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Lessons from David Cameron
Britain's Conservative prime minister could teach the Republicans a thing or two
David Frum
David Frum
I

t's fair to say that American Republicans have to this point disdained David Cameron's modernized British Conservatives.

Since gaining the leadership of the Conservatives in 2005, Cameron has committed his party to a “green” agenda and committed Britain to reducing carbon emissions. Cameron has generally endorsed same-sex civil unions and gay equality. He has attacked the Labour party for policies he says have widened income inequality in Britain, has instituted affirmative action to increase the number of female and minority Conservative political candidates, and has declared the Conservatives “the party of the NHS” – Britain’s government-run health-care monopoly.

So obviously Cameron must be a big squish, or worse.

British Conservatives have unveiled budget cuts on a scale to overawe Ronald Reagan and dazzle Margaret Thatcher.

In fact, when the Cameron Conservatives fell just short of gaining a majority in the British House of Commons in May elections, Cameron’s U.S. critics expressed vindication. Given the unpopularity of Gordon Brown’s Labour government, they charged, surely a “real” Conservative would have done much better? Then David Cameron – the self-described “liberal Conservative” – formed a coalition with the actual Liberals, the Liberal Democrats. The price of that coalition: a referendum on Liberal-favored changes to the electoral system. Worse and worse! As Mark Steyn wrote on May 8, 2010, at National Review Online. "I'm not quite sure I can put into words sufficiently politely my contempt for David Cameron."

Fast-forward to October. Those squishy British Conservatives in their sell-out coalition with the Liberals have unveiled budget cuts on a scale to overawe Ronald Reagan and dazzle Margaret Thatcher.

Some 490,000 government jobs will be cut.

The qualification age for a government pension will rise to 66.

Benefits for workers claiming to be too sick to work will be time-limited.

Local governments will have to cut their budgets by 7.1 percent each year for the next four years.

Public-sector workers will have to contribute more of their earnings to their pension plans.

The social housing budget will be cut by 60 percent.

Families earning more than the average income will lose their weekly cash child benefit.

And the list goes on–drastically so.

The new Coalition budget diverges in important ways from the preferences of American conservatives. Defense will be cut sharply, and taxes will rise: Britain’s value-added tax has been increased to 20 percent, and banks face a special levy. At the same time, Britain’s foreign-aid contributions will actually be increased, as Liberal Democrats demanded.

While the Cameron government is not producing precisely the results an American conservative might wish–or that this particular conservative does wish–there’s no denying: It is producing results--big and consequential results.

It will be interesting to see if the deluge of Republicans expected to arrive in Washington after the November vote does remotely as well. Some of the difference will be due, of course, to the difference in the workings of the two political systems: a British parliamentary majority possesses enormous powers. But American conservatives should consider that at least a portion of Cameron’s effectiveness is attributable to the qualities they dislike most in him.

Cameron's compassionate conservatism seems to have bought him political room that might not have been available to a more aggressively confrontational politician. By promising that he would cut no more than necessary, he made a case that it was necessary for him to cut as much as he did. And by working with a coalition partner, Cameron set his agenda above ordinary party politics and brought potential critics into the fold.

Cameron did not frighten voters. He affirmatively won their trust. It's an example to emulate – and a record against which Republicans will be measured and compared.

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