April 25, 2013

Barack Obama - A Natural British Conservative?

I recently contributed a blog for the popular American blog The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. I tackled an issue that had been bugging me for some time: the idea that the President of the United States, Barack Obama is very much like a British conservative.

So I put something together and up it went onto the League. Hindsight has told me that I rushed my analysis. It's actually a matter that deserves some serious thought but sustained thought over a period of time.

I hope to come back to issue and really unpack some of the policy detail, similarities and discrepancies.

In the meantime read on to see what I had to say on the League. Or you can also see the original by clicking here.

Cartoon by Morten Morland of the Times.


Margaret Thatcher is revered by the Republican Party. However, with the passing of the Iron Lady has come a stark realisation: just how far apart the two conservative traditions on each side of the Atlantic have drifted apart in recent years. 
Where transatlantic conservatives under Thatcher and Reagan were politically and ideologically united, British and American conservatives are now out of step and alien on many issues. 
Such is the dissonance between the two conservative traditions that Obama would actually slip seamlessly into the Cameron cabinet. 
And vice versa: as a Romney advisor said to the Telegraph in London, “In many respects Cameron is like Obama.” Lawrence O’Donnell went even further and said: “British Conservatives are more liberal than American liberals.” 
The reality is that the British love Obama. The Left and the Right. 
So what’s going on? 
To understand what’s going happening we need to sketch out the political temperament in Britain. 
While the British may be America’s closest cousins, the reality is that British are of a different social and political temperament. 
Socially, we Brits don’t share with Americans the habit for unbridled optimism. We’re a sceptical lot. 
Politically, we Brits are the archetypal European social democracy. Big tax, big spend government, soviet style socialised health care and a generous welfare system that stifles individual responsibility. 
Much of this a relic of the collectivism born by the war years, made mainstream by the post-war Labour government who implemented the government programmes of Keynes and other socialist thinkers. 
And as Milton Friedman put it: “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme.” 
In Britain we have come to love big government and we would not like to see it summarily dismissed. We are conditioned for a socially interventionist and liberally minded government.
Therefore, conservatism of the American kind would never float in Britain. 
The British conservative party knows this. They know what the British public have come to expect and thereby what they as a party must offer them.
Where in America the Tea Party movement has shunted the right rightwards, the right in Britain have gone leftwards. Conservatives in Britain are on a mission to ‘detoxify’ the conservative brand and are preaching a form of compassionate conservatism. 
A mission typified by the Tory parties desire to introduce full marriage equality. 
The mission to detoxify was also illustrated graphically when David Cameron unreservedly backed Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race and repudiated the GOP. Snubbing Romney during his March 2012 visit to Washington. 
Back to the question: so what’s going on? Well it’s a mix. Obviously conservatives in American have gone too far to the right, run out of middle aged white men and so need to broaden their appeal. They need to what Cameron is doing and ‘detoxify’. 
As for the Brits it’s also clear that the Thatcher style of uncompassionate conservatism was an aberration and will not be coming back. 
Irish blogger Mick Fealty put it best: “If there is a primary weakness in the British English character it is the way it is given to sudden – often highly irrational – enthusiasms on the left as well as the right.” 
Thatcher’s politics were necessary in the 1980s. After the war Britain veered radically leftwards. Thatcher’s reign was an age of rebalancing; a rebalancing that brought Britain back to the right. However this radical veering leftwards under Attlee then rightwards under Thatcher has passed. 
British politics nowadays is all about the centre ground. A view echoed in a left wing weekly by Tony Blair who criticised the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband for being a party of protest and for abandoning the business friendly policies of New Labour and going too far to the left. 
But by and large British politician today want to avoid the irrational enthusiasm that had traditionally brought them to the political extremes. 
There’s one last thing that warrants attention. 
To my mind I had always regarded Obama as a pragmatic conservative of the modern British kind. The shouts of “Marxist!” always perplexed and confounded me. I thought these the claims of a paranoid and misinformed electorate. 
But it seems there was something in this viewpoint. Andrew Sullivan speaks of Obama as a natural Burkean conservative. Speaking at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, Andrew Sullivan denounced the GOP as radicals. A party he said is hostile and obstructionist to the political process. 
For Sullivan Obama is the true American conservative: a man that can bring the US out of the fiscal quagmire and through the political brinkmanship. 
To conclude: It would be wrong to suggest that Obama and Cameron are totally aligned. They differ on a number of policy areas including on Europe, on austerity and spending. But they agree more than they differ. And by implication, Obama is a natural British conservative. 
What implication does this have for the political process in the US and Britain? I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps this analysis is merely an inane observation. Or maybe it’s a reminder of how far US conservatives have gone outside of mainstream politics. 
Who knows? Take your read of the situation and make your own call. My call is that it just shows how ideologically divided the US is.
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