Can the Atlantic Coalition Hold?

William Kristol, founder-editor of the leading American conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, and Tim Montgomerie, founder-editor of the ConservativeHome website, discuss the similar problems facing the US and Britain with Standpoint Editor Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson: Bill, you had an encounter with a representative of the new British coalition government in Washington recently, the new Foreign Secretary William Hague. Tell us a bit how that encounter went, because you had a feeling that Mr Hague sees the relationship with the US somewhat differently.

William Kristol: This meeting was just two or three days after the government was formed and he was certainly in the mode of reassuring. I think they had genuinely had a good visit with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration and he certainly intended not to be controversial in this little meeting with journalists and columnists — and he wasn’t controversial. Someone else had asked him about the pledge that Cameron had made, although it could have been made originally by Hague, that the new government will be a “solid but not slavish” friend of the United States and asked him to explain what he meant by that.

I felt, since I admire Tony Blair at least for his foreign policy, that I should defend the former prime minister. So I caused a little trouble by saying, is it really fair to call Blair slavish? I never had that impression when watching him and President Bush. Hague sort of half-defended the phrase, so I asked him to give me an instance when Blair was slavish. And the instance which Hague had of when Blair was overly deferential to Bush was on Israel. Hague had criticised the Lebanon war and I guess Blair had not. That struck me as a somewhat bad sign for the new Tory government, distinguishing itself from an old Labour government by being less friendly to our democratic ally, Israel. 

But, in general, Hague tried to be reassuring to those of us in the room who were on the hawkish side of the spectrum and wanted to be reassured that Britain would remain in Afghanistan or remain a strong participant in international affairs. Yet, I’ve got to say that when you listen to him closely and think of the implications of the budget review and the primacy that he put, understandably, on reducing expenditures, you did not get the impression that a strong, robust British military presence around the world — or even, really, a strong, energetic British foreign policy — was much in the offing. 

That worries some of us who think that, while the US has to take the lead, Britain has been a key partner in doing some very important things and that Britain stepping back to a degree — while we are not really stepping forward — makes the world much more dangerous.

DJ: Tim, how do you see the relationship at the moment? You’ve set up a website to bolster Atlanticist sentiment here in Britain and you’ve always been a staunch supporter of the alliance. How do you see the next few years?

Tim Montgomerie: I agree with Bill. I think a mischaracterisation of the Blair-Bush relationship became popularised and there was no one really to challenge it. Blair had made his speech about the Chicago Doctrine [in April 1999] even before Bush had come to power and he was the interventionist when Bush was disavowing it in debate with Al Gore. Blair also achieved very significant concessions from Colin Powell [over Iraq] which forced America down the UN route. So the whole idea that Blair was a “poodle” is wrong but to challenge that idea now is almost like you are crazy. It is so established. 

The Conservative Party has decided that with the economy on fire, society in breakdown and no public appetite for any kind of overseas intervention going forward, the relationship with America, which is really the relationship on foreign policy, is a relationship to be managed, rather than anything beyond that. 

It is apt to consider who the figures are in the Conservative cabinet who would argue for a more adventurous and interventionist foreign policy: there are very few voices. A myth has arisen around Hague in particular, who was seen as quite right-wing, strong, bold and Eurosceptic because of the way he led the party in 1997-2001. But the Hague we have now is quite a different Hague, partly because of his experience as party leader. There are three big examples of it. He was very gung-ho about backing the Iraq war but then failed to back the surge. He reportedly tried to dissuade David Cameron from leaving the European People’s Party after Cameron became leader — and certainly argued for the Conservatives to go slow. He was also the one who uttered the famous word “disproportionate” during the Lebanon War. So in three key areas, of military interventionism, Europe and Israel, Hague has actually been in the lead of a more modest, more humble foreign policy.

