Republicans Should Follow British Tory Leader David Cameron's Populist Lead

Merely being "not the guys in power" just won't cut it for the GOP.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

British Tory leader David Cameron has issued a call for reform that is likely to carry him into No. 10 Downing Street as soon as Prime Minister Gordon Brown calls the next general election.

In "Fixing Broken Politics," a speech he delivered Tuesday at the Open University in Milton Keynes, Cameron proposed transformational changes to the business of government that should appeal broadly to Britons from all walks of life. It is, for someone who has the reputation of being a "toff" (British slang for a "well-dressed" or "upper-class person" and not at all a compliment) a remarkably populist manifesto.

Cameron's plan for remaking British politics includes several items U.S. conservatives would do well to consider as they debate the future of their own movement. They should, in fact, appropriate some of them—decentralization, transparency, electoral reform—into their own effort to wrest political power from the Obama Democrats.

In the speech Cameron, who sounds (for the moment anyway) a little like an English version American conservative leader Grover G. Norquist—whose book "Leave Us Alone" is a program for 21st Century limited government—observes that, "In media, shopping, travel, entertainment and music we have huge choice and control, from many organizations that offer us incredible service and value. But when it comes to the things we ask from politics, government and the state—there is a sense of power and control draining away; having to take what you're given, with someone else pulling the strings."

To put it another way, popular dissatisfaction with government in industrial societies relates directly to a sense of disempowerment, that citizens have been deliberately deprived by government at all levels of their ability to exercise real choices on the issues that matter most.

"In Britain today," Cameron said, "a growing culture of rule-following, box-ticking and central prescription robs people of the chance to use their judgment or to take responsibility for making the right decisions. And an increasingly Orwellian surveillance state—symbolized by the simultaneously ineffective and intrusive ID cards scheme—reminds people that the powers-that-be don't really trust them."

According to Cameron, "this compounds the rage that we feel."

The experiences he goes on to cite, which are common to most every Briton, may be equally recognizable to many here in the United States. Cameron talks of being "picked and poked and bossed around, annoyed and irritated and endlessly harassed by public and private sector officialdom that treats us like children with rules and regulations and directives and laws that no-one voted for, no-one supports, but no-one ever seems to be able to do the slightest thing about."

That sounds a lot like the experiences many people in the United States have when dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the rest of the alphabet soup of state and federal agencies whose rules and regulations govern the way most people lead their lives and earn their livings.

"No trust. No discretion. No judgment. Just the grey, monotonous, maddening refrains of life in Britain, too much of the time: 'I'm sorry, I don't make the rules.' 'It's for your own safety.' 'It's child protection I'm afraid.' 'I do agree but unfortunately that's the system.'" Sound familiar?

Cameron's plan for reform, which calls for the decentralization of power, an almost official recognition of private authority and initiative in solving problems, and fundamental changes to the structure of Parliament itself gives British voters a real choice in the upcoming elections, whenever they occur. It is, at least at the "vision level," a bold program and, more than that, a positive program worth voting "for," rather than simply an excuse to vote against the opposition.

That, perhaps, is the most important lesson for conservatives and Republicans here in the United States. In almost every circumstance you have to give the electorate something they can vote "for." Merely being "not the guys in power now" almost always won't cut it—certainly not in 2010 and almost surely not in 2012.

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