Britain’s Compassionate Conservatives

Wall Street Journal | Published on

By Henry Olsen

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The Conservatives had everything going for them heading into the May 6 election: a serious economic crisis, a deeply unpopular prime minister, and a young, vibrant Tory leader. Despite all this, the Tories have entered into government with support from a mere 36% of the electorate.

Since its founding by Benjamin Disraeli in 1832, the Tory Party has, with one shining exception, rested on the notion of a Britain divided by class. Upper classes could reconcile themselves to modernity, Disraeli argued, by prudently responding to modern demands for voting rights and social leveling. The upper classes thus served as a safety valve for society, preserving Britain from the revolution and unrest that was sweeping the Continent. Tory opponents were often cast as radicals or socialists who were unfit to rule because their temperaments inclined them to haste, and to more social and material leveling than was prudent for society to permit.

When Anglicans were a majority of Britons, it was well said that the Anglican Church was the Tory Party assembled in prayer. Throughout the 20th century, the Tories won overwhelming majorities among elites. They lost the working classes and fought with Labour over the middle class.

The economic and social changes wrought by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair cast this system asunder. Mrs. Thatcher was a quintessential outsider to the Tory tradition–a Methodist in an Anglican party, a grocer’s daughter in a party of men from good families, someone who represented the most Jewish constituency in Britain. She saw the Tory Party’s mission quite differently than did the Tory grandees. She saw that Britons were capable of self-government politically and socially, and she worked to remove the power of the state to guide society. She understood that Britons yearned not to be subjects in a kingdom, but citizens in a nation.

The grandees never understood this and cast her aside as soon as politically expedient. But they could not undo the socio-political changes she had unleashed. The grandees thought they could regain popular favor by increasing social spending, but they failed to understand that while Britons wanted more social insurance than Mrs. Thatcher preferred, they wanted the freedom from class that she promised more. When they perceived that the Tory Party had returned to its intellectual heritage, rejecting Mrs. Thatcher’s vision of citizenship, they started to move away from Conservatives.

Tony Blair saw this and channeled the new citizen-society toward New Labour. If you were Mrs. Thatcher’s children and relished the economic and class-free self-determination she unleashed, Mr. Blair’s vision of a “Cool Britannia” where you could make money, marry whom you pleased and live a modern life was very appealing. The young and well-off voters abandoned the Tories in droves, joining either Blair’s party or the Liberal Democrats, who offered their own variation of the modern Britain theme. They were joined by the less well-off people who had flocked from Labour to Mrs. Thatcher, the “Essex men” who were Britain’s version of Reagan Democrats. The Tories were crushed, dropping to 30% of the vote in 1997 and staying there for two more elections.

David Cameron saw many of the signs of this movement, but misinterpreted their cause. He saw that elite and upper-middle-class voters had left the Tories and favored environmentalism, gay rights and diversity. He also saw that while they wanted to be rich they were also socially conscious. He crafted an entire electoral campaign designed to take away the reasons these voters said they opposed the Tories. In effect he said, “see we’re cool, too. Come home to your natural home, the prudent party.”

His approach confused the notes for the theme. These issues were merely indicators of what these voters truly wanted: a society of citizens, not subjects.

Tory votes increased little this year in constituencies dominated by upper-middle-class voters. The Conservative Party victory ironically was fueled by large swings in constituencies dominated by the working and lower-middle-class voters in the north and center of England.

It’s early in Mr. Cameron’s prime ministership, but if his maiden speech at Buckingham Palace last week is any indication, he still doesn’t get it. He spoke again of building a “more responsible society.” His focus was on the individual’s relation to society, on what society owes Britons and what Britons owe society. He said, “my government always looks after the elderly, the frail, the poorest in our country.” There was nothing about individual self-determination, nothing about how ordinary Britons can make do themselves.

Mr. Cameron is offering voters seeking economic growth and individual self-determination a vision of society prudently and compassionately managed for everyone’s benefit. This is 19th-century Disraeli conservatism with a modern face. There’s nothing cool about that.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.