WK: The question is how the new government will go forward both in foreign and in domestic policy. We’ve learnt over the years that these things can be somewhat unpredictable. George Bush came to power offering a more humble foreign policy; Blair was way out in front of Bush, and Bush came around to Blair’s view after September 11 — not at first. I know that there is a big debate going on here now about where exactly Cameron, Hague and the others are on the spectrum of the different Tory possibilities or different national possibilities; but one does have to react to reality and I don’t think it’s out of the question, both in domestic and foreign policy, that they end up a year or two into their administration in quite a different place from where they seemed to be at first or they thought they were going to be at first.

DJ: This is another reason why values and basic principles really matter. Because you cannot predict events, you cannot predict sudden crises and wars that may arise, particularly in a world as it is now — it is a particularly unpredictable phase that we seem to be in. So I am wondering whether we can detect, on either side of the Atlantic, much support for the sort of value-based conservatism or neo-conservatism that you both in different ways, with different national traditions, have espoused and defended. Bill, how do you see it on the US side now? Clearly, Obama is not defending those values as far as you are concerned, but are there any other voices that are?

WK: Reaction to the Obama administration, from my point of view, has been really heartening. For a million reasons, Bush was repudiated and the Republican Congress was repudiated in 2006 and 2008 and it wasn’t unreasonable at the beginning of 2009 to think a couple of things: first, that we are in for a new long era of a sort of social-democratic rule and that maybe the 28 years of Reagan and Bush kind of conservatism were over and it was the new New Deal. That certainly was what the Obama people thought. And second, it was entirely possible that conservatism could go in various directions that someone like me would not much like. Either a kind of, to put it in your terms, “wet”, accommodationist conservatism or a very nasty and unwise, xenophobic, Pat Buchanan-type isolationism and protectionist conservatism. 

The very good news is that none of those has happened. On the one hand, the country turns out to remain fairly conservative. It turns out they were not signing on for a transformational Obama agenda, but they just wanted to have change and were unhappy with much of what the Republicans had done in the preceding few years. 

We have seen that the reaction to President Obama, and the strength of the Republican Party now, is less to do with anything the Republicans have done but more due to the public saying: “Wait a second, we are not interested in moving down the European path.” That has been helped by the problems here in Europe in very recent times, in the sense that the way to solve American fiscal problems isn’t to double or triple them and then move to a Greek-like situation. On the conservative side, it’s a testament to the good sense of the American public. They have been very sensible. They really are re-embracing a new, reinvented, Reaganite-Thatcher kind of conservatism. Different times require different policies and it will look different from what it looked in 1980 but the spirit of it is very much that way. Republicans have not gone isolationist. They supported President Obama in sending more troops to Afghanistan. They haven’t gone protectionist and they haven’t gone in other directions where it would be unwise to go. Indeed, there is a renewal of interest in how you restore limits on the government. Is there a way to have a renewed kind of constitutionalism as opposed to an endless progressivism, which is simply putting unstoppable, illimitable demands on the State? So, on the whole, I am really quite optimistic. In the short term, I’m not really happy about the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress. In foreign policy, Obama is President for at least two and a half more years and that worries me, but in terms of the American public and American politics, I am actually pretty hopeful.

TM: The Tea Party movement and Rand Paul [who recently won the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Kentucky] — is that exceptional or is there something of that “leave-us-alone” thing that could, if it gets too heated, spill over and become a problem?

WK: So far, it’s exceptional. So far, I’m pro-Tea Party — but maybe I shouldn’t say that here in Britain. I said to my wife on the plane coming over here that I am going to defend the Tea Party people as they get such a bad press, but she said: “Well, maybe in Britain it’s not such a good idea.” But you’re not too sensitive about it any more, are you? And then I was reminded that even Burke defended the colonists and the Tea Party in a certain way, maybe not defending the people themselves but he was certainly a critic of the tax. So it is Burkean conservatism to defend the Tea Party, little platoons and citizen activism.

