Conservatism, but not as we know it

15 Feb 08
PETER WILBY | I was in Washington in 1981 a few days before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. The sense of a new era being born was palpable.

I was in Washington in 1981 a few days before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. The sense of a new era being born was palpable.

It was not just that US papers were fu

ll of what then seemed ideas from the political fringe — for example, that low taxes, by stimulating enterprise, would increase government revenues. It was also that the capital was full of men in big hats, up from the southern sunbelt, demanding the best hotel rooms and rudely insisting on priority restaurant service.

This, I thought, was a conquering army, reversing the defeats and humiliations of half a century. American conservatism was back. The liberals, almost overnight, had been run out of town.

Are we about to see something similar happen in the US, but in reverse? And what would it mean for us? Margaret Thatcher was already in Downing Street when Reagan took office and, together, they changed the world.

Since then, the Left, when it has governed, has governed on conservative terms, favouring free markets, extending privatisation, rejecting high taxes on the rich, weakening welfare programmes, keeping unions in check.

With a few exceptions (notably France), this has been true across the developed world. In New Zealand, for example, a Labour government turned the country into a laboratory for the harshest ideas of the new conservative ideology.

In the late 1990s, Left (or, in US terms, liberal) parties held power in most of western Europe as well as in the US. But nearly all of them assured voters they wouldn’t raise taxes, reverse privatisations, let unions off the leash or do anything that recalled the bad old pre-1980s era.

Now conservatism is in retreat. The British Tories, under David Cameron, accept that Thatcherism is finished. They hug hoodies, embrace green taxes and even propose to extend the nanny state by sending what look very much like nannies into the homes of first-time mothers.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, hailed last year as the Gallic Thatcher, now talks dreamily about ‘the moralisation of capitalism’ and asks Amartya Sen, the world’s leading welfare economist, to invent an index of national well-being as an alternative to GDP.

In Australia, a conservative prime minister who presided over a decade of economic growth lost an election because he removed unfair dismissal protection from thousands of workers.

The most dramatic turnaround is in the US, the spiritual home of modern conservatism. The Democrats are expected to win the White House, but the more significant successes are those of John McCain, a Republican who explicitly rejects the low-tax conservatism of Reagan and the two Bushes. Reaganism, like Thatcherism, is no longer electable.

Many more voters are turning out for Democratic primaries than for Republican ones. This reflects a sharp swing in voter identification: in just a few years, the numbers identifying with the Republicans have returned to pre-Reagan levels. More importantly, according to polls, increased public spending is now more popular than tax cuts.

Remarkably, three-quarters of Americans say poorly performing schools should not be closed but given more money, and even sacking bad teachers (a favourite populist rallying call in the US, as in Britain) gets only narrow majority support.

‘The stage has been set,’ writes David Frum, a former George W Bush aide, ‘for the boldest and most dramatic redirection of US politics since Reagan’s first year.’

Frum has written a book called Comeback: how conservatism can win again. But if it comes back, conservatism will not be as we have known it for the past 30 years. ‘To vindicate [the Republicans’] claim to be the party of the nation,’ argues Frum, ‘we must… value public service as much as private wealth creation… appreciate the duties of government fully as much as we defend the rights of the marketplace.’

Where does this leave Gordon Brown? After his initial attempts to distance himself from Blairism, he has embraced Third Way solutions with enthusiasm, supporting, for example, more city academies and private sector involvement in benefit payments. His ministers feel free to float such ideas as throwing unemployed people out of council houses.

Moreover, he can point to the latest edition of the British Social Attitudes survey which, on the basis of answers to several questions, rates 56% of the public as unsympathetic to poor people, against 36% in 1994.

I suspect, despite what Frum and other US commentators think, this is not 1981 in reverse after all. The Left has no coherent programme for government, as the Right had then. The better analogy is with the 1970s, when neither Left nor Right could assert their primacy and both Britain and the US struggled to cope with seismic global changes.

I look forward to it. The 1970s might have been a decade of bad hair and worse trousers but, politically, it was a breathtaking time to be alive.

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