LONDON From this side of the Atlantic, the refusal of House Republicans to support Barack Obama's so-called stimulus plan looks nothing less than Churchillian.
Alas, here in Britain, the lesson of compassionate conservatism's welcome demise remains lost on the Tory leadership. British conservatives remain fascinated with oxymorons such as "progressive conservatism" and "Red Toryism." (Sometimes the prefix "oxy" in "oxymoron" seems like gilding the lily.)
The longstanding argument against such pernicious sloganeering is still valid. Conservatives who lose their skepticism of government activism invariably fall into the trap of saying "me too" to whatever happens to be the political fad of the day, and hence wind up getting pulled in a direction not of their own choosing, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek once put it.
For instance, Tory party leader David Cameron has a circus-act flexibility when it comes to ideological principles. No adjective is too constraining for his brand of shmoo-like conservatism; "Green," "compassionate," "progressive," "radical," even "libertarian paternalism," his conservatism can fit into them all, for his philosophical invertebracy is boundless. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, the mop-topped conservative mayor of London and former editor of the indispensable conservative journal The Spectator, seems to see conservatism as a mere facet to his own charming eccentricity. Both men have a politician's love of popularity, rather than an ideologue's love of principle, so both are scrambling like teenagers who've spotted Paris Hilton at the mall to ingratiate themselves with Barack Obama, the ex officio president of the United Kingdom.
And herein lies the chief problem with the effort to make conservatism into a philosophy of government activism. "Progressive conservatives" will care more about being popular than being conservative. If they didn't care about being popular, they wouldn't have taken up the modifier "progressive" in the first place. With yes-men riding shotgun whenever liberals are at the wheel, the gas pedal of progressivism will always get the lead foot, while the brake of conservatism gets a few perfunctory taps.
Evidence of the reckless driving this yields can be found everywhere in Britain today. In fact, by American conservative standards, Britain is a horror show, or, put more constructively, a canary in the coal mine. "Reforms" that would result in bloody protest in America are newspaper filler here. Just in the last week, British papers have been full of stories about a policeman who used Britain's omnipresent security cameras to monitor his cheating wife. They are supposed to be used as part of the criminalization of eating while you drive. The government is seeking the ability to disseminate health, tax and other personal records to whatever agencies, public or private, it chooses. A new pilot program has officials knocking on doors to make sure citizens are managing their leftovers properly. Of course, Britain's socialized medicine churns out a new cautionary tale every day. Meanwhile, a new study has found that in much of England, 60 percent to 70 percent of economic output comes directly from the government.
It didn't happen overnight. This is merely one small slice of a parade of horribles, stretching back decades, that could only have been allowed to march for so long because parties from both left and right happily saluted and applauded the growth of the state from the reviewing stand.
Many Tories will tell you that a generous welfare state is necessary to maintain a sense of national community and cohesion. The only problem is that there's no evidence the ever-rising tide of nanny-statism has done anything but erode the shores of British resolve.
Meanwhile, Obama's stimulus plan appears to be little more than an effort to catch up with the British parade. It would cost more than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, while stimulating little other than his administration's ambitions to get its fingers deeper into everything from higher education to health care, expanding entitlements and making any future restraints on spending seem like severe "cuts." As Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said recently, "You don't ever want a crisis to go to waste; it's an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid."
There is a role for government in our current predicament. I even favor a stimulus, albeit via the tax code so as to stimulate the economy, not the government. But the prospect of borrowing money we don't have to buy what we don't need, in order to make America more like what I don't want, makes me grateful that at least America's conservative party has finally remembered how to say "no."