What Can We Learn From Conservatism In Europe?

David Stokes
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Posted: Oct 11, 2009 12:01 AM

The speaker talked of dreams. He communicated a compelling personal narrative, including a description of profound pain. He also told his enthusiastic audience, “It’s time to shake things up!” A 43-year old rising political star clearly made a connection with the crowd - further cementing his leadership role over a party poised to bring change they believe in to the nation they all love.

His name is David Cameron and the moment described is his appearance and speech at the Tory (Conservative) Party Conference in Manchester, England this past Thursday. Most polls in the U.K. indicate a trend toward the Tories as the realm moves toward its next national election, which will most likely be held by the first week of June 2010.

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The Conservatives have been out of power since 1997, when Tony Blair and the Labour Party gained control. These have been wilderness years. But the party is now re-energized and poised to pull off an electoral repudiation of many of the big-government trends of the past decade.

Ironic, huh?

Consider these nuggets from Cameron’s Manchester speech – and see if you don’t find yourself scratching your head and wishing America had a singular conservative voice to articulate a compelling vision for the future:

“We will need to confront Britain’s culture of irresponsibility and that will be hard to take for many people. And we will have to tear down Labour’s big government bureaucracy, ripping up its time-wasting, money-draining, responsibility-sapping nonsense.”

“It is government that has gotten us into this mess. Why is our economy broken?” he asked, “Because government got too big, spent too much and doubled the national debt.”

“Why is our society broken? Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility. Why are our politics broken? Because government got too big, promised too much and pretended it had all the answers.”

He ridiculed “this idea that for every problem there’s a government solution for every issue, for every situation a czar…”

And – my favorite line of all: “Do you know the worst thing about their big government? It’s not the cost, though that’s bad enough. It’s the steady erosion of responsibility…we are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by building responsibility.”

Oh – and, “Complicated taxes, excessive regulations - they make life impossible for entrepreneurs. What are you doing to make it easier to start a business? Easier to take people on? What are you doing to make regulation less complicated? To make locating a business more attractive?”

OK – one more passage, then some comments:

“The truth is, it’s not just that big government has failed to solve these problems. Big government has all too often helped cause them by undermining the personal and social responsibility that should be the lifeblood of a strong society. Just think of the signals we send out. To the family struggling to raise children, pay a mortgage, hold down a job. Stay together and we’ll give you less; split up and we give you more.”

After a dozen years of Labour administration in the United Kingdom, one child in six is in a family where no-one works – the highest such rate in Europe. This is not due to job scarcity. These are cases where readily available welfare provisions have undermined the need and desire to work, even when jobs have been available.

Basically, Mr. Cameron was challenging his party – and the nation – with a logic that could only be missed by the clueless or members of the Nobel prize committee (pardon the redundancy), that “the more we as a society do, the less we will need government to do.” He is championing an idea whose time has come once again: personal responsibility.

I am not sure what the Tories plan to do for a slogan in the upcoming election (and campaign cycles in Britain are mercifully shorter than those here in the U.S.), but I might suggest either, “Yes, We Should,” or “It’s The Responsibility, Stupid!”

David Cameron is what might be called over there a “liberal conservative.” And if that seems similar to what was once here called “compassionate conservatism,” there is actually only a partial connection. The conservatism of Cameron and company actually combines elements of limited government (British style, of course) and social libertarianism. In other words, the total Cameron package would not resonate with many American social conservatives, myself included. But much of this is a reflection of the state of culture at large in the U.K., as well as across Europe. Church attendance patterns are far different than those in America. And evangelicals in particular do not make up a large percentage of the population; merely a fraction of what we see here at home.

The same is true in Germany, where Angela Merkel was recently re-elected Chancellor, presiding over a government that is described as “center-right.” She is referred to, at least by some detractors, as a Margaret Thatcher-like “Iron Lady.” The trend is away from liberal-socialist economics and back toward greater fiscal conservatism. Again, as is the case in Britain, being more conservative in Germany has little to do with American-style social conservative issues, and for the same reason: The larger culture is secular, less religious, and therefore more “libertarian” when it comes to personal behavior.

Then there is France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy leans more center-right than anyone in recent memory. Again, it’s quite obvious that any form of cultural or social conservatism is not a big deal there, either.

Now, curiously, in Canada – which seems to have elements of European and American political dynamics – Prime Minister Steven Harper is an evangelical Christian (his background is with the Christian and Missionary Alliance). He has been described as “inspired by two British Christian thinkers: C. S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge,” and has strong ties to social conservatives in the realm.

This analytical detour now complete, I come to my point. Conservatism is resurgent in many Western democracies. Sure, in some places it looks a little different than its American counterpart, particularly on social/cultural issues. But that has more to do with the fact that in those nations there is no strong evangelical church itself to speak of.

On the other hand, here in the United States evangelicals are somewhat stronger. Therefore, resonant issues (such as abortion) are always either on the table, or scrambling for a rightful place. It’s a voting bloc that may make some uncomfortable, but an important bloc, nonetheless.

Some dismiss the conservative trend in Europe as irrelevant to American politics at this time because of the absence there of any social conservative agenda. But those who do so are missing the obvious. There would be a relationship (awkward, or otherwise) between economic conservatism and cultural conservatism in those nations, as well, if there were more resident evangelicals. They are not a factor in Europe because it’s been a very long time since there was any statistically significant evangelical-type movement or revival.

The lesson for all conservatives is that the ideas of limited government, personal responsibility, and strong families resonate across the board.

The lesson for evangelicals is to cultivate and maintain a commitment to see that the spiritual condition of our churches and communities never becomes European. The fact is that any movement can fall from foothold to footnote in one generation.