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.
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.