November 15, 2007
Let's Steal Some Ideas from the LeftBy Christopher Chantrill
I hold the following truth to be self evident. When solving some intractable political problem, chances are that someone has already solved it. The main thing is to keep your eyes open because sooner than you think, you will run into the solution.
Here in the United States we conservatives are worrying like Scarlett O'Hara about the problem of post-Reagan conservatism. What shall we do? Where shall we go?
Suppose someone has already invented the New Conservatism?
Last week Britain's Conservative Party leader David Cameron went to Manchester, England, to make a speech about co-operatives. The co-operative idea is a very good thing, he told his audience. In fact it is so good that the Conservative Party was setting up a Conservative Co-operative Movement. Said Cameron:
The last time that a British Conservative went to Manchester was probably when Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli gave a speech at the Free Trade Hall in 1872.
In the 1840s the Conservative Party was against free trade when Manchester radicals Cobden and Bright campaigned for it. In the 1880s it was against social legislation when Manchester was solidly Liberal. In the 20th century it was against Fabian socialism when Manchester was solidly Labour.
Now Cameron is telling Mancunians he thinks the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of 28 hand-loom weavers, were really cool when they started the co-operative movement in a suburb of Manchester back in 1844.
It's either a stupid flip-flop or a bold master-stroke; the pundits can't be sure. From 1844 till last week the Conservative Party has had no interest in co-operatives.
But last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown's hand shook --e ither with fear or with rage, the pundits can't be sure -- when Cameron challenged him in Parliament.
It had nothing to do with co-operatives, but the scent of blood was enough to make Conservative eyes twinkle with hope. Finally, a Conservative leader had laid a glove on the Labour leader. Maybe Brown lacked the political teflon of Tony Blair.
In the Anglo-Saxon politics of the last generation we have seen remarkable combinations of political talent. We have seen Reagan and Thatcher, strong on substance and strong on charisma. We have seen Clinton and Blair, extremely strong on charisma and, in retrospect, weak on substance. We have seen President Bush, strong on substance but weak on communication skills.
Now it is starting to look as if the next generation of center-left leaders could be weak on substance and on charisma. In Britain Gordon Brown is a reactionary centralizer and apparently lacking in charisma. In the United States there is Hillary Clinton. One thing is certain: in the charisma department a Bill Clinton she ain't. And as for substance, Hillary Clinton's record is one of mindless centralizing, in education and in health care.
This may be the luckiest break for conservatives in years. Back in the last century Democrats had leaders like FDR. He had the effrontery to dress up brain-dead bureaucratic government programs as "bold, persistent experimentation," and people believed him.
David Cameron is a conservative leader that's bold enough to try a little bold, persistent experimentation of his own. Why stop at stealing the clothes of the left on co-operatives? He is also trying to redefine "social justice."
Social justice is all about the left taking money from the rich to give to the poor through compassionate social programs, right? Not according to Cameron.
If I were a neighborhood lefty here in Seattle my hands would be shaking with rage.
How dare, how dare those evil neo-con theocrats speak about social justice like that!
Don't tell anyone, but it gets worse. The Conservative Party's Centre for Social Justice is run by Iain Duncan Smith, who once served as an army officer. To heal the social pathologies in "Breakdown Britain" he proposes to help the poor with US-style welfare reform and re-jigging the tax system to favor marriage.
Back in the 1990s American conservatives were mightily upset when Bill Clinton posed as a welfare reformer, triangulating the center ground--and the Soccer Moms--away from conservatives.
Imagine a conservative leader with the charisma and the substance to do a Clinton in reverse!