PORTSTEWART, N. IRELAND - In America, the party out of power gets to respond when the president makes a major address. The outs try to contrast their viewpoint with the president on one or more issues, hoping to show their ideas are more worthy of voter consideration in the next election.
Britain's new Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, has come up with a new scheme. He appears to be trying to identify with the philosophy and political tactics of the Labour Party and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Incredibly to many conservatives, Cameron is simultaneously bashing former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the one conservative leader in recent history with a record of real accomplishments.
On the same day the prime minister delivered his New Year's Day message, the Conservative Party took out full-page newspaper ads announcing its agenda. With the exception of the most extreme liberal Labourite, the Labour Party might have written the ad.
David Cameron pledged to put the interests of the poor above the rich. He didn't offer details, but this usually means more government handouts instead of rewarding initiative and priming the entrepreneurial pump. As in the United States, no conservative can ever out-promise a liberal. When they try, they lose their reason for being and are seen as smarmy politicians more interested in gaining and holding office than in leading with vision and conviction.
Imagine a leading member of America's Republican Party dissing Ronald Reagan's record and you get a sense of how shocked many British conservatives must be over Cameron's remarks. The 39-year-old Cameron (young enough to be Thatcher's grandson) has been in his new post less than a month, but has the temerity to suggest that Thatcher's policies have no relevance in modern Britain. He pledged not to be tied in any way to her thinking. The world is changing so quickly, he asserted, that strict ideologies should be foresworn in favor of a flexible approach to politics.
Cameron warned those who embrace Thatcher-style conservatism: "There has been a tendency for some Conservatives to treat Britain, particularly our public services, as an ideological laboratory. But today, in a world that is constantly changing, we need open minds. At the next election, a whole generation of people will be voting who were born after Mrs. Thatcher left office. So when it comes to tackling the big challenges our society faces, I will not be the prisoner of an ideological past."
Does that mean Britain can learn nothing from Winston Churchill or Benjamin Disraeli (or the naivete of Neville Chamberlain)? This is the tyranny of the Internet generation that only "modern" ideas are worthy of consideration and anything before laptops is as old hat as a radio tube or Twiggy.
Perhaps Cameron would like to share with Britain's conservatives precisely which Thatcher policies have exceeded their "expiration date." A politics without an ideological foundation is a politics without purpose.
Margaret Thatcher's convictions are to be preferred over what appears to be David Cameron's pandering. She said, "I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left." Or, "Good Conservatives always pay their bills. And on time. Not like the Socialists who run up other people's bills" or, "Socialists have always spent much of their time seeking new titles for their beliefs, because the old versions so quickly become outdated and discredited."
The history of liberalism in Britain and America has mostly been about giving people what they want and convincing them they are victims and that only government can help them, while the history of conservatism has mostly been about telling people what they need and giving them opportunities to better their lives. As Lady Thatcher put it in her "outmoded" way, "When you hold back the successful, you penalize those who need help."
A brief letter to the editor of The Daily Telegraph from an E.D. Weaving of Carshalton, Surrey had it right: "Having read about Mr. Cameron's proposals for Conservative policies, I think we might as well vote New Labour."