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Although I am always reluctant to do what that famous Yankee baseball player claimed that his predecessor had done–”He learnt me his experience”–I can’t resist the temptation to answer the question being put by Britain’s Tories in the aftermath of the election: “Is there anything we can learn from the success of America’s conservatives and neoconservatives?”
In one sense, the answer is “no”. America is and always has been different. Our federal system, for instance, is still in force. Because the states still have considerable authority in such matters as education and religion, the “culture wars” have ended differently here. In both Europe and America the left has won these wars, yet the victory in America has been far less complete.
There are more than 1m youngsters being “home schooled” in the US today because their parents dislike the progressive curriculum, codes of conduct and general ethos of the public schools. Similarly, in higher education there are more than 100 Christian colleges serving over 250,000 students. Many of these were formed in recent decades after the mainline colleges reshaped the curriculum and campus culture into a version of the 1960s counterculture.
It is easy to start a college in the US. State legislatures are obliging with their charters because most Americans–the educational establishment always excepted–respect this exercise in entrepreneurial freedom. The same thing is true of religion for the same reason.
So although the left has won the culture wars here, as in Britain, in America it is a partial victory vulnerable to popular denial. Football and baseball games from high school up to the professional level almost always begin with the singing of the national anthem. Patriotism is still a vital force.
So much for the differences between the US and the UK. There is one area where conservatism has triumphed in America that is certainly exportable, and that is economic policy. The great change that has occurred in American conservatism has been the conversion of the Republican party to what is called supply-side economics–more accurately the politics of economic growth and full employment, as distinct from traditional “bankers’ economics” that focuses on repressing inflation.
It is no accident that this neoconservative economic policy was imported into the Republican party by a group of former liberals (in the American sense)–Ronald Reagan among them–with keen personal memories of the Great Depression and especially of the soul-destroying misery that goes with unemployment. There are still many conservatives in the United States who do not understand that given the choice between the risk of inflation and the risk of unemployment, people will always choose the former.
In Britain as in Europe the social democratic philosophy, accepted to a greater or lesser degree by all political parties, recognizes this by making unemployment more tolerable through benefits of all kinds. This alleviates obvious suffering at the cost, however, of mass demoralization. France and Germany are societies that are ravaged by unemployed youth, and while Britain is doing better it still suffers from the same economic sickness.
So I would urge Britain’s conservatives to put aside bankers’ economics, otherwise known as “prudent household economics”. The nation is not a household. In the modern world the nation has to be committed to economic growth in a way a household cannot be. To achieve such economic growth, a cut in tax rates–10% is a good number to begin with but the prospect of further cuts must be kept in mind–is the beginning of economic wisdom. Economic initiatives must be encouraged for economic growth to happen.
Yes, the Treasury will say that you must cut spending to make this possible. This insistence will make tax cuts impossible. In America the Treasury has always been hostile to tax-cutting; it’s in the nature of the beast. Bankers’ economics is useless when defining the appropriate leverage of public debt arising from tax cuts.
It is true that economic growth creates inequalities, always and everywhere. In a market economy, however, such inequalities do not create trans-generational economic classes. Only static economies do that. That is the experience of the US, where new economic inequalities do not become social inequalities. Indeed, they subvert them.
Economics is important, but it is social policy where the term “conservative” gets its meaning, not in economic policy. Liberal ideas about crime, immigration and education should be attacked and discredited. The family is one archetypically conservative institution and should be privileged as such.
The other such institution is religion. A secular state cannot prosper indeed, cannot survive–in an entirely secular society. Families and churches are the two institutions that make for inter-generational stability. In a dynamic society focusing on economic growth it is especially important that conservatives plead their cause. The media, of course, which benefit from any trendy fashion that makes “news”, will be highly critical at first. But the media are “pandering” institutions, which eventually shift with the tides and become more accommodating.
Finally, a word about foreign policy. The Conservative party should announce that European integration has gone too far. A common European market is a good idea and those commonalities that emerge naturally among its members are usually good ideas as well. But what is developing is not a European union of nations but a transnational Europe with its political centre in Brussels. This is unacceptable–or should be–to the UK.
France and Germany seem to be weary of their national history and national identity and may be willing to surrender both to a papier-mache “united Europe” with no military reality but with a huge nitpicking centralized bureaucracy in Brussels. Britain has no reason to shed either its identity or its history and the Conservative party should take the lead in calling for a return to the original European idea as Margaret Thatcher understood it. The larger corporations, speaking for the “business community”, will be appalled. Smaller businesses will not be and very small businesses will be delighted. Conservatives should see to it that their views are heard. In any case, the Conservative party should not be the party of business but the party of prosperity.
One other thing: a conservative party historically, in all countries, has been the patriotic nationalistic party. The Conservative party of Great Britain should celebrate this spirit.
Irving Kristol is a senior fellow at AEI.
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