Rand Paul so far is the exception. Moreover, in the campaign he too had to moderate his true views to sound a bit more like a conventional, Reaganite conservative. If Afghanistan goes badly, if therefore Obama discredits a certain kind of internationalism, if there is a double-dip recession, then one can imagine American conservatism going in a much more Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Lou Dobbs — if that means anything to people in Britain — type of direction. But so far the good news is that hasn’t happened. There are leaders right now in a kind of Tea Party spirit: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich — they are internationalist in what I would consider a good way. And at home there are serious people in the feverish debate which is now going on in the press and on the blogs about how you delimit the government, what is sensible for the government to do and what not. It’s healthy and I am, at least so far, impressed by the health, political and intellectual, of American conservatism. It doesn’t mean it could not go off the rails in certain ways but that’s always true about these movements. I was reading a little bit about the late 1970s here in Britain and thinking back to — what I remember a little better — the late ’70s in the US. One remembers Thatcher and Reagan — people like us approved mostly of what they did and we look back at that with a certain nostalgia and admiration — but of course there was a lot of flakiness around the edges of those political figures and those movements and I would say it’s somewhat comparable today.

DJ: Tim, do you feel that Cameron has an opportunity now to learn from the Bush years in the US and pick up some of the good ideas that he had for domestic reform or do you think he has been overly influenced by Obama’s amazing triumph? How do you see the American influence on British politics?

TM: There is careful study by most of the Cameron circle of most of what Obama has done; and not least of the heavy emphasis he gave to change during the election campaign. 

Cameron would not like the comparison, but his agenda has been much more similar to, if not influenced by, George Bush 1999-2000. Both men have attempted to redefine what conservatism is in the post-Thatcher, post-Reagan era. Both have tried interesting new definitions. Cameron knows that a conservatism that is only about the economy cannot be elected in the UK. In 1997, people deserted the Conservative Party, not because they had not done well out of Margaret Thatcher and John Major but because they felt too many people were being left behind. Blair wanted to humanise the settlement of the Thatcher-Major years. Cameron has been wrestling with that and if you look at the way he has emphasised education, in particular faith-based and voluntary groups, diversity of candidates, putting different faces to the forefront, it was very similar to what Bush was trying to do to the Republicans in 1999-2000. Bush was hugely distracted from his task by 9/11 and Cameron can be hugely distracted in his task by the economic problems that we have. But my reasons for optimism about the Cameron project, despite the coalition, are summed up in two people: Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith. 

We might have had to make many compromises for the coalition but Gove has retained control of the Education Department with quite an ambitious agenda for “supply-side” schools reform. Duncan Smith has spent the last six years since he lost the leadership of the Conservative Party setting up a think-tank dedicated to understanding the causes of poverty, and very much analysing it in a conservative view, saying that you get out of poverty by getting a job, keeping your family together and finishing school. He wants to put those thoughts at the heart of welfare reform. We might well be behind America in some of these areas but actually on social policy-changing the view that you achieve a small state not by reducing the supply of government but by reducing the demand for government — that’s a radical idea. I think we arrive in government with a more thought-out agenda of what compassionate conservatism is than Bush in 2000,  who failed to put his leading adviser on social reform, Stephen Goldsmith, in the Cabinet, whereas Cameron has appointed Duncan Smith to his.

WK: I have a sense that you had interesting debates here on the conservative side, which I always think is a sign of health. Political leaders hate to have internal debates, fissures and fractions, but historically there is a very high correlation between a fair amount of dissension internally and the political movement or political side doing well. Someone wrote that the moments of religions’ greatest expansion historically — it is true of Islam and is definitely true of Christianity in the 16th century — came as they were most divided among themselves. It’s a sign of energy and vigour. And that really matters in politics. Not the kind of stultifying, ticking all the right boxes in the party platform and everyone is in agreement. One can be in agreement — and the Tories in 1997 would probably agree with that — because one is exhausted and unimaginative.

