or admit you didn’t know or were lying.

      • salvatore

        Pop quiz! How much did the country spend on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and first bank bailout from Jan 2001-Jan 2009? Don’t forget to add the Bush tax cuts.

  • Ogemaniac

    Mainstream British conservatives, like mainstream conservatives in any other civilized nation on earth, are called “moderate Democrats” in the US. The Democratic party in the US now spans the entire range of reasonable opinions. Our Republicans are a laughing stock outside the US, or would be if they didn’t actually influence policy.

  • ottovbvs

    The analyses by Gypsum and Smith are broadly accurate. Cameron is widely despised by large segments of the conservative party and I’m sure it’s reciprocated. There’s actually nothing new about this most conservative leaders (notably Baldwin, Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Heath, Major) loathed their party base and much of its representation in parliament which is basically obscurantist in outlook.

    That said we have realize that Britain’s conservative party is in overall terms more or less where the center of our democratic party sits. Debates about most domestic economic and social issues are about very minor moving of goal posts and whenever their rightwing impulses over reach, conservative governments are invariably driven by public pressure into U turns on major policy issues. By my count this has happened about six times in the 18 months they’ve been in office. They’re still holding onto the austerity program but they are going to do a volte face on that in the next 12 months because it’s about bring on a double dip recession. At bottom, and completely unlike here, there is no real divergence between the two major parties over the basic model of social democratic governance that has prevailed in all western Europe since the war.

    The conservative party’s big schism is over Europe. It’s destroyed two conservative prime ministers and several out of office leaders since 1990 and it could yet destroy Cameron. In simple terms the conservative base and roughly half their parliamentary representation is violently opposed to Europe and wishes to leave. It’s a classic case of the obscurantism referred to above. The problem for Cameron and the conservative leadership is that as soon as they get in office they rapidly realize (if they didn’t already) that it is impossible for Britain to leave without creating an economic catastrophe for the country. This is why, although not members, they are so desperate to preserve the Euro, even to the extent of making back door contributions via the IMF to assist its survival. According to polls a majority of the Brits are anti Europe but this is mainly the product of a uniformly anti European conservative press (Murdoch prominent among them) that spend a lot of time waxing indignant about EU restrictions on bee keeping or such nonsenses. As a practical matter the Brits can’t leave so they whine and Cameron to mollify his party makes speeches threatening to blackmail the EU into repatriating powers (except he hasn’t in reality got any leverage). It’s all in policy terms a bit of charade but in political terms it threatens the cohesiveness of the conservative party itself. It’s not very different from the issue of the repeal of corn laws in the 1840′s or protection in the 1900′s in terms of it’s potential to wreck the tory party.

    • forgetn

      Despite what the British population thinks (and they too at times can reject facts) the majority of the UK’s business is with Europe (and not America). Outside of Europe, Britain would face tariffs to sell stuff into Europe.

      However, those who despise Europe (lets call them Little Englanders) have always hated the continent — still bring water and provisions when travelling to Europe. Jingoism is still strong, the Hitler jokes, Italian, Greek or French jokes are thick on the ground. but then these same people lament their Empire…

      • ottovbvs

        “same people lament their Empire…”

        Your summary is very true. The Brits probably more than any country in the western world with the possible exception of us are prisoners of their past. And it’s not that hard to understand. They did more or less invent the moderm world; their language is the nearest there is to a universal one; and for 200 years in a incredible tour de force (in that it was based on factors other than sheer size which is the source of American, Russian and Chinese superpowerdom) they ruled the greatest empire in the world. And well within living memory they stood alone and held at bay the greatest tyranny in human history. But withal it’s now become a burden they need to shake off. They have no future outside Europe to which they are legally, socially and economically joined at the hip. Far better to realise this and assume their proper position at the head of Europe and the natural conterweight to Germany which they’ve been since the late 19th century.

    • Traveler

      Another great summary with those long sentences. Thanks.

  • Rabiner

    “We need to see either higher standards or a more aggressive push for charters and vouchers!”

    If only this was the magic bullet. Charters statistically do worse on average than normal public schools when normalizing for socioeconomic status and vouchers will just let rich people subsidize the private education their children already go to.

    • jakester

      They need to educate the parents of these so called students, since their kids are just emulating them. Besides, we still need lots of ignorant grunt workers, better to use a domestic source than allow the illegals to over run us.

  • dante

    Future of American Conservatives??

