At last year’s Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, the questions were about what was going to happen in Britain’s election. In May, those questions were answered. So at this year’s Conference in Manchester, which I attended for two days, the questions had shifted to less pressing but no less vital concerns.
Conservatives naturally wanted to know what the outcome of the US elections will be. I have no more idea about this than I did about the British campaign, which I got as wrong as everyone else. But a few comparisons between Britain and the US do suggest themselves.
One striking fact is that Conservative voters in Britain appear to be the only ones in both nations who aren’t hungering for an outsider. A new poll from ConservativeHome finds that safe George Osborne is now the Tory favourite to follow safe David Cameron as Prime Minister.
In the US on the other hand, established politicians such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and three-time Texas Governor Rick Perry couldn’t catch fire with Republicans, while outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina top the polls. The low numbers of the establishment figures suggests that Republicans aren’t in a safety first mood.
As for Americans’ understanding of what’s going on in the British left – well, it’s lacking. In the US, the leader of the party, de facto, is that party’s presidential nominee, as selected through our primary process. There’s no position akin to Jeremy Corbyn’s as leader of the Labour Party.
Americans tend to assume that Corbyn was picked through a national primary of all Labour Party voters, instead of Labour Party members. Thus, Americans see Corbyn’s success as evidence that Labour Party voters have shifted sharply to the left. That might happen, but it’s more likely that Corbyn will lose a lot of voters, not convert them.
So when Conservatives asked me what Americans thought of Corbyn, I had to answer that this question assumed Americans understand how the Parliamentary system works. That said, Americans also wouldn’t understand Corbyn’s supporters: there’s nothing in the US like the hard-left mob that spent its days baying outside the Manchester convention complex.
Three elements dominated: state employees demanding favours, unwashed socialists shouting abuse and spraying spittle, and Corbyn’s buddies in the Stop the War Coalition, siding with Syria’s Islamist thugs.
The left in Britain has rarely looked less decent. But they were farcical too. Quite a few signs denounced Britain’s so-called Islamophobia, and many more – inevitably – banged on about the evils of austerity. It doesn’t matter to the left that, right now, Muslim immigrants are killing themselves to get into a nation that supposedly hates Muslims and is suffering terribly from Tory austerity.
The obvious conclusion is that Britain is actually a tolerant place with an economy that is creating jobs and a welfare system that remains, if anything, too generous.
It was disconcerting that none of the party propaganda made any mention of foreign policy or the EU referendum. The banners in Manchester focused on balancing the budget and on making promises to deliver domestic goodies (A seven-day NHS! Higher state pensions!)
Yet Britain already has a massive pensions bill to pay. Balancing the budget by 2020 is a worthy aim, but that won’t begin to deal with the amount of money Britain (like the US and most Western nations) has already promised to spend in the future.
What depressed me most at Manchester wasn’t the egg-throwing radicals. It was the number of marchers who brought their kids along, demanding benefits that can only be paid for by borrowing – in short, paid for by those children. And in the larger picture, their attitude is not all that different from the Government’s: neither is eager to confront long-term realities.
The evidence of Manchester is that the party plans to keep on playing centrist small-ball. From one point of view, that makes sense: safety first won it in 2015, and there is no reason to take risks when the other side is foaming at the mouth. Yet Britain is already running risks with its pension promises, with membership of an EU marching towards even deeper integration, and with Armed Forces now in their third decade of stagnant funding and diminishing capabilities.
The Tory approach assumes those risks will not strike home in the current Parliament. For now, playing it safe looks like the winning bet. But political life is not always organised for the convenience of the governing party. At some point, safety first is going to become a political liability. The Tories better hope it doesn’t happen soon.
-Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in Anglo-American Relations, based at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation in Washington.
This piece originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post