Compassionate conservatism in some respects wasn’t tough enough. It wasn’t able to take on the status quo strongly enough. But there is a kind of reformism that is serious and we have seen it, in the US at least, with someone such as Rudy Giuliani as the mayor of New York, and with some of what the Congress did on welfare reform in the mid-’90s. Those are the kind of things, such as education, with which we’ve had a lot of talk, a lot of attempts but maybe not that much success. You will end up ahead of us in terms of education if Gove can accomplish some of what he has laid out, as I understand it. And in a year or two, we will be looking up to you for guidance in education reform. But we forget how much Thatcher and Reagan were also domestic reformers. Beyond the tax cuts, they were really social reformers. It is now considered a part of Cameron’s project and some of the new Republicans’ project to have a diversity of views, diversity of candidates and to break the old boys’ or old schools’ networks. But that is what Thatcher was about: she took on the old Etonians and Reagan took on the country club Republicans. 

Reagan explicitly said we need a party that reaches out to and includes — more than symbolically includes — the old Reagan Democrats, the new evangelicals, all those forces that were not welcome in the old Republican Party, and with Thatcher there was some of that — Keith Joseph and that effort. And so I hope that Cameron and the new Republicans’ efforts in the US resemble a little bit more Keith Joseph, Thatcher and Giuliani and even Gingrich at his best rather than talking about being nice to everyone without having the courage and will to push through some of the tougher reforms. 

TM: This is the real difference — why Cameron might succeed in welfare state reform and Bush didn’t. I remember that at the 2000 Republican convention the big message was “Prosperity with a Purpose” and prosperity dulled the need for urgency. The fact is that this government has had to make some awfully hard decisions — for example, tens of billions in cuts and we are just at the foothills of the mountain to climb, or the top of the valley depending how you want to see the challenge. We can either cut without a purpose — just doing existing things more cheaply, how we provide benefits to the poor, how we rehabilitate prisoners, how we fight crime. Or we can take this opportunity and think that it’s going to be a “Pain with a Purpose” and we are going to use this opportunity to reshape the welfare, schools and criminal justice systems and we are going to do something radical. 

I mentioned Gove and Duncan Smith, but another key person in this area is Nick Herbert. He’s been returned to the prison and police reform brief. These are things he worked on in the think-tank Reform for a number of years and with very much the view that the government will have to stop micro-managing how the police and prison governors reduce reoffending rates. Particularly in prisons the governors would be paid in terms of, after prisoners’ release, whether they are back in prison after a year or two. This is going to produce a lot of innovation and a lot of failure and that will be a great challenge for the Conservatives. How do you manage when things go wrong? Do you immediately suffocate the innovation or do you continue to allow the experimentation? The same applies to the work of the welfare programmes that Duncan Smith is going to preside over and the diversity of school provisions that Gove is promising. If these experiments are allowed to go to conclusion, they will be overwhelmingly good, for creating new models of how you do things in this country. Yet we have a more centralised media than you do in the US and whether it will tolerate the failure on the journey is going to be one of the big tests as to whether the whole project succeeds.

WK: Yes, you have a more centralised media and a more centralised government, which can be an advantage. I’ve been thinking things through in the last few months myself and I’ve become even more enamoured of the federalism and decentralisation of the US government. It allows many more impulses from the bottom up to be reflected on the local and state level. Even if reform gets stalled on the national level, Giuliani can still do what he was doing in New York, or right now, for example, Chris Christie. He is the governor of New Jersey, which is in terrible shape, comparable even to the UK in terms of the state budget, and is now radically cutting spending and taking on some of the public-sector unions. If that succeeds — and there is a reasonable chance it will, not just as a policy but also that he maintains political support as he does this — other governors that will be elected this autumn and presidential candidates on the Republican side in 2011-2012 will all say we can move down that path. The one great advantage of having 50 states and cities with real powers is that these things can be tested and if they succeed then they can become a model. One advantage also of having a more populist, grassroots, democratic kind of system means that you do have Tea Parties and things like that which then can also put pressure on politicians and choke them out of their accustomed ways. 

