February 7, 2009


The Tories must look to Hume, Smith and Burke (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, February 5 2009, Financial Times)

Thirty years on, are we witnessing the next sea change? Another Labour government, under Gordon Brown, is in complete disarray, while David Cameron and the opposition Conservative party are enjoying a resurgence even they cannot quite believe. Mr Brown has had his own surges in the polls, when he finally took over from Tony Blair, and then with his first banking bail-out last autumn, when he “saved the world” (his own wonderful Freudian slip). And yet it always seemed likely that those were what the stock market calls dead-cat bounces. Today nobody with half an eye on British politics much doubts that Mr Cameron will be prime minister by the summer of next year.

But will a Tory victory signal something deeper than just throwing the rascals out, one more failed government disposed of by the electorate? Previous cases of “Callaghan’s law” were not just shifts in public mood, they were the outcome of deeper intellectual currents. In the new issue of Prospect magazine, under the slightly irritating headline “The Red Tory Moment”, Philip Blond suggests that another is now flowing and that the Tories should return to “the tradition of communitarian civic conservatism”. And Mr Cameron himself spoke at Davos about the need for “capitalism with a conscience”. These could be real developments, or opportunistic reaction to circumstances, or perhaps both.

When Labour took power after the 1945 landslide, the government’s theoretical foundations had been laid by socialist journals such as the New Statesman. The work of that government would become the basis of a new consensus among parties that lasted the best part of three decades: welfare state, command economy and full employment as the first duty of government.

All that was disrupted by events. By the late 1970s, not only was the Callaghan government floundering in the face of financial turmoil and industrial anarchy, the left had run out of intellectual steam.

The consensus in democratic societies--at least in the Anglosphere--doesn't shift quite so rapidly as Mr. Wheatcroft would have it and his confusion is probably exacerbated by the very fact that such consensuses are so powerful that changes in which party governs during these epochs matters rather little. Thus, the socialist era in Britain lasted more like 70 years. If Winston Churchill was not socialist, he is best described as a "paternalist" in the mode of Bismarck, TR, Nixon, etc. Classical Liberalism had died out in England early in the 20th Century leaving voters a choice between Labour Socialism and such conservative paternalism, or little to choose from. Similarly, while America sometimes managed to elect a genuinely conservative president, the line from TR to Wilson to Hoover to FDR to LBJ to Nixon is quite straight and can in many ways be extended to Ronald Reagan.

The paradigm--at least in England--didn't begin shifting until Lady Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 and this marked the start of the Red Tory epoch. This consisted of the acceptance by conservatives that voters would permanently insist on the welfare safety net but a recognition that by using free market mechanisms, rather than top-down statist controls, provision of such social security could be made both more efficient and more consistent with liberty. [These ideas were already being tested in Pinochet's Chile, under his Chicago School advisers, in New Zealand, and in Australia.] One oddity of this revolution is that while it would have been expected to succeed most quickly in America, where socialism had been most restrained, Ronald Reagan's experiences of the Great Depression and early years as a New Deal Democrat made him reluctant to undertake fundamental reforms and he instead saved a SS that was in crisis largely unchanged.

But in the years that followed we had Tony Blair quite consciously setting himself and "New" Labour up as Margaret Thatcher's natural heirs and now David Cameron is returning the Tories to this sort of Red Toryism. Likewise, Bill Clinton ran and mostly governed as a "New" Democrat, in concert with a Third Way Newt Gingrich, and was succeeded by the compassionate conservatism (Red Republicanism?) of George W. Bush. Canada, Australia, Israel, New Zealand, etc. have all in their turn elected governments that follow the model, with successful candidates of the Left making yeoman efforts to blur their differences with the more conservative consensus that now prevails. Thus are we treated to the hilarious spectacle of Barack Obama, the candidate of "Change," steadfastly refusing to alter much that his reviled predecessor did. And the Republicans who are lining up to run against and succeed him are very much of a piece with the Clinton/Gingrich/W model.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 7, 2009 9:23 AM
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