British Conservatives: Not Very Conservative By U.S. Standards

After the Conservative party conference, a reminder how different Britain's Tories are from their right-wing American counterparts

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Oli Scarff / Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers his speech to delegates on the last day of the Conservative party conference, in the International Convention Centre on Oct.10, 2012 in Birmingham, England.

German bombs are not once more falling on Birmingham, the U.K.’s second city, violently reconfigured by the Luftwaffe during World War II, but Europe’s turbulence is waging a Blitzkrieg on Britain’s economy. On the third day of the Conservative party’s four-day fall convention in the city,  the International Monetary Fund ratcheted its forecast for the U.K. downwards, envisaging that the economy will contract by 0.4% this year and enjoy only the spindliest of growth in 2013. So on Oct. 10, the final day of the convention, Prime Minister David Cameron channelled his country’s wartime premier Winston Churchill as he took to the stage to give the leader’s speech. He was somber. He wore a funereal black suit and purple tie and stood stock still at the lectern, eschewing the shirt-sleeved, note-free, podium-pacing informality that had won him plaudits at earlier party conferences (a style annexed, to widespread applause, by Labour leader Ed Miliband at his own party’s gathering a week earlier.) Despite the IMF’s warning that pressing on with planned budget cuts might further stifle growth, Cameron signalled his determination to continue with deficit reduction policies he believes essential to restore British competitiveness. “The truth is this,” he intoned. “We are in a global race today and that means an hour of reckoning for countries like us.”

“Sink or swim,” he continued. “Do or decline.” Pull together or pull us down. He didn’t utter those last words, but his call to unity in adversity was clarion. As is often the case with politicians’ keynote appearances, the messaging was carefully calibrated to appeal simultaneously to different audiences: the broad electorate including floating voters (what Americans would refer to as “independents”), the media, the base. Cameron requires the elasticity of a circus contortionist to span the chasms between these constituencies, but some of the deepest divisions are in his own ranks. “To meet the challenges our country faces, we must have confidence in ourselves, confidence as a party,” he told delegates.

(VIDEO: TIME Interviews PM David Cameron)

As the self-proclaimed “heir to [Tony] Blair,” Cameron did his best before the 2010 elections to remake Britain’s stuffy, traditionalist Conservative party, once memorably dubbed by the current Home Secretary Theresa May the “nasty party,” into an approximation of Blair’s New Labour: a broad church, centrist, business-friendly but supportive of poorer segments of society, socially liberal, electorally potent. If he had managed to match New Labour on that last point, he’d be finding it easier to persuade mutinous Tories on the right of the party to tolerate dangerously modish ideas such as curbing climate change or maintaining Britain’s commitment to aid developing countries or, pass the smelling salts, legislating for gay marriage. Instead, he failed to win an overall majority and is locked until 2015 into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a party brimming with exactly such ideas. His most difficult balancing act is to give his coalition partners enough to pacify their members whilst assuaging demand in his own ranks for a return to an older Conservative branding.

That demand expressed itself ahead of the conference in a sudden rush among members of Cameron’s front bench team to express the opinion that the current 24-week time limit on abortions is too lax, even though the government has no plans to amend existing abortion legislation. At the conference itself, one of the fringe meetings to draw the biggest crowds was organized by a pressure group called the Coalition for Marriage. Speakers including the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey drew American-style whoops and hollers for their denunciation of the government’s aim to enable same-sex marriage. Cameron’s recent Cabinet reshuffle had given Tory traditionalists room to hope that he was in the process of repositioning his troops. Owen Paterson, the new Secretary of State for Environment, is a climate change skeptic; Maria Miller, freshly promoted to the dual positions of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Minister for Women, was one of those to call for a reduction in the abortion time limit to 20 weeks; her colleague Jeremy Hunt, just installed as Secretary of State for Health, declared a desire to fully halve the limit to 12 weeks. It looked like a shift to the right. But Cameron used his conference speech to restate his pitch for the political center ground. He said:

This party has a heart, it has a great heart, but we don’t like wearing it on our sleeve. Conservatives think: let’s just get on with the job and help people and not bang on about it. It’s not our style. But there’s a problem with that. It leaves a space for others to twist our ideas and distort who we are: the cartoon Conservatives who don’t care.

My mission from the day I became the leader of this party was to change that. Yes, to show the Conservative party is for everyone: North or South, black or white, straight or gay.

(MORE: Not Exactly Ruling Britannia: David Cameron Fails British History Test on David Letterman’s Show)

The applause for this point was polite, not deafening. An unscientific survey in the cafes and bars, fringe meetings and exhibition stalls of the party conference in the days before Cameron spoke suggested that many Conservatives worry that the coalition with the Liberal Democrats risks diluting Conservative values and in so doing damaging Tory electoral hopes. While opinion polls show floating voters switching allegiance to Labour in protest at the coalition’s budget cuts, more than a trickle of rightwingers are deserting the Tories for the euroskeptic, traditionalist U.K. Independence Party. Among the remaining Tory loyalists who turned out for the conference in Birmingham, there were concerns that the government’s focus on “trendy politics” could divert attention from efforts to secure economic growth.

Until those efforts bear fruit, the government may indeed wish to divert attention, and Cameron’s pledge to bring in same-sex marriage before the end of this Parliament has certainly caught the eye. Moreover, such measures are in the government’s gift to deliver, unlike economic recovery, which depends on other countries and electorates too. Look beyond the objections to gay marriage and the sudden concerns about abortion, and the yen among Tories to yank their party back to the sort of social conservatism espoused by a significant strain of U.S. conservativism appears limited.

At a panel discussion on the U.S. elections, some delegates actively challenged Mitt Romney’s opposition to gay marriage and his mixed messaging on abortion. More significantly, an informal show of hands revealed that only a handful of the audience hoped to see him replace Barack Obama. The perception that the Conservative party leadership also favors the current White House incumbent is so strong that the Foreign Secretary William Hague felt the need to tour TV studios and conference receptions assuring listeners that the special relationship will endure, at least from the British end, no matter who is elected on Nov. 6.

The truth is that despite headline differences on stimulus spending, in several respects, including social attitudes, many British Tories do feel more in common with Democrats than with the G.O.P. Health care is an obvious example. “This is the party of the NHS [Britain’s free-at-the-point-of-delivery National Health Service] and that’s the way it’s going to stay,” insisted Cameron from his podium. Though he aims to push through radical—and controversial—reforms to the NHS, he is pledged to maintain it. The mainstream of the British Conservative party supports a model in which health and other services are funded by taxation, even if they inveigh against “dependency culture” and bemoan inefficiences and unfairnesses.  Cameron’s severely disabled son Ivan, who died aged 6 in 2009, was the beneficiary of taxpayer-funded care. As he spoke of Ivan, while lauding London’s Paralympic Games for helping people to see “the boy, not the wheelchair,” his voice broke and tears welled. It was a rare show of vulnerability from a politician more usually inclined to a patrician stiff upper lip.

After Cameron left the stage, the conference’s special guest, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg obligingly compared his host to Churchill:

We all know these are difficult times,” Bloomberg said. “The shifts in the global economy have presented leaders with tough choices on spending and taxes, on managing deficits and on unleashing the forces of innovation. From everything I’ve seen, the U.K.’s first coalition government since Churchill is meeting these challenges head on.

Bloomberg is a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent. Churchill moved between the Conservative and Liberal parties.  Cameron is trying something similar, but by broadening his party rather than changing parties.