One of the surest signs that Republicans will show big gains in the upcoming election is that liberal commentators have started to pontificate about how “real conservatives behave.” Ever the trendspotters, Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan today applaud Prime Minister David Cameron and his Tories for manfully tackling Britain’s spiraling deficits and debt by cutting government spending by tens of billions of pounds. “And more remarkably,” gushes Beinart, “he also wants to cut the defense budget by 8 percent.”
And what the bulls of the Left suggest, the journalistic herd repeats. Among the “big lessons for America” in Britain’s budget cuts, editorializes the Christian Science Monitor, is that “sacred cows, such as defense spending, can’t be exempted.” The Monitor applauds the efficiencies Defense Secretary Robert Gates is seeking—about $10 to $15 billion per year—but seems to have missed the purpose of Gates’s program: to plow the savings back into underfunded weapons projects.
If anything, the Tories’ approach to trimming government spending ought to be a cautionary tale for American conservatives. Cameron did not put all programs “on the table”—he exempted (weirdly) development funding, a minuscule amount, and, more seriously, the National Health Service, which accounts for fully 8 percent of British gross domestic product, a greater amount than any single current U.S. entitlement. No wonder American liberals love British Tories. Beinart advises the favorites of the Tea Party movement to “invite David Cameron over for a trans-Atlantic visit.”
We’ll be hearing even more of this if, as appears likely, there is a conservative majority in one of both houses of Congress in two weeks. Fortunately, the principles of true American conservatism are more likely to be defined by Rep. Paul Ryan and similar “young gun” leaders than by bloggers for the Daily Beast or the Atlantic. Ryan knows the arithmetic—that fiscal sanity cannot be restored unless entitlements are trimmed—and that, under the Constitution, there is but one form of “mandatory” government activity, providing for the common defense.
Conservatives in power also will be aware that a decline in American military power would have consequences for the world and for liberty that Britain’s decline no longer does. The sun sets relatively gently on the British empire because the burdens of preserving the international system could be passed to a like-minded rising power, the United States. Things are very different now. Young conservatives, like conservatives before them, are unlikely to have the same confidence that the baton of leadership should be passed to “international institutions” like the United Nations, or comfortably shared with the People’s Republic of China. British conservatives were once exceptionalists; American conservatives still are. If there’s a trans-Atlantic lesson, it’s for the Brits.