What Republicans Can Learn From British Conservatives

Several of the world’s center-right parties have modernized in ways the GOP hasn’t.

Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Stephen Harper in Canada. Tony Abbott in Australia. John Key in New Zealand. And now, impressively reelected, a second-term David Cameron in the United Kingdom.

Center-right leaders are in charge of every one of America’s closest English-speaking allies. Only in the United States does the liberal left govern. With Hillary Clinton holding strong leads in the polls over all her likely opponents, this form of “American exceptionalism” looks likely to persist for some time to come. Why?

Their American detractors may grumble, but these other conservatives are indeed “real conservatives” (Harper and Abbott tend to be more popular among their U.S. counterparts than Cameron and Key). After coming to power in 2010, the Cameron government cut personal and corporate income taxes. It imposed tough new work requirements on physically capable welfare recipients. Government spending as a share of GDP will decline to pre-2008 levels next year. Thanks to Cameron’s reforming education minister, Michael Gove, more than 3,300 charter schools (“academies,” as the British call them) are raising performance standards in some of Britain’s toughest neighborhoods—a 15-fold increase since 2010. Under the prime minister’s leadership, the post office was privatized.

More reforms will follow in the next government. Cameron has pledged further tax reductions, including eliminating death taxes on family homes. Restrictions on home construction will be relaxed. Government’s share of GDP will be pushed down with the goal of undoing the Blair-Brown spending spree that began in 1997.

Cameron Conservatives, like conservatives in the Anglosphere and Germany, converge with and diverge from Republicans in the United States in significant ways. And these ways are crucial to their electoral success—and, I’d argue, supremely relevant to the comparative failure of their American counterparts.

  • Center-right parties in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have all made peace with government guarantees of healthcare for all. These conservatives do not abjectly defend the healthcare status quo; they attempt to open more space for competition and private initiative within the health sector. But they accept that universal health coverage in some form has joined old-age pensions and unemployment insurance in the armature of an advanced modern economy. In this, their American counterparts are the true outliers. Before 2010, the United States provided the industrial world’s most lavish single-payer health system for citizens over 65—a hugely expensive and hugely inefficient system of tax subsidies for private insurance—at a total cost per U.S. taxpayer that was more than Canada spent on healthcare per Canadian taxpayer. And that system still left tens of millions uncovered and tens of millions covered but still exposed to large healthcare costs that they could not possibly afford. The pre-Obamacare American healthcare system was indefensible, and non-American conservatives are stronger for not having to try and defend such a thing.

  • These parties have updated for the 21st century their core message of respect for family, work, and community. None seek to police women’s sexual behavior or to impose restrictions on women’s reproductive choices. All have accepted gay equality, with Australia on the verge of a parliamentary vote to permit same-sex marriage. They are parties comfortable with racial inclusion and competitive with ethnic-minority voters—the Canadian Conservatives particularly so; people of Chinese origin are Canada’s second-largest non-white ethnic group, and in the country’s 2011 election, Canadian Conservatives won two-thirds of the vote among Canadians who speak Cantonese at home.

  • The parties are all unapologetically nationalist—an especially important stance in the United Kingdom, whose sovereignty is endlessly infringed upon by the European Union. In particular, all advocate an immigration policy determined by the national interest, not the interest of would-be immigrants. The Cameron Conservatives have pledged to reduce net immigration below 100,000 people per year. Tony Abbott’s government has halted the kind of migration now convulsing Europe with a “no exceptions” policy against illegal immigration by boat. Canadian immigration policy is determined by a points system aimed at selecting migrants who will flourish economically in the country, with the result that Canadian immigrants—like U.S. immigrants before 1970 but not U.S. immigrants today—attain higher levels of education than the Canadian-born population.

  • The parties are tough on terrorism, extremism, and international disorder. David Cameron has defined the security threat facing the U.K. as not only “violent extremism”—the Obama formulation—but all ideological movements that reject democracy and equal rights, “whether they are violent in their means or not.” And while making clear that the West has no quarrel with Islam and its believers, Cameron, unlike Obama, has been willing to state explicitly that the extremism that threatens Western democracies is, obviously, “Islamist extremism.” Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott have been especially firm and consistent supporters of Israel. As Chris Pyne, one of the many strong friends of Israel in the Australian cabinet, said during last year’s Gaza War, “Whenever there has been a congregation of freedom-loving nations versus non-freedom-loving nations, Australia has always been prepared to be in the fight and always on the right side. And that’s how we view the State of Israel—that we are on the right side.” Harper has been a forceful advocate within NATO for the defense of Ukraine. When Harper encountered Vladimir Putin at last year’s G-20 meeting, I’m told he said, “I have only one thing to say to you: Get out of Ukraine.” Putin replied, “I’m not in Ukraine.” Harper retorted, “And it’s because you say things like that that I have nothing to say to you.”

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, these conservatives don’t fetishize the music, fashion, or religious practices of some of their voters in a way that prevents them from reaching all of their potential voters. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, they accept that healthcare security actually supports—rather than inhibits—the entrepreneurial risk-taking of a dynamic free-market economy. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, they have found ways to both enforce immigration laws and to make immigrant populations feel at home politically.

Of course, these conservatives differ among themselves in important ways. And their success is conditional; all face political challenges at home, including a tough re-election for Stephen Harper in Canada later this year. But what they all show their American counterparts is that the fear of a “tipping point” beyond which a state plunges into socialist dependency is utterly misplaced. Countries with universal health coverage, for instance, can be hospitable to conservatives—if conservatives can resist the impulse to repeal that coverage. It’s the resistance to the program, not the program itself, that sinks conservative hopes. Politics doesn’t tip. It evolves. And winning conservative parties evolve with it.