Britain's Rather Nice Conservatives

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LONDON, United Kingdom - The next government of the United Kingdom has been auditioning for the electorate. This past week, the Conservative Party held its party conference in Manchester, and the unspoken theme was: "We have changed. We are no longer the 'nasty party' you may remember. We are actually rather nice."

No one is nicer than the Conservative's leader and the likely next prime minister of the country, David Cameron. He closed the conference Thursday with a speech aimed well beyond the packed hall of activists. Listening to the key phrases I could not believe I was listening to the heir of Margaret Thatcher.

The Iron Lady famously said there is no such thing as society. "There is such a thing as society," Cameron said Thursday. "Only it is a different thing than the state."

With that single statement the young leader was able to position the Tories in a new era free from Thatcher's long, long shadow. But it was other words that had me shaking my head: "we not me," "we are all in this together" is his ethos. Rugged individualism was selfishness. He claimed the Conservatives were "progressives" and used the word "organic" to describe the changing definition of Britishness.

More than the connection to Baroness Thatcher was cut by this speech. The long-standing bond between the British Conservative Party and America's Conservatives going back to the Reagan Thatcher era was also snapped.

While Republicans use the worst political alley fighting tactics to scupper President Obama's attempt to reform health costs, Cameron told his conference: "Our National Health Service is the best system," and promised to defend it. As Republican legislators and their allies in the press try to stall any treaties on the environment, the Prime Minister-in-waiting said: "Climate change is real" and he swore to fight it.

Cameron is no great orator. He is a product of his upbringing. Born to considerable wealth, educated at Eton and Oxford, he comes from a social class that values sang froid and keeping one's emotions in check. Yet he is able to project himself as an all around good guy, mainly through his commitment to the National Health Service (NHS) and climate changes.

Why American conservatives haven't cottoned on to the winning formula of wrapping up a cut government agenda with green concerns and building a decent social safety net is a good question.

After spending a couple of weeks in Washington last summer at the height of the health care debate, I came up with two linked answers. First, the Republican Party doesn't have to win elections to exercise power. The whole framework of debate inside government as well as inside the Beltway's media and lobbying circles is shaped by Republican talking-points. Who needs to win elections when shouting and screaming can force a Democratic president and Congress to write their signature legislation with all eyes on what the minority thinks rather than what the majority was elected to do?

The other reason is that clearly the Republican Party hasn't felt the pain yet. Cameron's Conservatives have. It is less than one year since the Democrats swept back into power. Britain's Conservatives have been in opposition for more since 1997. They've lost three elections on the trot. Even in 2005 with Britain mired in the Iraq fiasco they couldn't beat former prime minister Tony Blair and the Labour Party. Their leader at that election was Michael Howard, a former Thatcher cabinet minister. His appointment may have appeased the grass roots of the party but it caused the rest of the country to hold back their votes. The lesson was learned. Loyalty to a glorious time 20 years earlier is no way to win power in the present.

The party voted Cameron in as leader after that loss. He was just in his late 30s and he has tried to do for the Conservatives what young Tony Blair did for Labour: sideline the doctrinaire hard heads and make the Conservatives once again the representatives of Britain's Middle Classes.

Now 42, Cameron still has a ways to go to achieve that end. He is personally popular but his party isn't. A poll carried out last weekend by the public opinion research firm Populus, for The Times newspaper, showed that Tory support is rooted in dislike of Labour, not love of the Conservatives. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said the Conservatives were doing well because Labour "has become so unpopular." Only a little over a quarter said the Conservatives had really changed under Cameron.

So there is the party ... and then there is Dave. The activists on the far side of the age divide are still nostalgic for Margaret Thatcher and pre-immigration Britain. Party image-makers seem to have given up even trying to make the conference hall representative of the multi-ethnic society the United Kingdom has become. Every time the camera cut away from the speaker to the upturned faces in the hall it was startling to see how white the Conservative Party is. Britain is a multi-ethnic society ... you would never guess that from the pictures.

Nor is the team who were auditioning with Cameron this week anywhere near as personable as their leader. They may be young but they look as mean as any Thatcherite when talking about public sector pay freezes and raising the age at which retirees can collect social security.

As Cameron acknowledged the standing ovation at the end of his speech and the hall filled with the new Conservative Party's classic rock theme tune, The Monkees "I'm a Believer," an explanation for why this man is 14 points ahead at the polls even if voters don't like his party popped into my head.

It has to do with the maturity of the British electorate. Voters here don't like a one-party state, because what's the point of democracy then? British voters rightly feel that Labour has run out of gas and 12 years is long enough for one party to rule. It is time to give the other guys a shot ... and so smiling Dave and his nasty party are on the verge of being elected when the general election is called sometime in May.

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