Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Prog Con

A couple of weeks ago, we interviewed Claire Berlinski on the NARN First Team and discussed her book There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. Since then, I've been working my way through the book and have found it to be quite a good read. Berlinski was able to interview many of the key players behind Thatcher's rise and reign (unfortunately Thatcher herself is no longer available for interviews) and their recollections are invaluable in explaining the impact that Thatcher had on Great Britain and the world. The book is a good primer for Americans who seek to better understand Thatcher and the pivotal events of the her era in the U.K. (the Falkland's War and the miners' strike in particular). Berlinski's insights and analysis are thought provoking and help provide a solid narrative structure.

Thatcher's legacy today in the Britain is far from clear. Despite "New" Labour's claims in the Nineties that "we're all Thatcherites now," when you look at the direction the country is moving under Gordon Brown it's easy to wonder if the pendulum has swung back toward a more statist approach. In the past, Conservative leader David Cameron hasn't exactly inspired confidence that his political vision offers a real alternative either.

However, the first part of a four-part series by Cameron that appeared in the The Guardian yesterday seems to provide cause for hope. The title "A new politics: We need a massive, radical redistribution of power" isn't one that you often would associate with conservative thought. Words like "massive," "radical," and "redistribution" are usually the province of the Left and more often that not would be met with a wary eye by conservatives. But in this case, they may be just the prescription for what ails Britain:

Our philosophy of progressive Conservatism--the pursuit of progressive goals through Conservative means--aims to reverse the collapse in personal responsibility that inevitably follows this leeching of control away from the individual and the community into the hands of political and bureaucratic elites. We can reverse our social atomisation by giving people the power to work collectively with their peers to solve common problems. We can reverse our society's infantilisation by inviting people to look to themselves, their communities and wider society for answers, instead of just the state. Above all, we can encourage people to behave responsibly if they know that doing the right thing and taking responsibility will be recognised and will make a difference.

While I'm not crazy about the label "progressive Conservatism," the idea of giving power and responsibility back to the individual definitely has appeal.

So I believe the central objective of the new politics we need should be a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities; from the EU to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power from the elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street. Yes, as many Guardian commentators in their contributions to A New Politics have argued, that means reforming parliament. But it means much more besides. The reform that's now required--this radical redistribution of power--must go through every public institution, not just parliament.

We should start by pushing political power down as far as possible. Politicians will have to change their attitude--big time. Politicians, and the senior civil servants and advisers who work for them, instinctively hoard power because they think that's the way to get things done. Well we're going to have to kill that instinct: and believe me, I know how hard that's going to be. It will require a serious culture change among ministers, among Whitehall officials--and beyond. With every decision government makes, it should ask a series of simple questions: does this give power to people, or take it away? Could we let individuals, neighbourhoods and communities take control? How far can we push power down?

The parallels aren't perfect, but this does have echoes of Reagan's philosophy of federalism.

It's by asking those questions that you arrive at our plans for school reform. Right now, parents just have to hope for the best and take the school place they're given. You sit there waiting for the letter from the local authority, hoping you get your first choice of school, or at least hoping you avoid the schools at the bottom of your list. One of the most important things in your life--the education of your children--is largely out of your hands. Our reforms will take the power over education out of the council's hands and put it directly in parents' hands, so they have control.

We'll end the state monopoly in state education, so that any suitably qualified organisation can set up a new school, and any parent who isn't happy with the education their child is receiving can send their child to a new school--backed by state money, including a new extra payment for children from the poorest families. This is the kind of redistribution of power that will be the starting point for a Conservative government: transferring power and control directly to individuals.

This is a more radical proposal for educational reform than anything that I can recall Republican leaders supporting in the United States. Perhaps there are still strains of Thatcherite thought in today's Tory Party after all. And perhaps, like some of Thatcher's ideas, those strains will stretch across the Atlantic.