David Cameron’s unexpected victory in the British elections Thursday is also an important victory for liberty. Rather than increasing spending after the financial crisis, he pursued what the left terms “austerity” policies. An austerity program is better described as a liberty program because it curbs the reach of the state by shrinking it. By contrast, government stimulus programs, like those supported by most of the intelligentsia in the UK and elsewhere, make the state more powerful by allowing politicians to direct a firehose of money where it will do them the most good.
Cameron’s constitutional thinking is sound as well. He wants to reform Britain’s relationship with the EU to make the latter more a free trade zone than a super state. Subsidiarity within a free trade zone can foster freedom while preserving accountable government. Within the UK, Cameron is also for the devolution of powers, not only in Scotland, but also in England, which should further align government with the people. Local jurisdictions could be more responsive to their citizens, and those who do not agree with the local politics may be able to move to another jurisdiction within the United Kingdom with policies they prefer.
Cameron’s differences with Ed Miliband’s Labor Party were huge. Miliband wanted to interfere with market contracts, by prohibiting flexible working hours and limiting the rent landlords could charge. These are not only foolish economic policies but deeply damaging to human freedom. Miliband also wanted to end market reforms to public services and to bring some markets, such as energy, under public control. Cameron, in contrast, will extend the reach of free markets not contract them.
A historical perspective also confirms the importance of Cameron’s victory. Margaret Thatcher transformed Britain, fundamentally moving the society toward freedom. Blair could prevail only by accepting most of Thatcher’s new political settlement–monetarism, circumscribed unions, the abandonment of nationalization, and her recognition that markets promote prosperity and help the least well off in the long run. The greatest success of a democratic leader is not to change her own party, but to transform the opposition. Gordon Brown was defeated, in part because he was not as sympathetic to the Thatcher’s new settlement. And Miliband attempted to swerve even further left and lost badly. In blocking Labour’s left turn, Cameron’s victory further secures Thatcher’s achievements.
I thus disagree with Theodore Dalrymple whose work I much admire. He sees David Cameron and Ed Miliband as Tweedledum and Tweedledee largely because both adopted the posture of being shepherds of their flocks rather than leaders of free citizens of a proud nation. He preferred one (almost certainly Cameron) to the other, but without any enthusiasm.
Like Dalrymple, I find much of Cameron’s shepherd rhetoric tiresome, but I see it more as a convention of modern democratic society. Underneath Cameron’s sometimes gauzy words is a vision of a society that scales back the state and rewards hard work. I would like to move faster and further than Cameron, but in the absence of the kind of crisis that Thatcher faced, the best hope for democracies is incremental reduction of the state and steady expansion of the market. Cameron is delivering those policies.