President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were so “like-minded,” according to one Los Angeles Times writer, that they brought new meaning to the U.S. and England’s “special relationship.” Blair’s later embrace of George W. Bush, however, was less satisfying, leading to widespread ridicule that the PM was the Texan’s favorite “lap dog.”
President Barack Obama shares little of his predecessors’ Anglophilia; he even unceremoniously returned Blair’s gift of a Winston Churchill bust loaned to Bush after 9-11. Yet however much Obama may detest the old Tory imperialist, he might find in Blair’s successor David Cameron a role model for his troubled administration.
On the surface, the aristocratic, well-heeled Cameron, the son of a wealthy stockbroker and husband to an heiress (he is now estimated to be worth 30 million pounds), might seem a poor match for the self-made community organizer from Chicago. But Cameron’s philosophy — which melds liberal social and environmental concerns with fiscal conservatism — could prove useful to the U.S. president, particularly since Obama’s initial plan (massive expansion of the federal welfare state) has been made moot by the recent election. Cameron’s “One Nation” Toryism offers a model of governmental activism while accommodating anti-deficit sentiment that has grown in both countries.
But Cameron’s politics share more with Obama’s than meets the eye. Like the Obama, he is articulate, attractive and young — at 44 he is five years younger than the U.S. president. And he is determined to reshape his party’s image. Cameron represents a break from what we might consider rightist conservatism. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, Cameron reflects gentry, not middle-class, conservative values; much like Obama he appeals more to the well-educated segments of society. Enterprise, the breaking down of class structures and expanding opportunity and ownership do not rank among Cameron’s priorities. The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer suggests that Cameron shares some similarities with Harold MacMillan, who sought to put a more human face of Britain’s notoriously rigid class system rather than upending it entirely.
Cameron’s Conservatives, locked in a governing alliance with the Liberal Democrats, also eschew the unattractive views, common on the continental right, about immigrants or minorities. These enlightened social attitudes reflect the class consensus of the upper echelons of post-industrial Britain — much as Obama’s social views resonate with the U.S.’ academic, media and financial sectors.
The big banks represent the most important gentry constituency on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington the new Chief of Staff, crony capitalist extraordinaire Bill Daley, will strongly reflect their interests. In both countries, the financial services industry has benefited more from government largesse and monetary policy than any other sector. Less than three years from helping sink the world economy, firms in the City in London and Wall Street in New York are minting money and handing out lush bonuses. In London, developers are considering building new office complexes. The restaurants and fancy shops, from the City and Mayfair to the West End, like their counterparts in swank parts of Manhattan, are thriving.
This prosperity, of course, contrasts dramatically with conditions outside the financial sector. Like the American industrial heartland, areas outside the largely prosperous southeastern U.K. are struggling. Some of these areas, notes Conservative MP Mark Field, resemble “Stalinist Russia” in their near total dependence on government spending. Any significant cutbacks in government expenditures will hit these areas hardest.
These areas would benefit most from expansive, pro-growth policies that encourage building new plants, research facilities and business services outside London’s swanky precincts. But Cameron, like Obama, seems more interested in promoting “hip” urbanism focused on high-end services, media and cultural exports than in rebuilding Britain’s declining middle-class job base.
Cameron’s political “green act,” as Heffer calls it, reflects aristocratic attitudes and a keen reading of “focus groups.” Unlike the current crop of conservatives in Washington, Cameron’s Conservatives embrace the global warming agenda about as fully as their Labour predecessors. They embrace all the policies — high-speed rail, pro-density planning policies, massive subsidization of renewable fuel — that remain critical Obama policies.
Cameron’s Conservatives have even sought to limit the construction of new runways at Heathrow, the country’s main airport, in order to stop what the government has called “binge flying.” Of course, this usually refers to middle-class people taking cheap vacations on low-cost airlines. After all, much higher airfares won’t much affect the financial sector, which can easily absorb them.
Green land-use policy is also useful to the City, notes the pro-development group Audacity, since it serves to constrict supply and bolster the value of mortgages by keeping prices artificially high. The U.K. suffers a perennial shortage of homes that already has reached 1 million, a number likely to double in the following decade. No surprise then that British property prices, compared to incomes, are among the highest in the world, particularly in and around London.
The City, like Wall Street and Silicon Valley, hopes to make a killing on “cap and trade” as well as a host of renewable energy schemes. For Obama, who is anxious to repair relations with big business, green politics represents a potential windfall, bringing him accolades from both the financial hegemons and parts of his enviro-focused “progressive” base.
Yet a combined policy of fiscal austerity and green regulations could also suppress growth across the broader economy outside the high-end financial and service sector. Opposition to new fossil fuel plants, opting instead for expensive and highly subsidized wind-energy could double U.K. energy by 2030. Faced with competition from developing countries willing to burn coal, oil and perhaps anything flammable, and lacking the hydro-resources of Scandinavia or the nuclear industry of France, British the U.K. will face ever great obstacles in the global marketplace
Overall Cameron’s policies, notes author James Heartfield, will likely intensify class barriers in Britain. Over this cold, snowy winter as many as 25,000 people have died from exposure, in large part because they cannot afford higher energy bills. Millions of homes, schools and hospitals face winter fuel-rationing.
Similarly, the Tory resistance to building new suburban housing will not only deprive people of the option of a decent, low-density lifestyle, but it will also strip jobs from the historically well-paying blue-collar construction trades. Under current policies, notes one recent study, prospective homeowners will face “mortgage misery” for the rest of the decade.
Of course, these policies present political risks. Conservative poll ratings are up slightly, but Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, who appeal more to centrist voters, are fading rapidly. A year after its resounding defeat, Labour has surged to a slight lead in the polls.
Yet given the current reality, a Cameron-like embrace of austerity coupled with green policies represents a positive strategy for the Obama Administration. Just as Cameron has sought to redefine conservativism with a humane face, Obama could concoct a modern progressivism that is both green and fiscally responsible. By 2012, the radical community organizer could well morph into an entirely new persona: Barack Cameron.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.