TM: There are three big ideas that Cameron has. One of them is social reform, which we have already discussed. The second is localism and decentralisation, which he had in his manifesto. We will see, for example, elected police chiefs — the coalition has slightly diluted the specification of that but that’s a big innovation. There are plans to give 20 big cities referenda on having directly elected mayors with much more power than Labour originally envisaged for their first generation of mayors. Boris Johnson will be given new powers to pursue his agenda in London. So there is a beginning of decentralisation. There are powers for citizens’ initiatives, a kind of direct democracy, maybe not entirely of the kind we see in California but moving that way. There will be the power of recall, again California-inspired perhaps, so that MPs with ethically questionable patters of behaviour can be recalled midterm. As we have a lot of safe seats in the first-past-the-post system, there will be a new mechanism whereby primaries can be held for the Conservative or the Labour candidate in a safe seat so that a MP no longer feels he or she has a job for life. These are not perfect proposals for decentralisation because of the way they are being triggered: the trigger is still held in Westminster rather than locally, so there will certainly be moves to amend these powers. And Cameron’s third big idea, which is going to be a great help to all those who want to see a smaller state, is transparency — putting everything online, giving citizens the right to view every expenditure of over £500 in local government and over £25,000 in central government. In the MPs’ expenses crisis, when citizens knew how their money was spent, reform happened. 

The same has begun to happen with the BBC: when people saw telephone-number salaries of BBC stars and executives, they were not willing to give any more money until reform had happened. So if we begin to see NHS and other budgets available for public inspection, people will want reform again before they will be willing to see more of their tax money spent. It will also mean that businesses will be able to see the contracts that the public sector has agreed with their competitors and they are going to undercut them and get better value. So social reform, decentralisation and transparency are going to be the engines of this government if, hopefully, they succeed. 

WK: Do you think there is enough support for them to do this? Or does the fact that there is a coalition government weaken it somewhat? 

TM: It weakens it in terms of certainty of being in government for four or five years. It’s good that the Tories have retained the important ministries and there are certain things that Liberal Democrats believe — localism, transparency, tax reform — where there is a lot of overlap and synergy. The danger is if the coalition is very unpopular in a couple of years’ time, which is likely given the scale of the cuts. If, say, the Lib Dems start performing relatively badly in the midterm elections — the big thing is whether they will go backwards in the Scottish elections, or in northern cities where they traditionally challenge Labour — if they really start to suffer in those elections and you have a charismatic Labour leader, Ed Miliband might be one, who sets out with a project to bring the coalition down, taunting the left wing of the Lib Dems — you could see the coalition then going through some very unstable times. There are two years in this coalition, at least. Beyond that, electoral pressures may make that very hard. 

WK: I don’t follow British politics that closely but maybe it would not be that bad if at some point Tories had to go to the country to get a mandate. Even if there is some temporary pain, which there certainly will be, things often work out the opposite of what people expect. Ironically, in Washington, we want to hold the whole government together for five years to make the changes that we need. Yet it doesn’t always work out that way: even if superficially it looks as if you need five years to go through the tough times, it is sometimes better to just go to the voters and let Labour say, we are going to go back to the way we did it for 13 years and let the Tories say we are making tough changes but they’ve got to be made, and then maybe you could win such an election, even though obviously that will be a tough time to go to the voters.

TM: That’s fair, but at the last election the Tories should have won outright. A number of big mistakes were made in our election: no big theme was chosen, the Lib Dems were allowed into the debate on an equal status — first time we’ve had that — institutionalising three-party politics. And then key issues that really mattered to voters, such as immigration, were never discussed. It is partly because Conservative HQ was so obsessed with detoxification. There were a number of reasons behind those decisions, including a chaotic structure around Cameron in terms of staff and a lack of professional use of opinion polling and focus groups. So a lot needs to be done to the Tory machine if it is going to be in position to win any election. That inquest hasn’t yet happened.

