What David Cameron Can Teach the GOP

American Republicans have all but destroyed their brand during this election cycle. Their once-and-future Tory allies across the pond can teach them how to build it back up.

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.

The incomprehension, mind you, is mutual. American conservatives might wonder whether they really have anything to learn from a party that, until the Great Crash of 2008, felt itself unable to oppose Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown's runaway spending plans. Until reality dictated otherwise, Cameron and his closest aides paid little attention to fiscal policy. Like many others, they supposed the Age of Plenty would last forever.

Government today, however, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a matter of making do with less. For political, not economic, reasons, Cameron has chosen not to reduce the 50 percent income tax rate paid by the highest earners even though evidence suggests it is likely costing the Treasury money. Instead, he is slowly cutting corporate taxes and, more significantly, eliminating income taxes on low-paid workers altogether. Many within his own party would like to see a more aggressive, supply-side approach to boost growth.

Like leaders across the developed world, Cameron is still wrestling with the twin imperatives of controlling deficits while also boosting growth. Despite thousands of headlines to the contrary, the British government has not pressed ahead with "savage" austerity measures. Spending will remain constant in real terms, though higher debt-interest payments will squeeze departmental expenditures. Nevertheless, Cameron's plans are only different in degree, not kind, to those proposed by the Labour government his coalition replaced.

Many American conservatives would, I am sure, consider the Oxford-educated Cameron a "squish" -- and an aristocratic, silver-spooned squish at that. Nevertheless, Cameron's rise to power does offer one valuable lesson for the Republicans: Change cannot be limited to removing the other party from power; it must involve changing your own party too.

Obama built a formidable electoral coalition in 2008, albeit in circumstances that were unusually favorable for a candidate of his type and quality. In 2012, as best it can be discerned from overseas, the Republican Party seems content to play on much the same demographic map as it did four years ago: unhealthily dependent on the votes of the super-rich and lower-income white men. These, particularly the latter, are of course important constituencies, but concentrating on them to the exclusion of almost all else is a risky strategy that leaves little margin for error.

If Cameron appreciated anything, it was that the core Conservative vote would not be enough to take him to Downing Street. He was, in some respects, the surprise winner of the 2005 Tory leadership election, defeating rivals possessing both purer conservative credentials and greater parliamentary experience. But, battered by three consecutive heavy defeats, the Tories grasped -- dimly in some cases -- that the party needed a new playbook. How could it be otherwise, when polling showed that popular policies became less popular when voters were told they were advocated by the Conservative Party?

Cameron offered a "detoxification" program designed to persuade voters that the Tories were no longer "the nasty party." Part of that meant talking about issues the Conservatives had traditionally neglected. At times this verged on self-parody, as when Cameron traveled to the Arctic for an elaborate photo shoot designed to show he "got" global warming. Cameron boasted that he would lead the "greenest government ever." Similarly, he emphasized his commitment to universal, state-funded health care, insisting that the National Health Service, another traditional Tory weakness, would be safe in Tory hands.

In office there has been some slippage on some of these policies (the faltering economy swamps all else), but there was a reason Cameron insisted on modernizing his party: It gave voters not usually open to Conservative messages room -- even permission -- to listen afresh to the Tories on matters traditionally considered Conservative strengths. Cameron was prepared to sacrifice a yard to gain two.

As Francis Maude, a former chairman of the Conservative Party and a key figure in the "modernization project," said in a speech this month: "The Conservative Party will always suffer if it's seen to be almost trying to turn the clock back to an imagined golden era. You can't drive policy looking through a rose-tinted rearview mirror. If we're seen as being defined by backward-looking social attitudes, we will be seen as unacceptable and unelectable."

Perhaps the Republican Party has no need to make any kind of comparable gesture. But there is a sense, surely, that this primary season -- choked with fools and charlatans and extremists as it has been -- has tarnished the Republican brand to the point that it will soon need serious polishing.

Of course, the British and American systems are very different, and one should be cautious about suggesting that lessons from one are automatically applicable to the other. Nevertheless, I fancy that the American conservative movement's hostility to same-sex marriage (and even birth control!) is severely damaging its standing with younger voters, especially those with college degrees. I suggest, too, that this damage hurts the Republican Party even with younger voters who might otherwise be sympathetic to conservative views. When the electorate moves, wise political parties think about moving too.

