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Not Your Father's Tories

The Cameron conservatives look like winners.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By REIHAN SALAM
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British conservatives have spent a decade clawing their way back to respectability, and they finally look like a government-in-waiting. This is thanks to their leader, David Cameron, a baby-faced Old Etonian who listens to indie rock, occasionally rides a bicycle to work, and loves windmills so much he affixed one to his house. But while Cameron may come across as a bobo caricature, charmingly self-effacing yet troublingly eager to seem cool, in the last two years he has gone from shallow naïf to sure-footed statesman. He has worked tirelessly at "indigenizing" the Tories, bringing them back in step with a country that had grown more socially liberal, more ethnic, more frankly emotional, and more anti-American.

Without fully taking up the mantle of a Michael Moore Conservative--as the latest version of the anti-American Tory "Little Englanders" were dubbed in these pages in May 2004--Cameron took great pains to make it clear that unlike Tony Blair he'd never be George Bush's poodle and that his brand of conservatism was the kindest and gentlest yet. Diehard Thatcherites resented Cameron's efforts to "decontaminate" the conservative brand, but there was no denying that decontamination was necessary. Poll after poll found that popular stances on crime and immigration became less popular when they were adopted by the Tories.

Cameron's initial aim was a conservative party pitched directly to London's media elite: strong on civil liberties, socially liberal, and highly compassionate (i.e., eager to feel your pain). By presenting himself as the true heir to Blair, a friend of the middle class who wouldn't dare touch New Labour's mightily expanded state, Cameron sought to project that the Tories were innocuous. Hey--we love babies, too! And the environment! Cameron's big tent was big enough to include antiglobalization heartthrob and playboy Zac Goldsmith, the kind of green who thinks we have a lot to learn from Paleolithic man.

There was a certain logic to this approach, as much of the erosion in conservative support had happened among upper-middle-class suburbanites in the south, traditionally the Tory heartland. Like the Rockefeller Republicans who've flocked to the Democrats since Bill Clinton, these voters were particularly turned off by the conservatives' "nasty party" image, and it was crucial to win them back from Labour. During Blair's waning days, the approach seemed to work. The conservatives regularly trumped New Labour in the polls. But Tony Blair was even more personally unpopular in Britain than President Bush was in the United States, and the conservatives were outpolling Blair far more than they were beating Labour. It was inevitable that Blair's successor and longtime rival, Gordon Brown--a dour ex-socialist Scot who spends his spare time reading Gertrude Himmelfarb on the Victorians--would enjoy some kind of honeymoon when he took over in late June.

The early months of Brown's tenure looked like a slow-motion disaster for Cameron. It seemed as though Brown could finally and utterly obliterate the conservatives. By handling a series of botched terror attacks with calm authority, Brown represented everything Blair was not--there was no high-flown rhetoric about the threat to civilization. Instead, there was an understated moral seriousness. And in relations with the widely despised Bush, Brown managed to maintain a respectful distance and inch away from the British commitment to Iraq without causing a public rupture. Brown also borrowed deftly from the conservatives, by calling for patriotic education and a border police force to stem the tide of illegal migrants. Brown proved so politically successful that plans were put in place for a snap election. Writing in the Daily Mail in late July, the conservative columnist Peter Oborne painted a particularly bleak picture: After a fourth consecutive general election defeat, conservatives would likely split into the unreconstructed right-wing Euroskeptics and a frightened faction of centrist pragmatists, many of whom would defect to the parties of the left.

Brown had outflanked the Cameron conservatives from the right, mostly by playing the role of a serious adult to perfection. Cameron decided that the only viable strategy was to make a renewed and vigorous case for, well, conservatism. Stranger still is that it worked, resonating with a broad middle class that had abandoned the conservatives a decade ago. Indeed, a handful of polls now show the conservatives with enough of an edge over Labour to win a minuscule majority. While the Cameron conservatives are by no means zealous supply-siders, the call for (responsible and measured) tax cuts proved potent. In early October, Cameron gave a startlingly confident speech that essentially dared Brown to call an immediate election. The conventional wisdom at the time was that the energized conservatives could, at the very least, extract a pound of flesh from Labour, reducing their majority--even possibly jeopardizing it--and anything short of an expanded majority would have made Brown look like a loser next to his predecessor--a man with a preternatural sense for the mood of Middle England. And so, as the polls shifted sharply against Labour, the cautious Brown made the decision not to tempt fate. Ever since, the very lucky conservatives have made great hay out of Brown's cowardice.