WK: It’s true about the US, too — it has to be possible to be a party that is compassionate and serious about some of the social reform issues that you’ve discussed and is also willing to be politically incorrect on something like immigration. There is no intellectual reason why they are at odds, though I would say practically they have been. Those that are honest about immigration tend to depreciate the importance of the reform agenda and those who are more interested in the social reform agenda are willing to go along  with not poking a hornets’ nest on something like immigration. It makes it a somewhat limited debate unless you are willing to embrace both the tougher and the nicer sides of the conservative agenda. 

TM: I’ve always been enthusiastic about what Bush tried to achieve and what Cameron is trying to achieve because the Conservatives have only narrowly occupied the political stage for a long time. In Britain, we’ve only been the party of tax cuts, crime, Europe and immigration, and the Cameron thing is about adding social justice, green issues and poverty-fighting to that message. It’s incredibly potent if we can get it right — if you do tell voters that we are going to be tougher on immigration and we are going to control our borders and we are going to be generous to the poorest people of the world through our international development policies. If we say that we will reward traditional marriage through the tax system, but we are going to respect gay unions then we are making social conservatism acceptable again. If bringing these things together can be got right, then it is actually a very potent conservatism. 

DJ: That’s quite a big “if”. It strikes me that this is a very socially liberal coalition we have in Britain. And the Democratic administration is similarly very liberal. But the public out there is very different. The majority of the public have quite socially conservative views about many issues, such as marriage, crime or immigration. Is there a danger that, in both countries, the political class is getting out of touch with ordinary public opinion? In America, you have a very democratic, very volatile, very responsive system. Here, it’s a little bit more top-down and yet we have seen in the last year or two a sort of popular revolt against the political class. How will that work, if the politicians are not really prepared to make some concessions to those very different views that the people have?

TM: There is so much in that. First, there is a potential, because of the internet age. If the political parties do not respond to this mood, it has never been easier for people to form a new political movement or to challenge an existing party candidate. At the moment, the internet has broken the monopoly of comment but there is no reason why the parties’ monopoly of fundraising, candidate selection and policy development could not be broken by the internet in the future as well. We have suddenly gone to just two political parties here at the moment in Britain, the coalition and Labour, and there is nothing to the Right of the Conservative Party — Ukip is badly led, the British National Party is racist  —but if the Conservatives ignore the Right they should be aware that the old economies of scale that protected them, the old barriers to entry that protected them are in rapid decline. Boris Johnson is going to face a difficult re-election in 2012, standing again for the mayoralty of London at a time when the cuts will be at their worst. So there can be no room for complacency. 

DJ: Bill, how do you see this from an American perspective? 

WK: If you are a sort of an Anglophile and traditionalist, as I was when I studied these things in college, you have a respect for the history of the parliamentary system, which we always said had different virtues from the American system. The American system has a certain populist virtue, bottom-up responsiveness to public opinion, producing interesting leaders from the grassroots, while Britain has this great virtue of the parliamentary system and the ability of the political class to judge each other and presumably promote leaders within parliament. They were real virtues, but at this point the vices seem to outweigh the virtues. 

I am very much with Tim in believing that politically and intellectually successful conservatism in the modern world has to be a reasonably populist endeavour. My father [Irving Kristol] once said that you need populist remedies for the diseases of populist government and the diseases of the modern welfare state government, that you can’t fight those with old-fashioned parliamentary virtues of the old-fashioned system. Trying to do so, you end up with what you’ve got here: the worst sort of parliamentary elitism combined with the worst of welfare state profligacy, interest groups controlling politicians and politicians benefiting interest groups and a really unhealthy situation. We’ve had that obviously in the US as well. So I am very interested that things are happening here — it sounds similar to the things that are happening and have happened in the US.

