LONDON -- On a street not far from Parliament stands a neglected historical site that symbolizes the unique closeness of British and American politics. Originally known as Surrey Hall, it is the place where William Wilberforce began his anti-slavery campaign and where Lord Shaftesbury later set up the Ragged School movement, dedicated to the education of poor children. After Abraham Lincoln's assassination, his family and friends donated money to construct a tower above the building, honoring the inspiration Lincoln had taken from these Tory social reformers -- the compassionate conservatives of their day.
As Republicans prepare for the coming presidential election and take stock of their ideological commitments, British conservatives may have some lessons to offer once again.
Certainly the political circumstances faced by Republicans and Tories could not be more different. At the tail end of an eight-year run in power, Republicans are challenged by public weariness. After nearly 11 years in political exile, British conservatives are counting on it. The current Labor prime minister, Gordon Brown, is a man of considerable political strengths. In contrast with the flashier Tony Blair, Brown has a reputation for buckle-down seriousness that appeals to the British middle class.
But after a series of stumbles -- an aborted election, a poorly received budget -- the Labor Party finds itself in the unaccustomed position of being behind conservatives in the polls. Brown's carefulness -- never moving without knowing where his foot will fall -- can come across as dithering. And conservatives are gaining political traction by asking: After a decade of Labor tax increases and massive public spending, why are British social conditions, from crime to welfare dependence to family breakdown, so miserable?
The Conservative leader hoping to replace Brown is David Cameron, who is impossibly young, highly telegenic and ideologically flexible. Since 2005, Cameron has undertaken to diffuse the main Labor attacks against his party by convincing British voters that he will not cut taxes or tamper with their health-care system. His objective, according to one adviser, has been "reassurance, not radicalism." In this, he has succeeded. But some of his fellow conservatives wonder about the depth and definition of his fighting faith.
The Cameron team tends to avoid foreign policy issues, where differences with Brown are marginal. Cameron himself voted for the Iraq war. But according to his colleagues, he voted with doubts, and believes those doubts have been confirmed.