Something similar might be said of immigration and the Latino community. It's not as if Obama and the Democrats have been able to "fix" immigration. But unlike the Republicans, they are able to talk about the issue in ways that don't repel Hispanic voters. Here again, the British Conservatives have learned the power of framing. According to Maude, polling found that "voters confronted with the party's immigration policy, if it were presented in a neutral way … supported it by two to one, but when told that it was a Conservative policy, the proportions reversed. This was all about the motives that were attached to us."

With recent polls showing slumping Hispanic support for the GOP, the Republican Party could use a detoxifying agent to attract a demographic that, as recently as 2004, was as much as 40 percent Republican.

In terms of right-of-center politics, the Atlantic Ocean has not been this wide since at least the 1930s. An old line has it that Britain and the United States are "two countries divided by a common language." Frankly, that has rarely been truer than when one contemplates the great conservative divide between the party of David Cameron and the party of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. To shake their own "nasty party" problem, Republicans might consider looking across the ocean for inspiration.

Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images


Japan's Nuclear Cabal

Japan's public is squarely against going back to nuclear power. So why is the government pushing so hard to get the country's nuclear plants back online?

One year after the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that rocked Japan on March 11, 2011, the country looks to be once again back on track as a longtime supporter of nuclear power. Backed by Japan's mighty power companies, the government seems eager to restart the dozens of nuclear reactors across the country that it has kept shuttered in the wake of the crisis. In December, nine months after the disaster, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared an end to the nuclear crisis, announcing that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant's damaged reactors had been cooled down and stabilized. In February, Japan's nuclear regulators publicly assured the country that two reactors at the Ohi nuclear power plant in Fukui, on Japan's western coast, could survive a combined earthquake and tsunami as large as the one that caused more than 20,000 deaths in northeast Japan in March of last year. And the government even went so far as to get the international seal of approval: The United Nation's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, sent in experts in late January who supported this assessment, as the Japanese regulators had expected. Now Noda is planning to visit Fukui to persuade the prefectural governor and other heads of local communities who have expressed concern about the safety of nuclear power to agree to have the reactors run again before the peak energy-intensive summer months.

But is this the path for recovery that the Japanese people want? Apparently not. In a survey conducted in June of last year, 74 percent of respondents said that Japan should phase out nuclear power with an eventual goal of abandoning it.

The picture on the ground is still grim. Due to high levels of radiation around Fukushima, about 100,000 residents have been forced to evacuate, tearing apart families and communities in what was once a close-knit, largely rural area. Even outside the forced evacuation zone, which extends a 20-kilometer radius from the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, residents were ordered to vacate their communities.

Farmers who chose to stay -- despite contamination -- stack crops and hay on their land in vain, knowing they can neither sell nor destroy their produce because the government prohibits both trade and disposal.

Iitate is one of those dozens of communities. In this farming village of 6,000 residents, only seven families remain. Mayor Norio Kanno, who visited the United States in February, said, "Although decontamination work in the village has commenced, we presume that it will take two to three years before houses will be rid of radiation, five to six years for farmlands, and about 20 years for forests to be cleared. The villagers still have no idea when they can go home and settle back in."

One-hundred miles away from Fukushima, Tokyo's suburban population is also declining. The capital's eastern neighbor, Chiba, lost more than 7,000 residents last year, the first decline in modern history, according to the prefectural office. Anxious families -- particularly those with young children -- have left the metropolitan area for places as far away as Singapore, unable to contain fears over material released from the damaged Fukushima reactors.

Regulators and members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, are still investigating the true cause of one of the severest nuclear accidents in human history. Some experts -- including Mitsuhiko Tanaka, a former nuclear technician -- suspect the reactors had been destroyed by strong tremors from the 9.0 quake and were out of control even before the tsunami swept away the backup diesel power generators needed to cool the plant's fissile material. A large question mark remains over the wisdom of continuing to run dozens of nuclear plants across the quake-prone archipelago.

So why the rush to re-embrace a nuclear future? The answers are money and the lack of any better option. Japan's government and industries have heavily invested in nuclear power since the mid-1960s, and as the 1970s oil crisis hit an economy dependent on energy imports, construction of nuclear power plants was accelerated in rural and coastal areas like Fukushima and Fukui.

