A Defense of Cameronism

Cameronism is a subject of particular interest to me, so I’m going to defend Cameron — and by extension David Brooks — against Peter’s thoughtful critique.

I think Peter should read Danny Kruger’s On Fraternity, which I consider the smartest political essays I’ve read in a long time. He’ll find that Kruger — and, by extension, Cameron — is concerned first and foremost with restoring civil society and the capacity for self-government by transforming remote, centrally-directed public institutions into enterprises rooted in the choices and concerns of private individuals, families, and neighborhoods. (Kruger calls this a kind of alchemy, and he’s right. But we have promising precedents, particularly in education.)

Peter anticipates this objection.

Brooks would no doubt argue that he only wants to see government strengthen those traditional community bonds, not supplant them. That’s an admirable goal, but I’m not sure it’s an attainable one. The very nature of retail politics (and competitive salesmanship in general) is to move toward bolder, grander claims — always to do and be more.

Whether or not we can have a more liberal, decentralized government that delivers a superior quality of life to the illiberal, centralized alternative is an empirical question — and that’s just the thing. Voters in market democracies, all of them social market democracies in varying degrees, make judgments on the basis of their perceived quality of life. Those of us on the liberal center-right believe, as an empirical matter, that a freer society is, generally speaking, a more prosperous, cooperative, peaceful society. That is the proposition Cameron and Reinfeldt and others in the Fourth Way movement (ha ha) aim to demonstrate. To do it, they are drawing heavily on centrist discourse, centrist defined by the preferences, habits, and prejudices of the median voter. For a partisan of any stripe, and I use the term advisedly, winning elections means using crafted language to gently nudge public opinion in your direction.

So what is Cameronism really about? It is about framing a kind of liberal conservatism that is relevant to the concerns of Britain’s median voters. The National Health Service, for example, is being hollowed out through a wide variety of surprising political forces, among them the European Union — which demands that European citizens be able to use health-care providers anywhere in the Union, and be compensated as though they were using health-care providers at home. This poses a real structural challenge. And there are also human rights arguments being deployed against bans on private provision. This could lead, over time, to a freer, more competitive sector. In the interim, it will jangle a lot of nerves. And so those of a Burkean bent seek to ease the transition.

It’s worth recalling that Thatcher never mentioned privatization in her early manifestos — the fear was that privatization would prove unpopular. The privatization of British Telecom, however, proved wildly popular, and so privatization is remembered as a great Thatcherite triumph. This is despite the fact that the privatization of BT transformed a state-owned monopoly into, for a time, a regulated privately-held monopoly — hardly the same blow for freedom that rapid technological change proved to be in the years that followed. Also, the sale of council proved to be a great advance for property ownership and, to be high-flown, freedom. Yet it’s also true that it discriminated those who never live in council homes. It was hardly neutral in its impact. It was a carefully crafted social policy aimed to achieve exactly the alchemical outcome Cameron’s Conservatives hope to achieve by adopting the so-called Swedish education revolution.

We impose a uniform logic on a political moment after it happens — but of course all political moments are defined by messy contingencies. Had Ted Kennedy been elected president in 1980, a plausible outcome, we would have seen ideas widely held in the late 1970s — a shorter work-week, federal industrial policy — whole-heartedly embraced. After a time, scholars would argue that American social democracy represented continuity with an older American tradition stretching back to Henry Clay. The French, in contrast, have been notoriously laissez-faire since the 1830s. It’s all in our cultural and historical DNA. Or so some would say.

To be sure, the experience of New Labour lends strength to Peter’s arguments — the effort to return to working-class self-government as manifested in the old friendly societies led New Labour to sponsor a panoply of quangos, etc., and this involvement in civil society wound up (to put it bluntly) corrupting civil society. Daniel Larison has argued along similar lines, and it should go without saying that they both have a point. Thankfully, Cameron has learned from this experience, but there’s no doubt that he’s repeat many mistakes that have been made in the past. But will we see some incremental progress in the direction of a freer society, broadly understood? I think so.

Peter ends on a very powerful note.

Yet I shudder to think that our government should reinvent itself this way – cleaner, perhaps, and with a hipper, more modern sensibility too, but oppressive, in a way, and certainly more expensive – a trillion-dollar, bureaucratic Whole Foods.

But surely government, reinvented or otherwise, will need to perform certain functions, for example, providing police protection. What Cameron seeks to do in this area is to decentralize the police, to put more authority in the hands of local government, to enable some degree of Tiebout choice and to facilitate more experimentation. Surely this isn’t creating a lean, mean, hipper form of policing, centralized in some corporate-style headquarters — it is the opposite, as some dowdy, un-hip forms of policing will surely prevail in some areas. Schools, similarly, will see fairly radical differentiation.

There are some elements of the Cameron vision that will prove distasteful to libertarians no matter what. I wrote about some of them in the Weekly Standard a few months back.

Thanks to strict environmental regulations, favored by many Tory traditionalists who put great stock in preserving the English landscape, housing prices have skyrocketed, and so have traffic congestion and the cost of living. Just as in the sprawling suburbs of America’s biggest cities, the terrain of politics has shifted to these quality-of-life questions. Railing against government simply doesn’t have the resonance it once did.

Cameron’s new conservatism is tailor—made for these new times. In October, he gave a speech about managing “population growth.” Now, at its heart this speech was about immigration, a traditional preoccupation of Tories. Though most of the British public favors curbs on immigration, they’ve rejected conservative rhetoric on the issue for years. Cameron was careful to talk about immigration—or rather “net migration”—in a broader context of environmental impact. He was thus also able to talk about family breakdown, which also drives the relentless demand for new housing units, which also leads to further encroachments on pristine rural land. There was nothing that could be characterized as racist about the speech—a charge that has often followed Tory initiatives on immigration—indeed, Cameron spent much of the speech praising immigrants and their economic impact, and he has taken a significant role in recruiting ethnic minority candidates for the party. Rather, the speech spoke to the anxieties of an affluent yet crowded country that is experiencing the downsides of robust economic growth.

So yes, there is implicit in Cameronism, and in British conservatism more broadly, a vision of what the good life looks like. A diverse Britain, yes, but one in which there is a thin, widely shared set of cultural commitments. A dense, urban Britain, in which traditional landscapes survive in some recognizable form. This goes beyond the Oakeshottian vision of government as civil association. Kruger has some interesting thoughts on how it is more compatible than we tend to think with Millian liberalism. But anyway, I think Cameronism is an attractive politics for the world in which we live, in which a series of historical and institutional legacies constrain our choices yet allow enough plasticity to realize really beneficial reforms. I think of Cameronism less as a “politics of meaning” and more as a means of allowing many different kinds of life to flourish in close quarters. This means inculcating a set of cooperative norms and habits through responsive, open public institutions.

I’m repeating myself! Blah!