Conservatism British style

Yesterday, British Prime Minister David Cameron, set out his vision of free markets and capitalism. Since Cameron is the leader of the Conservative Party you might think it was pretty obvious what he thought.

But as I blogged yesterday, he spoke of the crisis of capitalism and was even – critical of the free market. My guess is the average American who has been following the Republican party debates from Iowa to South Carolina would quickly reach the conclusion that Conservative means something very different over here. Cameron did not speak of capitalism and the free market as a gift from God, nor conflate sexual morality with good business practice.

The speech created more than a ripple among Britain's commentariat.

Simon Hoggart, sketch writer for the left-leaning Guardian described the scene at Cameron's speech.

"The prime minister bounced in. It turns out that he believes the state must control rogue companies that don't function for the public good. This is what Ed Miliband (Labour party leader) was reviled for saying at his conference last year. But there is a big difference. Four months ago the Tories hadn't twigged that people largely agree with Ed. So why should we expect the Tories to make big changes to the free markets? 'Because we get the free market,' he said. 'We know its failings as well as its strengths.' The message was clear: 'Vote for us, because we know what shysters our friends are!'"

His counterpart at the rightward Daily Telegraph, Michael Deacon, wasn't that impressed either. Mr Cameron may like to ask the higher power to cram in a bit more substance next time. The speech contained a lot of “We need to…” but not much “Here’s how we’ll do it”. Of course, you could say that about most political leaders’ addresses at the moment: they aren’t so much speeches as patterns created by repetition of the speaker’s carefully selected buzzwords."

It was down to Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator and Cameron admirer to get serious about the speech. First of all the crisis of 2008 wasn't about capitalism but a failing of the then Labour government's economic policy, according to Nelson. "This was not capitalism, but the worst kind of corporatism: a Labour government acting hand-in-glove with companies because it failed to understand the danger of cronyism."

Nelson goes on. "The Prime Minister starts from an analysis of what has just happened: a crisis of government, not of capitalism. Labour, he says, borrowed staggering amounts of money in the boom years and the legacy will be with us for decades. Worse, a “Faustian pact” was struck with the banks: rather than regulating them, Gordon Brown entered into coalition with them. It was not light-touch regulation, but wrong-touch regulation: “Small companies were strangled in red tape while the banks were allowed to let rip."

Nelson's analysis is interesting – although it would have more credence if Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, had spent those years demanding the banks be regulated correctly. They didn't.

Anyway, this is how Conservative's talk over here.  It's another example of how British and American conservatives aren't as welded together as they were in the golden days when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were in charge. 

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