“I have heard more about conservative values in one hour in Philadelphia than I have heard in years in the Conservative Party”. So said one of the Conservative MEPs with me on a visit to the 34th Annual Meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Philadelphia (July 25/29).
ALEC is a major US public policy institute bringing together hundreds of conservative State legislators with an A-list of corporate partners. They debate policy, develop model legislation, and provide a major force for conservative values in American politics. And they talk constantly and confidently about their core beliefs, or as they would put it, “Jeffersonian Principles”.
They believe in Freedom. In liberty with responsibility. Enterprise and free markets. Small government and low taxes. Family and nation. Indeed much the same values as those of our own Freedom Association, of which I recently became Honorary Chairman. And they proclaim those values. It was a rare speech in Philadelphia which did not hit some of those hot buttons, and each time the speaker was rewarded by a warm audience response.
In my experience most British Conservatives would instinctively endorse those values – though we might call them Thatcherite rather than Jeffersonian. So why don’t we talk about them? We hear constant complaints that no one knows what the Party stands for. We talk about moving to the middle ground, or “lurching to the right”, as though we had no underlying philosophy at all. David Cameron says we want to give more power to the people and less to government, which is fine so far as it goes, but it needs more context, more explanation, more examples.
In Philadelphia I had the privilege not only of shaking hands with George W. Bush, but also of meeting two of the current Republican presidential hopefuls, Mike Huckabee (who made a storming speech) and Fred Thompson. I loved one line from Fred:
“I believe that you can’t spend more than you’ve got coming in. You can’t tax people into prosperity. You can’t pay people more to stay home than to go to work. And criminals can’t commit crimes when they’re behind bars. Does that sound like common sense? It’s not very common in Washington!”.
I recently tried this line on a Conservative audience. It went down a storm.
Thompson might have added “And you can’t make bad schools better by making good schools worse”. There is a big head of steam in the US behind “School Choice”. Here at home, and despite good work by people like Civitas, the issue has scarcely surfaced. We’re still stuck in a sterile debate about whether the state should impose one single model (comprehensive) or a dual model (comprehensive + grammar). City academies seem to be just fiddling at the margin.
Why can’t we get really radical and have the state (and local bureaucracies) imposing nothing at all? Why don’t we let schools – parents, governors, teachers – set their own standards, and let the market-place pass judgement on the result? The state should be no more than the funder of last resort, not the imposer of models, still less the would-be micro-manager we see today. We need our own version of “Americans for School Choice”. Maybe Graham Brady MP would be the man to kick-start it.
Our American friends talk a lot about federalism – but not the Brussels kind. They mean almost the opposite – States’ Rights, 10th Amendment, “Powers not delegated (to the federal government) are reserved for the States … or to the people”. Indeed to coin a phrase, we could call it “localism”.
In Philadelphia I went for the mandatory photo-opportunity at the Liberty Bell. And I bought the T-Shirt with the flag, the bell, and the slogan “Let Freedom Ring”. That is the message from Philadelphia that the Conservative Party should take to heart.