Wise Up, Stupid Party

How British Conservatism can come out of the cold


"It seems a barren thing this Conservatism—an unhappy crossbreed, the mule of politics that engenders nothing." British statesman Benjamin Disraeli's nineteenth-century description rings eerily true following the British Conservative party's third straight defeat in this month's elections. The irony is that the Conservatives are without influence at a time when the fusion of free market economics and individual freedom should be putting them in the catbird seat.

Latter-day Conservatives have made every effort to conform to John Stuart Mill's categorization of them as "the stupidest party." It's a generation since Margaret Thatcher poured revitalizing ideological juice into the Conservative bottle; since then, the party has wandered intellectually naked across the political landscape. The Conservative party can only become relevant again if it becomes a party of ideas.

The good news is that the Tories can do this fairly easily—by returning to their principles and filling an intellectual vacuum in contemporary UK politics. An ineffectual, tax-and-spend Labour government was reelected by default. For many voters, there was no alternative. Despite the Conservative party's 200-year history of reinvention (usually after losing office), most British voters, with good reason, consider the party out of touch.

The bad news is that, in their post-election positioning, the Tories have shown a passion for bickering but only sporadic interest in ideology. Conservatives don't need a tedious set of detailed policies, but they do need a serious, radical manifesto that speaks to a grown-up electorate. Above all, Conservatives need to pen a philosophically coherent narrative that explains the connection between economic and social freedom. It's time for the party to embrace the spirit of liberty in the British body politic.

Consider economic policy. Following 66 tax increases and a one-third rise in government spending (in real terms), the Conservatives responded with fiscal me-tooism: promises of targeted, trivial tax cutting and spending that would have increased at a slightly slower rate than Labour's. Britons are grossly overtaxed and overregulated, yet the party's miserable goal is to replace Labour as the manager of a bloated welfare state.

The problem isn't that the Conservatives had a secret agenda to shrink the welfare state. The problem is that they did not. This Big-Government Conservatism concedes wide swaths of ideological ground, from spending to taxation, from health care to education. Yet, for all the squishiness, the party still attracts just one in three voters.

By holding onto their principles, by sticking up for public service consumers rather than government functionaries, the Tories can only improve their chances. No more "Bush Lite," government-first solutions. Britain needs to subject its public services to radical market-based reform—ending Labour's regulatory death grip on the private sector, defending competition and deregulation that reward risk-taking and wealth creation, and empowering patients and parents through large-scale, not piecemeal, restructuring of the health care system.

In the contest between personal responsibility and government paternalism, Conservatives should back the anti-nanny state. Stop appeasing the finger-wagging social engineers, the food fascists, and the anti-smoking, anti-gambling zealots who seek to micromanage every facet of life. Conservatives should treat voters as grown-ups. Opposing Labour's innate illiberalism will enable the Conservatives to plant their flag upon vacant, yet fertile, classical liberal territory. The Tories are fortunate that, unlike America's Republicans, they are unencumbered by the religious right.

With Conservative party leader Michael Howard heading for the exit, the prospects for a renewal in the party are mixed. David Davis, the current front-runner to replace Howard, has come on strong by opposing plans for a national ID card, laying out a law-and-order platform that speaks as much about habeas corpus and presumption of innocence as it does about getting tough on crime, and starting a new trend toward pols identifying themselves as "low-tax Tories." (The implication that there can be any other kind of Tory is a dismal comment on the party's ideological bankruptcy.) But even Davis' ID card comments seem to focus more on budgetary and technical concerns than on the essential right not to be under perpetual government scrutiny. Still, it's a hopeful sign that the Tories are at least asserting individual liberty as a core belief of the party.

The Conservatives can choose to govern based upon the principles of freedom and liberty, or they can choose to sustain the political establishment's cozy consensus, thereby continuing their descent into political irrelevance. The right choice will serve both their partisan and the national interest.