Politics and Public Opinion

The Ongoing Evolution of Conservatism

This week marks an important moment in the evolution of 21st-century conservatism. While conservatives in the United States engage in the daily parlor game of trying to predict their next political leader, conservatives here in the United Kingdom are trying instead to set and control the national agenda this week at their party conference in Manchester, England. Tories sorted out their leadership issues some time ago. Their main challenge now is to articulate a clear public philosophy and the policies that result from it. The Conservative Party conference, which is the British equivalent of a pre-election party convention in the United States, is unlike previous Tory conferences over the past decade because Conservatives stand a very good chance of reclaiming power in next year’s elections. What they say and do this week will paint a picture of what a future Tory government will do under the leadership of the young and talented David Cameron.

Cameron and his shadow government have often been criticized for not being specific enough about what they stand for and which kinds of policies they would enact. Simon Heffer, a respected conservative columnist at the Telegraph, accused Cameron and his team of “anti-intellectualism” in a column in June and exhorted them to muster the “moral courage” to listen to people with good ideas. Christopher Caldwell’s excellent New York Times article in July on David Cameron focused on the telegenic Tory leader’s ability to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party by “decontaminating the brand.” The article’s lack of emphasis on ideas only reinforces the critique, however.

Oliver Letwin, a Conservative member of parliament and chief policy architect for the party, offers a different view in an article in the current issue of Standpoint magazine. He claims that Conservatives have been constructing a portfolio of policies over the past three years with an explicit goal of achieving “the progressive ends of rebuilding our broken economy, mending our broken society and fixing our broken politics.” He goes on to say:

[The Conservative program’s] method is to apply Conservative means: in other words, to strengthen society rather than the state; to give more power to the people through increased localisation, transparency, choice and accountability; and to encourage enterprise by liberating individuals, communities and businesses from the dead hand of excessive bureaucracy.

Letwin’s “broken economy, broken society, broken politics” framework is not merely a manner of expression. It forms the basis for the agenda of the party conference itself. In the wake of a global economic crisis that hit Britain especially hard and an expenses scandal that rocked voters’ confidence in elected officials, Tories are hoping to lay out a broad range of policies that will restore the nation to a new path—one that points toward hope, progress, and a renewed confidence in itself. Letwin challenges the doubters who claim that the party’s ambitions have not translated into specific policies. The Tories, he argues, have published a dozen “green papers” (what Americans might call “white papers”) in an effort to be specific in historically unprecedented ways. He goes further and adds:

Look at Conservative proposals to liberate schools, hospitals and GPs from Whitehall micro-management and to make them depend upon the ability to attract pupils and patients. Or take the Conservative proposals for using the voluntary sector to move people from welfare to work and to rehabilitate prisoners on the basis of payment by results. Or consider the proposals for line-by-line transparency in government accounts, detailed neighbourhood crime maps (allied to elected police commissioners) and transparent information about outcomes for patients at each hospital and GP practice—or, indeed, the plans for local housing trusts, mayors in our cities, a new general power of competence for local governments, or the various proposals for referendums and rights of initiative for electors. Wherever you look, and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what you see, you are bound to spot a pattern in these policies—the same general themes, the same purposes, the same methods, the same decentralising, de-bureaucratising direction.

In a headier op-ed more than two years ago, Letwin argued that what makes Cameron’s proposed policies interesting are two things. First, Conservative policies are truly post-Marxist in that they go beyond the “econocentric paradigm” that dominated the 20th-century battle of ideas to a “sociocentric paradigm” that focuses on how to generate a broader kind of prosperity than the narrow economic version with which both capitalists and Marxists have been preoccupied. Second, Cameron’s view of things would move Britain away from the “provision-based paradigm” of Labour, which preoccupies itself with using the goods of the marketplace to provide services that relieve a weary population, to a “framework-based paradigm” that “enables and induces individuals and organisations to act in ways that fulfil not merely their own self-interested ambitions but also their wider social responsibilities.”

American observers should pay close attention to whether and how British conservatives address the twin challenges of repairing a shaken economy and fixing a broken society. The economic crisis has forced the Tories to hedge their societal goals somewhat compared to their plans of a couple years ago, but they remain bullish that creating a culture of enterprise requires attending to both at the same time. Britain’s future is very much dependent on whether it can restore not only its erstwhile flowering economy, but whether it can reverse the trends of social decay that have given it the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in Europe and a culture of ennui among an unemployed and often violent younger generation.

If after the many speeches and interviews and commentaries during this week’s party conference we see an emergent policy strategy aimed at fixing Britain’s ills, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic will want to pay close attention to three things over the next year.

First, can Conservatives truly decrease the size and scope of government while increasing citizen’s satisfaction with basic public goods through the party’s strategy to de-bureaucratize the state? Second, will the populace respond to the party’s plans to infuse a family-centric, choice-oriented culture into education and healthcare? Third, can Tories foster a culture of growth amid a plan to cut services on which too many citizens have grown dependent? If the answer to all three questions is “yes,” then British Conservatives will not only repair the country’s “broken politics,” they will begin to reshape the possibilities for conservatives everywhere.

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