David Cameron seems to have hit something of a rough patch with just two weeks to go till the British General Election, and it has nothing to do with his main opponent, Gordon Brown and Labour.
It was Cameron who pushed for American-style televised debates between the party leaders, and if ever the old "Careful what you wish for" maxim applied, it's here: the first televised debate led to a ten point jump for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, though there's some evidence that's subsiding. Cleggmania not only chopped the Tory lead over Labour by close to half, but has put the Lib Dems in second, though Labour -- because of its strong base in the north, will still more than double them in seats. Nonetheless, the Lib Dem surge makes the odds of an outright Conservative majority remote, meaning they'll have to barter with Clegg and the nationalist parties to get the requisite 325 votes in the Commons to sustain a governing majority. Though there's some scuttlebutt about a devilish combination of factors creating a situation where Labour finishes third but has the most seats, I think that's overblown for reasons that could easily fit into another post.
The volatile political climate being what it is, the best prediction we can venture right now is that on May 7th David Cameron will be forming a minority government led by the Conservatives.
With that (partial) victory in hand, conservatives here will be wondering if the lessons of Cameron can be applied to the future of the Republican Party and the battle for the White House in 2012.
I decided to actually read some pieces on Cameron's agenda, and some of his speeches, to find out. And, fair warning: Cameronism is as clear a break from Thatcherism as you can get and still be in the same party. His entire campaign, and his slogan, "The Big Society," is an implicit rebuke to Thatcher's famous 1987 challenge to the idea of society itself:
And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour.
There is no stirring antigovernment oratory in Cameron's speeches. No "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem." Or, if he says it, it's from a decidedly non-libertarian angle: he believes big government is actually getting in the way of progressive objectives like fighting inequality.
I was pointed to this Julian Glover piece in the British Prospect from last fall that seems as good a primer on Cameron's politics as any. My scribbled notes have the essentials of Cameronism down as follows:
- Cameron is a communitarian -- more a social conservative (in the British context) than an economic conservative. Throw in rank class warfare but leave out the overt religiosity, and he'd be a British Huckabee. The combination of politician and campaign this most reminds me of is Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election on school uniforms. Cameron is big on the idea of social cohesion; his speeches read like Tocqueville in their attentiveness to civil society. But he believes most of this happens outside of government.
- Cameron is a decentralizer. Unlike previous Conservatives who have stood for the unitary British state, Cameron talks about devolving power not to autonomous nationalities like the Scots or big cities like London (as has started to happen under Labour), but directly to community groups and to associations of parents who would set up their own schools within the public system. Burke's idea of "little platoons" and the writings of Michael Oakeshott seem to run deep in his veins.
- Cameron is a liberal progressive. He is not a libertarian or an individualist. This can mean inflammatory things in the American context, but his speeches make clear that he believes income inequality is a problem (that, paradoxically, government has made worse). He seems to echo mid-1990s Republican rhetoric on welfare as a threat to the family and society, pitting big government against compassionate social policy. He seems to discount the Reagan-Thatcher celebration of the individual-entrepreneur as moving society forward by making a functioning economy possible. In this way, his thinking is much heavier on social policy than it is on economic policy, the opposite of the position faced by American conservatives.
- Cameron is a believer in technology-driven transparency. He traveled to Long Beach to give a TED talk on this. He believes spending transparency is an essential component to the devolutionist project he's pursuing. The Obama guys are also big on this sort of thing, but in America there's no sense that it's anything more than a propaganda tool (Exhibit A: Recovery.gov) or something that gets more than just data geeks excited.
This is all a lead in to Cameron's idea of a "Big Society" that exists apart from Big Government. His speech on it from November 2009 lays this out in a fair amount of detail. A more boiled down, more political juxtaposition appears in his manifesto launch:
But the alternative to Big Government is not no government. It's good government. Effective government. Focusing on what needs to be done and working with people to achieve it. It's the partner of the Big Society, not its boss.
Labour measure everything by money and how much they spend. How much of your money they spend - though they never remember to put it like that. We've had thirteen years of it. Thirteen years of them going on television and never talking about what's actually happened... or what real people have actually done. All they talk about is what they, the government, have done. How much they, the government, have put in.
But it doesn't work. And it's out of date. It's time to say to Labour: it's not about you, the government. It's about we, the people.
And it's time to say to those who think it's all about unchecked individualism... no, it's not about me, the individual. It's about we, the people.
In one sense, Cameron is doing something conservatives here should pay attention to: laying out a success metric for the vast majority of the stuff government does day to day that doesn't involve spending more money.
Conceptually, the Big Society -- a mix of civil society, personal behavior, voluntarism, and community -- is a positive thing that the right can attach itself to. I've argued in the context of health care that conservatives have faced a social policy deficit and thus a compelling rallying cry for what to do about the problems in the health care system. One route would have been to become expert at and be perceived as owning all the positive things that were already happening outside of government -- focusing on prevention, improving health outcomes, and e-health to reduce costs and bring instant peer review to faulty diagnoses. This is a Big Society approach -- positive and upbeat, and without more government. Incidentally, it's a development from the Big Society -- improvements in sonography -- that have changed public policy outcomes on abortion by reducing them dramatically. If you're on the pro-life side of the ledger, this is about the biggest non-legislative, non-judicial victory you could hope for.
All of this is more my take on what the Big Society could mean in America than Cameron's. In this respect, I think a focus on positive things to talk about outside of taxes could be beneficial. Without taxes, the basic conservative messaging on size of government is austerity -- except even our own folks on the Hill think this is unsustainable, judging by their earmark requests. Republicans should be proactively looking to the private/voluntary sector to highlight social policy success metrics that relieve the pressure to spend money when they need a quick political fix.
Nonetheless, I suspect that Cameron's goals for a Big Society are different than ours would be. Indeed, this key part of Cameron's Big Society speech from last November shows a decidedly non-libertarian bent that I fear could easily revert back to Nanny Statism at the first sign of resistance:
This means a new role for the state: actively helping to create the big society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal.
So yes, in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.
(That last line is pretty chilling if you're a tea party activist, isn't it?)
While the social engineering explicit in Cameron's thought seems alarming, it's not entirely unknown in the Republican Party in recent years, which is why I don't see the party clamoring for a Cameron-like rebranding anytime soon. Remember "compassionate conservatism"? Or the "opportunity society"?
Both these concepts were about putting the government on the side of social entrepreneurs and faith-based groups who could better deliver public services. Except the actual initiatives that did this weren't all that scalable (I doubt if faith-based initiatives ever topped the billion-dollar mark) or were politically unattainable (putting individuals in charge of their Social Security accounts). The other projects undertaken in the name of an "opportunity society" involved massive (and we were assured, temporary) rises in government spending in order to "buy" market-friendly policies as in the case of Medicare Part D.
The recession will limit any new spending by any British government after May 6th. I'm willing to believe that the way the Bush Administration pursued its big society objectives was more ersatz and tolerated new government spending more than Cameron would, but though Cameron is indisputably a better choice than Brown, I worry that his progressive instincts will in the end lead him to a place not far from Labour.