    • ottovbvs

      It is beyond parody but this is a serious contender for the Republican nomination who was leading in polls until a week ago. Now his place is being taken by another beyond parody character Gingrich who is way ahead of Romney (28% Newt to 18% for Romney in one poll). Now of course Gingrich wouldn’t have produced such incoherence and it’s this that makes him a much more potentially serious threat to Romney than ever the Perry/Cain lamebrains were in an environment where pretty clearly 75% of the Republican party don’t want him as the nominee. I’ll be the first to fess up that Newts emergence has somewhat surprised me but it’s entirely logical I suppose when the previous white hopes of the Anyone but Romney 75% of the party implode. Where else is there to go? If Romney is the default candidate of the GOP then Gingrich is the default candidate of the vast majority of the base of the GOP. What Newt lacks is money. If the financiers of the right decide to pull the plug on their pledges to Perry/Cain and switch it to Newt then Romney’s promised coronation could be in doubt.

  • Graychin

    Isn’t “modern conservatism” an oxymoron? Sort of like “progressive conservatism”? :D
    The new form of conservatism in America is actually retrograde. :sad:


    Off-topic, but I look forward to FrumForum commentary on the intention of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and/or Rick Perry to put zero-based budgeting into effect for foreign aid to Israel.

    Not even the Hated Kenyan has proposed anything like that.

    • jamesj

      “Isn’t ‘modern conservatism’ an oxymoron?”

      : )

      I don’t think so. I think traditional Conservatism as a philosophy will have something important to say for any era, including the “modern” one.

      “The new form of conservatism in America is actually retrograde.”

      Well yeah, I definitely agree with that. But I do think it is possible to apply a traditional Conservative outlook to the modern-day US and come away with good policies. The discussion in the UK and Canada that Noah mentions is a good example of well-intentioned people looking at the problem from that angle. I personally found Obama’s approach to healthcare to be quite Conservative in the traditional sense. He did, after all, advocate a grab bag of the most practical ideas forged by his political opponents and Conservative economists a decade ago. He did, after all, avoid the larger and riskier systemic changes that many in his own political party advocate. This was a fairly cautious way to proceed. Too bad he was rewarded for his prudence with claims of “socialism”.

  • jamesj

    Conservatives like Boles are Conservatives in the classical sense. Here in the US we used to have more of that, although we always had a strange tint towards social issues that other industrialized countries don’t have so much of. At any rate, we now have a mutated monster in the US that deviates drastically from even the most Conservative of viewpoints in other industrialized countries. This is a radical and risky path we’re on. I find it strange that “conservatives” in the US are quickly blazing a path into uncharted philosophical, ethical and policy waters. That is basically the opposite of what a traditional Conservative prefers.

    • Demosthenes

      As I’m sure you’re aware, the old left-right model comes from the French Revolution, at the National Assembly where you had atheist utopian socialists sitting with the bourgeoisie on the left side of the building and Catholic royalists sitting with the clergy and the nobility on the right.

      It isn’t completely useless as a way to look at political views, but it doesn’t really reflect contemporary political reality very well either. I see the Conservatism of Burke, Buckley, Kirk et al. as a kind of “dispositional” Conservatism. As in, the opposite of a progressive disposition. On that model, the Tea Party &c. are actually quite progressive, since they want to effect rapid change in society. They want to drown the government in the bathtub, dismantle the entire system and start from scratch. It is the exact opposite of a Conservative disposition. The question then is how to account for the sense in which the Tea Party is “right-wing.” Certainly the emphasis on traditional religious values, at least in theory, has something to do with it. Beyond that… ?

  • forgetn

    As a Canadian I always wonder what’s what with the GOP. I have a hard time understanding the vision that makes life sacred from the moment of conception until birth and then looses interest, will even be happy to kill the innocent (and often the not so innocent). The balance budget gig, when the Republicans have unilaterally been the source of all increase in government deficit for the past 30 years.

    The move away from fact based reality towards faith is troubling. The rise of absolute imbeciles like Cain, Perry, Backmann and Santorum is even more troubling. These people are taken seriously, when it is evident either that they don’t have the capacity to understand or simply don’t care.

    The American right has decided that inconvenient truth are to be ignored and those who espouse them should be shouted down — or even imprisoned (Perry on global warming proponents). Of course, there is the idea of selling newspaper, and the left leaning MSM is more than happy to give these morons more than enough rope…

    Still, it speaks poorly of those who back these individuals (after all if the press is the enabler, donors are the oxygen on which this cretins survive). As an outsider it appears that the more craven, faith based imbecile that shows himself and proves day in day out that he/she has had zero interest in public policy, foreign policy — or any matter that affect ordinary Americans is troubling.