Before the Fukushima accident, Japan's power companies operated 54 nuclear reactors, which provided about 30 percent of the country's electricity needs. Renewable energy accounts for only 1 percent, reflecting the government's and the utilities' reluctance -- in light of such a "successful" nuclear industry -- to develop solar, biomass, micro-hydro, wind, and geothermal power. This preference for nuclear power led to a 2010 government plan to add 14 reactors to meet the country's projected energy needs in 2030, which would have brought the proportion of nuclear power up to 50 percent of Japan's energy mix.

During the summer of 2011, when the Fukushima plant was still smoldering, the power companies scaled back operations, reducing the number of functioning nuclear reactors to fewer than 18. To replace idle reactors, they brought back online half-retired coal and natural gas plants. A feared major power shortage did not materialize, partly because the government required factories and offices to cut 15 percent of energy use and urged people to save as much as possible.

In the following months, another dozen reactors were stopped, many for regular checkup and maintenance mandated every 13 months. Today, only two of Japan's 54 reactors are still functioning, and it is expected that by late April, no reactor will be operational as concerned local communities block restarts. The government warns that the country will soon face a dire power shortage this summer, a view echoed by utility companies.

Energy economics is not the only rationale for the push to restart the nuclear plants. There are powerful political forces at work, determined to keep the nuclear fire burning in Japan. They form a formidable complex often referred to as the "nuclear power village," representing utilities, bureaucrats, politicians, and academics.

Japan's 10 regional power companies have enjoyed a cozy and lucrative relationship with the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and have been granted monopolies over generation and distribution of electricity in their designated turfs. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plants, is the largest among them. In return, these power companies, their spinoffs, and the industry's organizations have hired hundreds of government officials upon their retirement from METI and other ministries. Currently, TEPCO employs the former chief of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency (a METI arm in charge of selecting locations for nuclear plants) and a former METI director as top advisors.

The industry has also made generous donations to politicians and nuclear scientists who have functioned as their cheerleaders. In 2009, roughly 60 TEPCO executives, from the chairman to nuclear power plant chiefs, collectively donated 6.5 million yen (approximately $80,000) in total to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that governed the country for nearly 55 consecutive years and promoted nuclear power. It was a drop in the bucket for one of the world's largest utility giants. Politicians, however, say what they really appreciate is not the executives' donations, but the company's bountiful purchase of their fundraising party tickets. On Jan. 1, the major national daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported that the power industry provided 85 million yen (approximately $1 million) in research assistance over the past five years to two dozen nuclear scientists who served as members of the Nuclear Safety Commission, a supervising panel for government regulators.

But while the industry has this base of bought-and-paid support, a wary public is skeptical of the wisdom of building more nuclear power plants in Japan. Thus, manufacturers are looking for foreign customers to purchase Japanese-made reactors. The government recently decided to export two nuclear reactors to Vietnam, eyeing further sales to India, Jordan, Turkey, and Lithuania. Government and industry officials, however, think that to move ahead with this new business and win customers' trust, nuclear plants will have to remain operational in Japan.

Indeed, the Fukushima crisis has had far-reaching effects in other parts of the world, particularly Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a trained physicist, confessed that before Fukushima, she had been convinced that a major nuclear accident could not happen in technologically advanced countries. Having witnessed the disaster unfold in Japan, Merkel has turned a complete about-face, agreeing to repeal her decision to keep reactors running until around 2040.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Switzerland's government decided to phase out the country's currently operating five nuclear reactors by 2034. On March 1, Switzerland's Federal Administrative Court ordered a shutdown of the country's Muehleberg nuclear power plant by 2013, supporting local residents' concern that it might not be able to withstand a strong earthquake. The ruling may accelerate an exit of Swiss nuclear power.

In 2009, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced a plan to develop new reactors for the first time in two decades with assistance from France. More than 700,000 citizens, many of them supporters of opposition parties, countered with a petition that the government conduct a national referendum on whether to return to nuclear energy. In the referendum cast last June, more than 90 percent of voters supported staying non-nuclear, apparently shocked by the disaster in Fukushima.

Japan's public closely follows these developments, sometimes with a sigh of envy. Japan does not have a powerful green party, and demonstrations on the scale of those in Germany, where thousands of environmental and anti-nuclear activists took to the streets, are not common. And unlike Italy, Japan lacks a tradition of casting public votes to clarify people's aspirations.

