The Magazine

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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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.