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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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.

28 comments
Katie
Katie

Brits and Americans just don't understand each other on certain levels.  I'm American and my parents are fans of the British show MI5.  I remember one show where MI5 decided that they had to take down this politician because he was running on nationalism or something.  Anywho, they did and I can't remember how, and we were all very confused by this because it was basically the government shutting up free speech and this was seen as a good thing.  My dad was confused and he is super liberal!

That was when I realized how differently we think about these things.  MI5 would be the bad guys here in the U.S., even to most liberals.  It was weird.

madnessofjack
madnessofjack

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

First, The political terms Left and Right originate from the French Revolution referring to the seating arrangement in the "Estates General".

These are European terms that have transposed themselves into the modern lexicon but DO NOT describe American conservatism.

American conservatism has many "flavors" but what ties them together is an "originalist" interpretation of the US constitution, belief in the power of free enterprise and vigorous defense of property rights and individualism.

We believe our "rights" are "natural rights" and governments duty is the preservation of those rights.i.e Negative Rights.......as opposed to the seemingly European view that government "bestows" to citizens their "rights" which can be modified at anytime of its choosing. 

Our biggest conflicts are against our own governments encroachment against our rights.....in the name of "doing what is best for us" or "security".

You have largely surrendered to the statist, collectivist impulse.....including your "Tories". 

You have surrendered much of your national sovereignty to an  extra-national entity called the "Eurozone"....with the blessings of many of your "Tories".

You have surrendered your Free Speech to be regulated by "Hate Speech"....again with the blessings of many of your "Tories".

 It is a common belief amongst you Europeans to call National Socialists "right wing" which reflects an intellectual laziness on the part of your social democratic intelligentsia.

We wonder in amazement how leftist statist socialists can call another ideologically similar albeit "nationalist" movement....."right wing"......when they are two sides of the same coin.

You know nothing about us so quit pretending you understand us.

pol_incorrect
pol_incorrect

I've said many times that there is no conservatism in Europe left after WWII. All political parties, left and right, over there defend unlimited intrusion of the government in their citizens' private lives via socialized medicine and education, both of which are defended by political platforms across the continent. As the EADS/BAE showdown this week showed, they even defend government intrusion in the free market (with Merkel opposing the deal because it didn't guarantee German jobs). Until the late 90s, most telecom companies were stated owned. Even in France today, a company like Renault is partially owned by the state. The only discussion between right and left in Europe is how much further can the state go, beyond what both sides consider the bare minimum - which is a lot compared to American standards-, and about social issues with right parties rushing to embrace travesties like gay marriage and abortion as soon as they assume power. Western Europe is a big blue ocean. But this socialism has dire consequences: Europe is bankrupt, old and headed to extinction. Hardly inspiring.

TallDave
TallDave

"Cameron’s severely disabled son Ivan, who died aged 6 in 2009, was the beneficiary of taxpayer-funded care."

These strawmen are annoying.  No one is advocating leaving disabled children to starve, feebly twitching their last along the sides of the cold, cold streets.   At the same time, it defies all historical evidence to claim government can more efficiently run a large sector of the economy -- and that's why in pretty much all socialized systems, healthcare is horribly awful by American standards, bogus NGO measures of life expectancy (little correlation to healthcare quality) and "access" notwithstanding.http://classicalvalues.com/archives/2...

fmarc
fmarc

NHS, is 60% of healthcare for 100% of the people.... Definitively not what we should aim for, 100% of health care access to 100% of the people.

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

Conservatives in Britain cannot identify with Conservatives here because the British Conservative party is based on the Disraelite principles of "One Nation", in contrast the Republicans have their roots in Libertarianism.

And what is Libertarianism? - just another word for Anarchism!

In fact, the entire British political spectrum would fit into the Democratic party. British conservatives would be on the right wing of the Democratic party, the Liberal Democrats would be in the center and the Labor party would be on the left wing.

It just goes to show how abnormal the Republicans are, a party of the rich supported by poor whites who always vote against their own economic interests, there's nothing like the Republican party anywhere else in the World.

Harry James
Harry James

Great to see someone with a basic grasp of British politics. But on current policies I'd have Labour as more centrists and Liberal Democrats (LibDems) as a left-leaning party.

If you had to assimilate the current GOP with a UK political party it would probably be the UK Independence Party, or even the British National Party.

Doc3
Doc3

What would you do if you had a brain?

madnessofjack
madnessofjack

"In fact, the entire British political spectrum would fit into the Democratic party"

In fact the entire British political spectrum would fit into a variation in strata of your 1980's Looney Left.......BTW, are you allowed to sing "Baa Baa Black Sheep" anymore?

If anything is "abnormal" it's the political class in England, and presumably the majority of its electorate,  namely being completely paranoid about racial and sexual "problems" that exists only in their imaginations......well, since asian gangs love to "groom" native girls......maybe you have a point. Its just not the point conceived of by your political class.

 

The best examples of your completely whacked "social conscience" can be found with Tony Martin or Andy Ferrie.

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

 Dude, I'm American not British.

