Brian Birdnow
Last week David Brooks, the faux-conservative columnist at the New York Times penned a column extolling the British national political system. The piece, written to coincide with President Obama’s visit to Europe, praised Britain for moving to social democracy in the early Twentieth Century. He concedes that overt socialism nearly wrecked the British system during the 1960s and 70s, but maintains, quite sensibly, that the estimable Margaret Thatcher tackled Britain’s problems (although the New York Times roundly chastised her) and that subsequent governments, both Conservative and Labor, consolidated those gains. Brooks waxes rhapsodic about the end result: A Britain that has moved "from a centralized, industrial era state to a networked, postindustrial one" whatever that means.

In praising the British system and the politicos who work the levers Brooks inadvertently reveals a number of biases of his own and reveals weaknesses as a theorist of reputedly conservative leanings. Brooks lavishes praise on the British system as "a picture of how politics should work." He doesn’t bother with the fact that many Britons do not work; he only claims that British politics function. In this broad claim he misses the point that political life is not synonymous with a national culture. Britain today suffers from most of the same ills plaguing America, often to a greater extent. British illegitimacy rates have soared to 70%, their welfare dependency rate exceeds ours, and Britons seem to accept 15% unemployment rates as the new normal. Certainly, Britain suffers from unchecked third-world immigration, and the Islamic terror threat is a daily reality, as anyone who has passed through Heathrow Airport in the last six years can attest (your humble TH columnist was instructed to arrive at Heathrow at 3:15 AM for an 8:00 AM flight during the summer of 2006). Still David Brooks tells his readers that Britain works, and Mr. Brooks is an honorable man.

After singing the praises of the British system, David Brooks cannot help himself but to take potshots at the American scene. He mentions, "…Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school." Are we so different? American national politics are dominated by people who live in Washington and have known each other since they were elected. Never mind that they are the same people who got us into this mess in the first place.

Mr. Brooks goes on to state, "…the big newspapers still set the agenda here, not cable TV, or talk radio." He clearly tips his hand here, showing his frustration that the public no longer pays attention to the NYT anymore and prefers Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. One wonders if Brooks and his fellow center-right Anglophiles favor the heavy-handed Britons efforts to squelch popular conservatism such as declaring the American radio personality Michael Savage a “purveyor of hate” and refusing him entry to Britain?

The next target on Brooks' little list is American politics and, of course, politicians. He claims, "…the quintessential American pol is standing in his sandbox screaming affirmations to members of his own tribe, the quintessential British pol is standing across a table arguing face-to-face with his opponents." Brooks apparently doesn't care for representative democracy, if one takes his comments seriously. He goes on to state, "…British leaders and pundits know their counterparts better. They are less likely to get away with distortions and factual howlers. They are less likely to believe the other Party is homogeneously evil." Oh, really? This would come as news to Dame Margaret Thatcher, who endured abuse, slander, libel, and relentless character assassination during her storied tenure as Prime Minister.

After establishing the superiority of the British chattering class, he briefly touches on a number of subthemes such as a British tendency to eschew moralism and dogmatism in politics and the overall superiority of British public life. He finishes with a flourish: "as President Barack Obama visits London, we will get a glimpse of the British political culture. We Americans have no reason to feel smug or superior." One gets the distinct impression that Mr. Brooks wishes that he could import some of the civilized nature of British conservatism to America and that he feels much more at home with the British Tories instead of the yahoos who populate conservative circles in America, people who write columns for Townhall, and even worse, the people who read those columns.

The reader might be grudgingly tempted to agree with David Brooks that a little bit of English virtue might be helpful today. The old British stiff upper lip in the face of personal adversity would constitute a definite improvement over the new American cultural ideal of pouring one's deepest troubles while sitting on a couch next to a tearful Oprah Winfrey. Likewise, a dollop of Edwardian-era certitude concerning culture, duty, honor and moral clarity would be welcome today. Unfortunately, David Brooks will have none of it. His writings have resonated with great admiration for the British cradle to grave welfare state and his "conservatism" exists primarily as a sort of altruistic Disraeli-Beaconsfield attitude of noblesse oblige, leading the masses where they need to be taken.

An alternate reading of British history should serve as a warning to Americans and jolt us out of an anglophile fog. Many British commentators like Paul Johnson and Auberon Waugh have noted that the building of a welfare state in Britain paralleled, almost precisely, the decline of Britain as a world power. This began in 1906 and picked up speed after World War I. The British governments appeased the working class with cheap beer and the dole. They financed these extravagances by cutting the defense budgets, leaving themselves dangerously vulnerable to German and Japanese aggression. Britain staved off defeat and disaster with Russian and American help. They then washed their hands of empire and international leadership. Today the Tory Party leader David Cameron is the Prime Minister of a third-rate power. Yet, David Brooks, the resident "conservative" columnist (conservative meaning in this instance that he stands slightly portside of Bob Herbert, Maureen Dowd, and Frank Rich) at the New York Times insists, "Britain is working."

Is it any wonder that no one pays attention to him or to the New York Times anymore?

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.