Britain's wild election puts two-party system to a test
2010年4月19日星期一 The Tory Challenge Op-Ed Columnist The Tory Challenge
American conservatives don’t think terribly highly of the British Tories — if, that is, they think of them at all. With the exception of the sainted Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Conservatives have acquired a reputation among their more populist American cousins for being aristocratic squishes: part Bertie Wooster and part Arlen Specter.
Share your thoughts.
David Cameron, the Tory leader campaigning to become Britain’s next prime minister, fits this stereotype all too neatly. He’s an Eton man, an alumnus of Oxford’s posh and rowdy Bullingdon Club, and a direct descendant of King William IV. His early career as Tory leader was devoted to “modernizing” the Conservative Party after a decade of defeat. This meant riding a bicycle, appearing regularly without a tie, and talking as much as possible about the environment and other liberal-sounding issues.
Yet the American right — and Americans in general — should be paying close attention to how Cameron’s Tories fare in Britain’s election on May 6, and how well they govern if they win. That’s because for all his leftward feints and politically correct gestures, Cameron is campaigning on a vision of government that owes a great deal to the American conservative tradition.
The Tories’ election manifesto, released early last week, promises “a sweeping redistribution of power” — from London to local institutions, and “from the state to citizens.” In one of the most centralized countries in the Western world, Cameron is championing a dramatic transfer of responsibility — for schools, hospitals, police forces — to local governments and communities. In a nation with a vast and creaking welfare state, he’s urging people to put more faith in voluntarism, charity and the beleaguered two-parent family. (This last plank has attracted the ire of none other than J. K. Rowling, who recently attacked the Tories for stigmatizing single motherhood.) His emphasis, again and again, has been on a smaller, leaner, less intrusive government — and in its place, a “big society” that can bear the burden currently shouldered by social workers and bureaucracies.
Nobody would mistake the Cameron Tories for Tea Partiers. By the statist standards of British politics, though, their manifesto’s emphasis on localism and limited government is quite daring. The Tories may sit to the left of American conservatives on a host of issues, but Cameron is offering a more detailed and specific vision of what conservative reform might mean than almost any English-speaking politician since the Reagan-Thatcher era.
Essentially, the Tories are gambling that the fiscal crisis facing every Western government will create an opportunity for decentralization on an unprecedented scale. If that gamble succeeds, Cameron’s government will offer an example to right-of-center parties everywhere — and Britain will offer a model, in an era of tight budgets and diminished expectations, for how nations can succeed (to borrow a Cameron catchphrase) at “doing more with less.”
But first Cameron’s party has to actually win the election, which is hardly a sure thing. The Tories are asking for a mandate to transform the British state at a time when the British public is mainly concerned about how to kick-start economic growth. This may explain why the Tories have been clinging to a narrow lead over the incumbent, Gordon Brown, despite the Labor Party’s epic mismanagement of the economy. Many disillusioned Britons seem tempted to cast a vote for the Liberal Democrats, the perpetual bridesmaids of British politics. The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, was the clear winner in last week’s television debate, and his party’s poll numbers are soaring while Conservative support is flatlining.
Even if they manage to pull out a win, the Tories will have to actually execute the transformation that they’ve promised. Here the American experience is not encouraging. From Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, almost every modern Republican president has pledged to decentralize government and empower local communities. But their successes have tended to be partial, and their failures glaring. Cameron’s decentralizing vision is much better thought out than Nixon’s “new federalism” or Bush’s promise of an “ownership society.” But it’s easy to imagine it meeting the same unhappy fate.
Finally, even if Cameronism could work, there may simply not be time to implement the kind of ambitious, long-term transformation he has in mind. Britain’s debt burden is worse even than that of the United States, and the fiscal crunch is looming. The window for big ideas may be closing, on both sides of the Atlantic and for right and left alike. In this election season, Cameron has tried to advance an idealistic politics of conservative reform. But he may find himself governing amid the grim politics of a permanent fiscal crisis.