Just two-and-a-half years ago, the Democratic Party of Japan came to power, dethroning the LDP, and promised to "beat back bureaucrats" by providing stronger political leadership. Naoto Kan, prime minister during the Fukushima disaster, was one of the strongest advocates of this anti-bureaucratic push. Frustrated by the slow responses of METI and TEPCO to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, he requested a shutdown of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, located 120 miles southwest of Tokyo, repealing Japan's long-term energy plan and announcing the idea of heading toward becoming a nuclear-free country. "Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy," said Kan in a televised news conference on July 13. "We should reduce our dependence in a planned and gradual way, and in the future we should aim to get by with no nuclear energy." Immediately after this announcement, he was criticized for not having briefed his cabinet ministers on the idea. Later, he backed away, saying that phasing out nuclear power was only his personal wish.

But as Kan toughened his anti-nuclear stance, opposition forces in the LDP waged a fierce campaign against him, equipped with gossip -- such as that Kan had ordered a stop to the spraying of cooling seawater on Fukushima's overheating reactors at the height of the nuclear crisis. The gossip was presumably leaked by government officials and later found to be untrue.

Kan's increasingly anti-nuclear stance failed to win back his administration's popularity. In a desperate effort to survive a humiliating no-confidence vote brought to the Diet by the opposition LDP last June, Kan offered to resign once progress had been clearly made in recovery from the natural -- and man-made -- disaster. Kan eventually stepped down at the end of August, and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan chose Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, reputed to have close ties with powerful bureaucrats, to succeed him as party leader and prime minister.

Some political analysts think Kan's downfall reflects the fact that Japan's bureaucrats remain the country's most powerful decision-makers, despite their role in drafting a critically flawed nuclear policy made painfully clear in Fukushima. While Japan continues to muddle through a prolonged period of political uncertainty, bureaucrats have regained the upper hand, riding on a political culture in which the public does not easily challenge the state.

There are glimmers of hope. The Japanese people are trying to rise from the ashes of the "nuclear safety myth" that they were led to believe through the media blitz carried out by the government and utilities for decades. Their anger and frustration has sparked activism rarely seen in Japan. Thousands of mothers purchased affordable radiation detectors and now check for radioactive materials in their houses, as well as at their children's schools and playgrounds, apparently in mistrust of the data released by the government and utilities. In Tokyo and Osaka, tens of thousands of signatures have been collected to petition the two metropolitan governments to hold a referendum on whether Japan should maintain nuclear power. And lawyers -- who filed suits across the country on behalf of concerned local residents demanding the government not permit the construction and operation of nuclear plants, to no avail -- are now considering repeating the same efforts, expecting judges to be more receptive. Meanwhile, heads of local governments that host nuclear plants are distancing themselves from lucrative but politically dangerous subsidies given by the state. In a meeting with the minister in charge of nuclear power, the mayor of Tokai, a town that hosts the Tokai Daini nuclear power plant, which stands only 80 miles northeast of Tokyo, even demanded that the town's reactor be scrapped.

Nearly 67 years have passed since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In postwar Japan, the anti-nuclear movement simply called for the abolishment of nuclear weapons -- not nuclear energy -- at least until the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States. Toshiyuki Tanaka, a history professor at Hiroshima City University's Hiroshima Peace Institute, explains in a recent article that Japan accepted nuclear energy as it was hopeful that the peaceful use of deadly power would redeem the horrible experiences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With this expectation totally discarded after the Fukushima disaster, a majority of the Japanese people are falling in line with the idea that nuclear power is simply too dangerous to live with. But they are also well aware that their choices are limited, with few fossil fuel resources and an underdeveloped renewable-energy sector to take up the slack. Nonetheless, most seem to share Kan's about-face. "I changed my thoughts on nuclear power on March 11, 2011 [from promotion to restraint]," said Kan in an interview last fall. "Thinking about ways to deal with the tremendous risk and costs of a major accident, it would be the best not to depend on nuclear power. Not having nuclear power plants would be the paramount safety."

As Japan stands at a critical juncture in determining its future, the Japanese people have much to do if they hope to turn the tide and move toward a non-nuclear nation.