When British Prime Minister David Cameron visits the United States this week, there will be the usual garlands of praise hung around the neck of the "special relationship" between the United States and the United Kingdom. We will hear, ad nauseam, that no two countries are closer and no two peoples (save perhaps the poor forgotten Canadians) have more in common. Like much political blather, there is some truth to this. The transatlantic cousins are, and will remain, close. There is too much history, too much culture, for it to be otherwise.
But with election season in full swing in the United States, one can't help but notice the widening gulf between Cameron's Conservative Party and its American counterparts on the right as the latter undergo a grueling primary. Despite periodic bouts of 1980s nostalgia on the campaign trail -- Newt Gingrich has never met a problem a "Reagan-Thatcher" strategy can't solve -- memories of that era are fast fading. British Conservatives and American Republicans were genuinely close then; they are very much more distant today. So much so, in fact, that in many respects many British Tories are closer to the right wing of the Democratic Party than they are to the mainstream GOP.
Although the United States and Britain face many similar problems -- a middle-class adrift, faltering social mobility, uncomfortably high unemployment, increased health-care costs, and a crisis of confidence in politics and political institutions -- it is striking how few ideas Cameron's government has borrowed from the American right. Tellingly, Sweden, not the United States, is the inspiration for the prime minister's flagship school-reform program. Meanwhile, Cameron's approach to budget-balancing includes cutting defense spending while his government's enthusiasm for "green energy" is firmly within the European mainstream and a long way from the GOP's "drill, baby, drill" approach. Indeed, Cameron has sharply increased taxes on oil companies.
Moderation was once a conservative -- or at least a Tory -- virtue. But from a British perspective, the Republicans appear to have abandoned the conservatism of Edmund Burke in favor of a repressed and vindictive scorched-earth brand of right-wing politics that owes little to any of conservatism's more distinguished forefathers and rather more to the bile-strewn splutterings of ratings-chasing talk radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh's recent troubles notwithstanding).
That is, doubtless, a feature of the fact that the present campaign for the Republican Party's nomination appears dominated by cultural factors and a race to the bottom to see which candidate can portray President Barack Obama as some kind of fifth columnist actively seeking to undermine or, worse, destroy the United States. Seen from afar, this appears an unpersuasive review of the president's time in office.
Moreover, again when viewed from the Atlantic's eastern shore, the distemper afflicting the American conservative movement seems somewhat disproportionate. To put it another way: Mitt Romney's Massachusetts health-care plan would, in outline anyway, be more than acceptable to the faction of Tories who are unpersuaded by the infallibility of government-run health care -- considered well to the right on the British political spectrum. Or take taxing and spending: British conservatives want to reduce spending, but they're prepared to raise some taxes to help pay for it. If they were American, these right-wing Tories would be apostates or RINOs -- Republicans in name only.
This is a matter of temperament as much as policy. Although it was once possible to see trace elements of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" in Cameron's vision of "The Big Society" -- a plan to transfer control of services from government to local associations, including faith groups -- the truth is that Cameron's localism has its roots in British, not American, politics. (More to the point, it hasn't achieved much yet.) In any case, Bush's tarnished legacy continues to hurt the Republican brand outside the United States.