Liberals who worry that Prime Minister David Cameron’s reelection on Thursday marks the demise of an internationalist Britain in favor of “Little England” fail to appreciate just how much the Conservative Party leader has done for liberalism.
Nick Clegg, Cameron’s former deputy, was understandably bitter when he stepped down as Liberal Democrat leader on Friday. Having lost all but eight seats in Parliament, the traditional third party in British politics was replaced by the Scottish nationalists who won 56 seats.
“Years of remorseless economic and social hardship following the crash in 2008 and the grinding insecurities of globalization have led for people to reach to new certainties,” Clegg said. “The politics of identity, of nationalism, of us versus them is now on the rise.”
He could have said the same about any Western democracy. The conclusion he drew from this, however, was wrong.
Liberalism, here, as well as across Europe, is not faring well against the politics of fear.
His left-leaning brand of liberalism, no. But former Liberal Democrat voters in England didn’t switch to the United Kingdom Independence Party which represents those politics of fear. They voted for Cameron’s Conservatives instead because he advances a type of liberalism that works.
Clegg isn’t alone in underestimating Cameron’s liberalism.
The day after the election, The Independent said Britain had become a “less liberal country,” apparently conflating the term with progressivism.
The Economist earlier warned against Britain emerging “smaller, more inward-looking and with less clout in the world” and regrets what it calls the Conservatives’ Europhobia and Britain’s growing anti-immigrant sentiment. The only reason it nevertheless backed the Conservatives in this election is that the newspaper rightly mistrusted Labour on the economy.
The Washington Post is lamenting as well, writing that the election could “set this island adrift from Europe, divide it in half along ancient lines of national identity and ultimately leave behind a rump state of ever-diminishing value to its American allies.”
These concerns are not without merit. Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union before calling a referendum that the right wing of his party and fashionable metropolitan opinion in London will fuss about for the next two years, giving the impression that this is a priority for British voters. Hardly. Polls show most Britons — like voters everywhere — care far more about their jobs, health care and schools than they do about Europe. If they must vote on membership, more would decide to stay in the European Union than risk an exit.
There are voters who say they care a great deal about Europe or immigration. But they are really proxies for their immediate economic worries. English industry workers who’ve lost their jobs during the recession are more likely to believe Farage when he blames open borders than are urban professionals whose values are more liberal altogether.
If a majority of Britons were to vote to leave the European Union after all, it would reignite the independence debate in Scotland where support for membership is higher.
Short of that, a new constitutional settlement should suffice to keep the Scottish nationalists at bay for another generation. And such a settlement is long overdue anyway.
The devolution of spending powers to Scotland without giving the region the ability to tax has created a perverse situation. English taxpayers subsidize a Scottish government over which they have no control while the Scots send a sizable delegation to Westminster where they can influence policy across the United Kingdom. This is plainly unfair and tut-tutting English “nationalism” or the Conservatives for promising to rectify the imbalance reveals a disdain for the patience of ordinary English voters who have put up with this for decades.
Some form of federalism should be tied to a decentralization of authority to big cities, like London and Greater Manchester, as well as Wales. Far from “inward-looking” or parochial, the question of how to best distribute political power is highly relevant at a time when state borders are becoming less relevant and cities and regions compete for business, capital and talent from across the world.
As a whole, Britain is competitive. The Economist points out that per person, it attracts nearly twice as much foreign direct investment as the rich-country average. But it forgets to mention that most of this goes to London and it puts too much emphasis on Britain’s “openness to outsiders.” Investment and immigration aren’t the same thing but too much immigration can cause a backlash against everything foreign. There are worrying signs this is happening in the less cosmopolitan parts of England in particular.
What are the Conservatives to do? Inaction will almost certainly see the divide between a Europeanizing, liberal London and the rest of England widen and parties like Farage’s capitalize on an anti-elitism that they associate with the popular opinions of the capital.
The Economist advises a more liberal immigration policy, predicting it would “boost business, help balance the nation’s books and shrink the state.” It probably would. But it would also see more right-wing voters defecting to UKIP and the trade unions pulling the Labour Party in a more protectionist direction.
British liberals should start by recognizing that David Cameron is the most liberal prime minister they are going to get. The Liberal Democrats will never win a national election and the next Labour leader is probably going to be pro-European and more welcoming of immigrants — but also more comfortable with state intervention in the economy and a generous welfare system. That is, after all, what Labour is for.
Cameron must balance his own moderate instincts and his mandate against the reactionaries in his party. The Tories didn’t win this election to pull Britain to the right but that is invariably how some Euroskeptics and social conservatives will see it. Cameron knows that positioning his party in the center of British politics is how it will keep winning elections. And the center is almost by definition a liberal place.
In his first term, Cameron cut public spending and taxes, reduced the deficit by half, saw unemployment fall below the European average, inflation fall to almost zero, households’ disposable income rise to pre-crisis levels; he created more self-governing schools, stopped those on benefits from earning more than those in work and legalized gay marriage.
In his second term, he wants to continue shrinking the state, cut more taxes, produce a budget surplus, increase home ownership, devolve more powers to England’s major cities and Scotland and accomplish reform in Europe so it focuses more on strengthening the single market than it does on growing a bureaucracy in Brussels that is out of touch with voters everywhere.
If, to achieve all these things liberals like, Cameron needs to tighten immigration rules and call a referendum so the Tory right stays quiet, liberals shouldn’t be conjuring images of a xenophobic Britain that is losing its way. Rather they should count their blessings and accept that in a democracy, nobody gets everything they want.