God knows what you're talking about.

madnessofjack
madnessofjack

Really......so "social progressives" sound the same the world over.

interesting

Deborah Clemence
Deborah Clemence

What you are missing is that the Republican establishment is no longer conservative.  That is why we call them RINOs.. Republican In Name Only!  True conservatives want to restore our Constitutional Republic and return to fiscal responsibility!  It has nothing to do with class warfare and rich verses poor.    And you are right - the Brits and  Europeans cannot comprehend American conservatism because they have only liberal and liberal-light.  They have never enjoyed individual sovereignty because America is the only nation that was founded on such a principle!  They have no history of self-reliance and rugged individualism - they descend from monarchies and dictatorships.  They don't have our work ethic or our appreciation of liberty. 

Clearly you must be a liberal because you listen to the liberal spin and you have no real understanding of American conservatism at all!   The Republican Party was founded by the anti-slavery movement in America... and it is based on liberty and personal sovereignty - something the left cannot tolerate!  We believe in the free market and not trickle-down government.  We believe in small government that is restrained by the Constitution, not a nanny state inserting itself into every area of our lives!

Any government that is big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you've got!!! 

K2
K2

 That's really funny coming from you and white elitst self from a party, the Democratic party, that came into being in support of slaver and to protect white slaveowners.  Just like now.  The poverty pimps have done more to destroy Detroit than the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  Give black people welfare and keep them under control.  Stereotype them. If they don't act ghetto, they aren't really black.  The ones that act the most ghetto, get paid the most -- like Samuel Jackson and Chris Rocks.  Please, all these white people like yourself standing around discussing the plight of blacks and you don't know any.  You don't need to though, do you?  Like you are so importantant you can make up your own definitions and pronouncements like your comments above. Wanker.

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

Oh puhleeze.

The Republican party is abnormal because it is a party of the rich that garners the votes of the poor and it is only able to do so because poor whites have generations of inbred tradition of never voting for their own interests.

But sooner or later even the poor whites are going to realize that voting for tax cuts for the rich, which, somehow, never, ever trickle down to them is not a sensible thing to do.

That poor whites might one day become self-aware is what frightens Republicans the most.

(Missed your "wanker" comment, what's with a British insult? Can't you say "dickhead" like all true rednecks? After all, living life as a white Republican must have made you used to that term).

Katie
Katie

dude....you really aren't helping your cause....

Danielle5
Danielle5

I accidently liked your comment, and now will have to seek penance. Here are some facts. Gallup found that 4o% of americans define themselves as 'conservative', only 21% 'liberal'. America is a conservative  country. Thanks to the blessing of Christianity, it always will be. Britain on the other hand has turned its back on Christ and is in perpetual decline. I have British heritage, so I'm still hopeful she will awake from her anti-Christian stupor before it's too late. USA! USA! - that ought to get the blood flowin'.

-Chip Chip, Cheerio! (:

K2
K2

 "And what is Libertarianism? In fact.... would fit into the Democratic party...." You elitist pig! Because YOU said so! YOU being so much  better and smarter than all others can make such blanket pronouncements! YOU are the Democratic party, the party built on slavery and now ethnocentric stereotypes, because in your shallow little world, the world turns according to YOU and your bullshit opinion of who is what.  Piss off wanker!

Michael Peter
Michael Peter

Abnormal? What a curious choice of terminology. Almost as curious as your definition for Libertarianism.

Given that our constitution reflects the ideals of enlightenment and the age of reason, where mankind finally cast off the chains of state religion and acknowledged that free will itself is a natural law as demonstrated through your ability to make choices and act on your own behalf, the fact that you would describe this phenomenon as "abnormal" suggests that you, sir, are an idiot.

Now go serve your masters.

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

Go back to school and take English and Politics classes. Do you even know what Anarchism is? Go on then, show us your white Republican intellect and explain Anarchism.

I confidently predict you'll get it wrong.

jambouburgess
jambouburgess

US conservatives are the far far right compare to anywhere in the world...US

Katie
Katie

Europe maybe, not the world.

jambouburgess
jambouburgess

can you found any country run by a far right governement outside the States? 

StefaniaBelmondo
StefaniaBelmondo

Well, on a global scale the Democratic party is a right-wing party, so no news here. The Republicans are so far right, that only fringe parties would hold most of their views.

K2
K2

Which is most of the United States, rather than the little elitist twits at your sorry coctail parties! Your party has gone so far off the rails, that if JFK were alive today he would be a Republican. All else in the Dem party are Marxists.

dougbr
dougbr

Not surprising, since in historical terms, todays american "conservatives" would be referred to as liberals, and their polar opposite would be conservatives. The U.K. still goes by these definitions, while in the U.S. the republican party has so successfully poisoned the term "liberal" that they've had to invent a new term "libertarian".

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Catherine, esp. for mentioning UK Independence Party. I would've otherwise asked which UK party most resembles the US Tea Party and the teavangelical movement fusing social conservatism and libertarian thinking. And over here, yes, the Tories would NOT be seen as "real conservatives" by the teavangelicals. Their common meant-to-be-derogatory term for said "not-conservatives" is RINO's (R's in name only ...for those who do NOT watch Joe Scarborough on MSNBC - he's called that all the time by right-wing critics).