Michael Gerson

And most American conservatives would find Cameron's positions on moral issues troubling. Under his leadership, the Conservative Party has not taken a stand against recent Labor legislation on bioethics that would allow the moral monstrosity of animal-human hybrids, as well as the creation of "savior siblings" who would have their genetic material harvested for ill children. On life issues in Britain, the slippery slope has become a vertical drop, with a respectable, noncontroversial, scientific barbarism at its bottom.

But the Conservative approach on social policy is increasingly creative. Because Cameron has opted against boldness on economics and foreign policy, his main appeal is likely to be on quality-of-life issues. And he has been wise enough to turn for ideas to an exceptional politician named Iain Duncan Smith. As a former leader of the conservative opposition, Smith was largely discredited by his close identification with the Iraq war. But since losing his leadership post, he has dedicated himself to the cause of social justice within the conservative fold, gaining broad respect in the process. As chair of a policy think tank called the Center for Social Justice, Smith has gathered a group of bright young policy researchers who have published thick volumes of proposals on issues from prison reform and education to crime and family stability.

If this sounds familiar, it should. It is the reincarnation of compassionate conservatism, or perhaps its logical extension. British conservatives are proposing reforms that would allow parents to organize and run their own schools, that require "work for the dole," that encourage marriage and family as a way to fight poverty, and that invite voluntary associations to aid in the provision of welfare services. And the Center for Social Justice is more than a think tank. It invites members of Parliament to spend a week working in anti-poverty programs -- on the condition that they leave their BlackBerrys behind.

These proposals are providing British conservatives with a positive message of social change that is also an alternative to bureaucratic centralization -- a kind of conservative politics, Smith says, that allows people to not only "serve themselves but to serve their neighbor."

Lincoln saw this kind of model in Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. John McCain would be well advised to seek it in Cameron and Smith.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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