    I’m sure that Cain was a great CEO but the fact that he’s never cared in his life about public policy is evident in his comments (never mind foreign policy where is lack of basic information is amazing).

    The Question is why would any of these guys want to be President, because they really don’t care one bit about the job and what it means. I just don’t understand.

  • think4yourself

    While I don’t know very much about the British political parties, from what I do know I’d probably vote Tory as much as Labour.

    Otto says that Cameron will give up on their austerity program as it will cause a double dip. I’m not sure that he will, nor am I sure it will cause a double dip but a 25% cut across the board is a serious cut (possibly watching Greece NOT have the discpline to cut may cause the English to do so). I’d like to see us in America make decisions now to reduce our government spending (and raise taxes) – not 25% but more than the lip service we’re seeing now.

    • ottovbvs

      Well GDP has been flat lining in the UK for a year at an average of around 0.4% if I remember right. I think the most recent quarter was 0.2%. The governor of the Bank of England just announced a second round of QE in a desperate attempt to stave off slipping back into recession. Check economic commentators at banks. To a man they say there is a 50% chance or more of Britain double dipping. I’d bet a 100 pounds sterling they do make a U turn in the next year. Osborne is already uttering the odd weasel word and somehow I don’t think the Brits see themselves in the same boat as the Greeks. And they are not. About four months ago they made just as much of a huge U turn on national health service “reform” so it’s not as if there isn’t precedent.

      • ottovbvs

        “The NIESR report says: ‘The UK economy has been stagnant for close to a year now and we expect this to continue into the first half of 2012.’
        The Institute now expects growth of just 0.9 per cent this year and 0.8 per cent in 2012 instead of the 1.3 per cent and 2 per cent previously forecast. That would mean it will not be until 2013 that the UK returns to its pre-recession peak, making it the slowest recovery since the First World War.”


        BoE cuts UK growth forecast on double-dip fears

        Mortgage Solutions | 14 Nov 2011 | 08:18

        The Bank of England has been forced to cut growth forecasts for the UK to 1% amid fears of a double-dip recession

        The International Monetary Fund has warned there is a one in six chance that the UK could be heading towards a double-dip recession.


        Brussels warns on risk of UK double-dip

        By Chris Giles, Economics Editor

        The British economy will stagnate until next summer with a significant risk of a double-dip recession, the European Commission concludes in its latest forecasts which also show the government’s deficit reduction strategy is failing.


        OECD warns of double-dip threat in UK and cuts forecasts

        Britain is at “significant risk” of a double-dip recession said the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation, as it slashed its growth forecasts in a gloomy assessment of the wider G7 economy.


        As Bank slashes growth forecast for 2011, Cable admits UK economy could be headed for double-dip recession

        Read more:


        UK Facing A Possible Double – Dip Recession

        Mel | November 11, 2011 | Comments (0)

        Britain was preparing for economic ‘Armageddon’ last night as the European Union warned the UK is at serious risk of a double-dip recession.


        Any questions?

  • WillyP

    I’d say Otter is one of the more credible voices on policy. He’s accurately predicted the collapse of the EU and the Euro. He’s had great insight into our own domestic economy. As a supporter of the stimulus, QE1, QE2, and soon-to-be QE3, he clearly understands what it takes to get this “post-industrial” economy moving again.

    //end sarcasm

    When people finally stop indulging their delusions, perhaps they’ll realize that only spending cuts will set this ship right. The government in America is swallowing the civil society (i.e. the private sector), as Europe’s governments has done to their societies. A sound knowledge of economics tells us so, in theory and in observed evidence.

    But what the hell, let’s pass another “jobs” bill, right?

  • lilmanny

    If only austerity will rectify this, why is Irish debt paying an 8% premium and enjoying 14% unemployment? The Italian bonds are not that weak, and Japanese bonds pay, what, 2%? If spending cuts stimulating the economy are so self-evident, perhaps you should provide some of that there evidence.

    Re: your dumbass statements about “Yur-up is social-iss so they are worser than us are”, why are the northern European nations weathering this so well? Why are Polish workers returning from Ireland in droves to take jobs at home? Lots of Europe is doing pretty darn well.

    • Demosthenes

      If only austerity will rectify this, why is Irish debt paying an 8% premium and enjoying 14% unemployment?

      Because GET OFF MY LAWN!

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