I am always asked here in Britain and in Europe if I do not think that the religious Right and religious conservatism are such great problems in the US. I always say that it’s the opposite: that we would not have a vibrant conservatism in the US without the so-called religious Right and it is very hard even to see in the modern world a place where there is a healthy conservatism and there isn’t in some substantial measure a religiously-based conservatism. Having this large number of people in the US who are motivated by such concerns has been very helpful to the vigorous conservative movement in the US. Not that every individual has the same religious views but it gives a kind of sociological basis to conservatism, which otherwise can become quite abstract and intellectual or driven entirely by economic issues or by fear of immigration or something like that, which isn’t entirely healthy. 

TM: Even though we don’t have the same kind of popular movement that is faith-based in the UK, it is notable when you look at the origins of a lot of the thinking on schools, welfare and citizen service which Cameron has adopted, that Christians have been at the centre of all of those social movements. The influence of Christians is still disproportionate in the Conservative Party even if our numbers in the country at large are so much smaller. 

DJ: Tim, do you still look up to the US for inspiration? Will the political battles that lie ahead in the US continue to provide intellectual ammunition for conservatives here? 

TM: Undoubtedly, for all sorts of reasons. One, embarrassingly we don’t speak any other language than English so…

WK: We barely even speak English.

DJ: And the European model is a little less attractive right now.

TM: Yes, the great vindication of Hague and Conservatism in our years in opposition was the opposition to the euro. We said consistently that this has to work both in good times and bad. Thank goodness we are outside that burning building, as we once described it. Hague once said the European Exchange Rate Mechanism was the burning building with exits. European Monetary Union is potentially a burning building with no exits. We will continue to learn from America precisely because of what Bill said about the 50 policy laboratories, the whole think-tank culture and the investment in thinking that America has and we don’t have. 

WK: We are discussing how people here might be influenced by developments in the US but I will make an opposite point. You now have a Conservative, or mostly Conservative, government and you will have had it for two-and-a-half years by the time America goes to the polls for the presidency in November 2012. People will have a sense — not that most Americans follow British politics intently, but nevertheless there will be a sense — that this is a government that came to power running against big government, welfare-statism, even though Cameron-type conservatism might look different from whatever the Republican message is in 2012. It is not unimportant that Cameron succeed here, just as it is not unimportant that Republican governors succeed in New Jersey and Virginia and other states where they win in 2010. If Cameron is able to and chooses to pursue a bold reform agenda in some of these areas it would be important and helpful to US conservatism and the US in general if he succeeds.

DJ: A kind of conservative symbiosis… 

WK: Yes, like the Eighties. If you had predicted two years ago, in the middle of the financial meltdown, that it might actually lead to reinvigorating conservatism, and not to the simple collapse of all that everyone on the now discredited Right favoured, people would have thought you were crazy. In America, it was widely viewed that the American model, the liberal model, had collapsed. Europe had done better in the first wave of the financial crisis than the US, and so therefore Europe was the way to go. Now it looks incredibly much more questionable less than two years later. 

It is amazing how fast things are now moving and how unpredictably. That’s an important thing for us to keep an eye out for. We can have plans for two years out but reality really mugs you in this kind of fluid moment in very unpredictable ways. 

This is true of international politics as well, where you have things happening that are very risky, where the outcomes range from very good‚ — you know, what would happen if you had a decent, democratic Iraq and you could change the Middle East in a very good direction too — to very bad, like Iran getting nuclear weapons and terrorising everyone in the region and vindicating their kind of radicalism and being in partnership with other dictatorships and the collapse almost of the Western pro-democratic forces. The range of outcomes is much greater, the risk is higher, but the potential benefit is also much higher. 

It is also true for domestic policy in the US. We could end up with a much bigger government as a result of all this turmoil over the last couple of years, and a conservatism that is really utterly in retreat. The US and Britain were the two countries holding the line against the European-size welfare state. Then under Labour that kind of collapsed, but the US was still holding the line. Now, we’ll see if that line can be held. If it can be held, then you can get a new model where questions of delimiting the government, thinking of how to restructure welfare state programmes in ways that are compatible with, and even friendly to, individual liberty and local decision-making, really could be on the table in the way they haven’t been since Reagan and Thatcher.

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