Commentators like Michael Barone and John O'Sullivan have called this a vindication of the traditional approach: Tax cuts sell! But it is rather more complicated. It took time for the Tory party to rebuild its credibility. Without a serious process of reinvention, it's likely that the latest promise of tax cuts would have fallen on deaf ears. Moreover, Labour's failures to reform the public services despite massive infusions of cash have made the public increasingly skeptical about the promises of statism and thus increasingly receptive to some aspects of the traditional conservative message.

Conservatives have made most of their gains in the prosperous southeast of England, the British region that is least dependent on government largesse. The Blair boom in financial services has transformed London into a magnet for foreign billionaires and plucky Polish plumbers. But this same prosperity has brought new anxieties. Thanks to strict environmental regulations, favored by many Tory traditionalists who put great stock in preserving the English landscape, housing prices have skyrocketed, and so have traffic congestion and the cost of living. Just as in the sprawling suburbs of America's biggest cities, the terrain of politics has shifted to these quality-of-life questions. Railing against government simply doesn't have the resonance it once did.

Cameron's new conservatism is tailor--made for these new times. In October, he gave a speech about managing "population growth." Now, at its heart this speech was about immigration, a traditional preoccupation of Tories. Though most of the British public favors curbs on immigration, they've rejected conservative rhetoric on the issue for years. Cameron was careful to talk about immigration--or rather "net migration"--in a broader context of environmental impact. He was thus also able to talk about family breakdown, which also drives the relentless demand for new housing units, which also leads to further encroachments on pristine rural land. There was nothing that could be characterized as racist about the speech--a charge that has often followed Tory initiatives on immigration--indeed, Cameron spent much of the speech praising immigrants and their economic impact, and he has taken a significant role in recruiting ethnic minority candidates for the party. Rather, the speech spoke to the anxieties of an affluent yet crowded country that is experiencing the downsides of robust economic growth.

So what exactly is distinctively "conservative" about all this? Isn't Cameron's just a glorified form of pothole politics? Danny Kruger, one of Cameron's key advisers, offered an answer in a brilliant pamphlet titled On Fraternity. He argues that Blair's New Labour project aimed to use the redistributive apparatus of the state to emancipate the individual from burdensome ties of family and neighborhood. Its radical project was to replace them with freely chosen ones defined by shared interests and tastes. For Kruger, conservatism must aim to restore the health of families and neighborhoods that have been badly undermined by statist excess. This can't be done by simply abolishing the state institutions. They must be remade in the image of the neighborhoods they serve by, for example, putting parents in charge of schools and local voters in charge of the police. Over time, the habits of self-government--as opposed to the habits of dependency--can be restored. Cameron's fuzzy talk about choice and civil society, which sounds so suspiciously Blairite, means something else entirely: It is about getting citizens to stand on their own two feet.

Having recognized that Brown has a solid reputation for economic competence (a reputation that, to the delight of the Tories, has taken a severe beating of late), Cameron and his advisers have focused on the ways in which economic life shapes family life, and vice versa. To fight poverty, Cameron is arguing that the state needs to strengthen families, not weaken them, even if that means special tax treatment and other forms of affirmative support. Indeed, there's been much talk of importing Wisconsin-style welfare reform, one of the great (if expensive) triumphs of American conservatism. Cameron's managed to suggest this without sounding divisive or in any way "nasty." The so-called "Cameroonians" are in a sense the true heirs to the American neoconservatives of the 1970s. They are sensitive to the role culture plays in perpetuating poverty. They are cautious about the power of the state and yet not allergic to using the state to meliorist ends. Perhaps most important, they enthusiastically embrace modern Britain and not Britain as it was in 1950.

Reihan Salam is an associate editor of the Atlantic Monthly.