California is sinking in debt. So why does British Conservative Party leader David Cameron look to it as a model? Alex Massie on the Californication of the Tories.
These days, as California stumbles from crisis to crisis, crippled by a mammoth budget deficit and a sclerotic political process that seems ill-equipped to provide either services or leadership, Californians might be forgiven for wondering if the Sage of Bakersfield, Merle Haggard, was right to ask, "Are the good times really over for good?"
There are still some people who believe in California's promise, however. David Cameron, for instance. The Conservative Party leader, and favorite to be the next British prime minister, has looked west, and he likes what he sees.
Cameron's Conservatives still see the west coast as a land of infinite promise, ripe for policy plundering.
California is the unlikely inspiration for what Cameron calls his brand of "Progressive Conservatism"—that is, a blend of entrepreneurial capitalism, environmentalism, and direct democracy. It might seem quixotic for the Tories to look to California as a role model even as Americans worry that the sheen has been stripped from the Californian Dream, but Cameron's Conservatives still see the West Coast as a land of infinite promise, ripe for policy plundering.
When Cameron became leader of the Tory party, his first mission was to "decontaminate" a Conservative brand that had been tarnished by three consecutive crushing election defeats. The Tories had gained a reputation, fairly or not, of being the "Nasty Party." Cameron's immediate job was to change that perception.
Cameron's "Big Idea" is that the world has changed, and that old-style, top-down government is a relic of a bygone era. He wants to reboot his party for what he calls "the post-bureaucratic age." A less clunky way of putting it might be to say that Cameron preaches a governing ethos of Open Source Toryism.
If this sounds more Palo Alto than Oakland, that's because it is. Cameron's chief strategist, Steve Hilton, divides his time between London and California, where his wife is Google's vice president for global communications. The Tory leadership has drunk the Google-ade too, making repeated visits to California to meet with leading figures from the search giant, as well as Facebook and other standard-bearers for a new, connected, online world.
In 2007, Cameron travelled to California to speak at a Google "Zeitgeist" conference where he paid homage to the brand of conservative politics he believes in. "When my wife asked me, 'How are you going to explain to an American audience what sort of Conservative you are?'" Cameron began his Google speech, "I said, 'Darling, I'll just say, look at me and think of Arnold Schwarzenegger.'"
Cameron envisages a future of flexible, family-friendly working in which business brilliance is as widely distributed as political influence. His idealized Britain emphasizes corporate social responsibility and environmentalism as much as it does traditional conservative fealty to free markets, sound money, and robust national defense.
As his closest political ally, and future Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne put it is as far back as 2006, "Here in Silicon Valley I have seen the future and at present Britain is not part of it. That has to change." Sometimes, the lessons learned verge on the gimmicky, such as when Cameron floated the idea that Google Health could be used to replace expensive centralized government IT systems, but senior Tories insist they are serious about using the Internet to change the way politics is conducted.
In a speech about restoring public trust in politics this week, Cameron said, "We are a new generation, come of age in the modern world of openness and accountability. And when we say we will take power from the political elite and give it to the man and woman in the street—it's not just because we believe it will help fix broken politics. It's what we believe, full stop."
In a TED talk, also given this week, Cameron pledged to publish all government contracts online. This follows a promise to detail all items of government spending above $40,000. The idea is to use the distributed intelligence of the Internet and its users to promote public scrutiny and, hence, official accountability.
If the Internet can help make government more transparent and, he hopes, efficient, Cameron also wants to begin the process of importing a West Coast-inspired political revolution, too. Taking his cue from the American Progressive movement of the early 20th century, Cameron plans to give voters the power to recall especially errant MPs, while also giving the public the chance to veto local tax increases through referenda.
Nor does his Progressive-inspired politics end there. The Tories also promise to create a national "right of initiative" so that, as Cameron put it in a speech this week, "Any petition that collects 100,000 signatures will be eligible to be formally debated in the House of Commons. Any petition with a million signatures will allow members of the public to table a Bill that could end up being debated and voted on by MPs."
A new era for British conservatism, then, wants to blend Teddy Roosevelt's populism and environmentalism with a business-friendly, startup-inspired approach to politics and the business of government. It's a heady, high-risk mix.
If it works, it might transform Britain's politics for the better; if it doesn't, well, Britain might end up looking like California today: broke, disillusioned, and angry.
Alex Massie is a former Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph. He writes for The Spectator and blogs at www.spectator.co.uk/alexmassie.