March 16, 2006,
London Buyer’s remorse has broken out among British Tories. They have cooled on David Cameron, the new Conservative opposition leader.
“He’s gone mushy,” complains Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Sitting in the Adam and Eve Pub across Petty France Street from the Home Office’s monstrous former headquarters, Elliott adds: “Cameron’s small bounce in the polls is down to his full head of hair, his attractive wife, and the fact he’s just become a father. Ditching popular policies such as lower taxes will leave him exposed when the novelty of having a youthful leader fades away.”
In a February 25 cover story (as illustrated below), The Spectator’s associate editor, Fraser Nelson, warns of Cameron’s “ideological surrender” and laments Cameron’s own words: “I don’t suppose anyone gets up in the morning thinking, ‘I wish the state were smaller.’”
The Daily Express’s editorialists dismiss “the timid Tories of David Cameron” for not offering dramatic alternatives to Britain’s luxuriant government programs. As David Green, director of the free-market think tank Civitas, complained in the January 5 Daily Telegraph, “By ruling out education vouchers, social health insurance, and radical welfare reform, Mr. Cameron has revealed himself as a paternalist.” Green scathingly compares Cameron to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Tony Blair’s presumptive successor as Labour Prime Minister. Cameron’s “emerging policies,” Green writes, “reveal a person more like Gordon Brown, who combines disdain for the masses with a belief that they need most things done for them by a kindly state, run by people of superior insight.”
On February 28 Cameron unveiled “Built to Last,” a mini-platform on which some 250,000 Tory party members will vote yea or nay. This statement combines unobjectionable bromides with surprisingly leftish objectives. “Security and freedom must go hand in hand,” it declares. “The quality of life matters, as well as the quantity of money.” Who could disagree? More worrisome is a call for “a sustainable environment,” usually code for interventionism. Blunter still: “We believe in the role of government as a force for good ... It should support the shared experiences that bring us together such as sport, the arts, and culture.”
This really aggravates Tory true believers: “We will put economic stability and fiscal responsibility first. They must come before tax cuts.” Typically lacking “irresponsible” tax cuts, much of Europe is quite stable, with annual GDP growth languishing at 1 or 2 percent. Far more attractive is India’s “unstable” 7.5 percent expansion.
Avowed Thatcherite Lord Norman Tebbit told reporters, “Every one of those things could be listed in a Labour manifesto.”
For a Reaganite visiting kindred spirits during a cold-but-sunny week here, the Tory landscape looks drearily familiar. Like Beltway GOP leadership, “the Cameroons” have yielded to the Leviathan. Want more government? Vote Labour or Republican, Conservative or Democrat. It doesn’t matter. They all expand the state.
Pity. There is so much here the Tories should offer to fix, streamline, or abolish.
First, Labour has increased British taxes beyond those in Germany. The Organization for Economic Coöperation and Development (OECD) reports that taxes and fees have ballooned from 39.3 percent of GDP in 1997, when Blair entered 10 Downing Street, to 42.4 percent in 2006. The equivalent German figures are 45.6 percent then and 42.1 percent now. (The American numbers are 34.6 percent in 1997 and 32.7 percent today.)
“As the share of government spending in the economy has risen toward 45 percent of GDP, the tax burden is set to rise to its highest level for 35 years,” warns a 2005 study by EEF, a British manufacturers association. “The direction of change in the UK is out of step with other OECD countries, which are trying to reduce the role of government in their economies.”
The grassroots TaxPayers’ Alliance is fighting back. Under the slogan, “If you don’t trust politicians, why trust them with so much of your money?” the TPA has grown from 7,000 to 10,000 members since Cameron became Tory leader last December.
TPA activists delivered 200,000 signatures to Blair’s and Brown’s offices on February 28 demanding the death tax’s repeal. According to The Daily Express, which is crusading with the TPA to bury the levy, Michael Butler, 28, a Henley-on-Thames carpenter, secured a mortgage just to pay the £167,000 ($300,000) death tax on the home his grandfather bequeathed him.
“I don’t care about the money,” Butler said. “I just don’t understand why my family should lose something we have owned for hundreds of years.” Butler’s ancestors have lived under that roof since 1648 128 years before America’s birth.
Second, the TPA’s Matthew Elliott identifies £82 billion ($147.6 billion) of annual waste in the British budget. That’s £4,000 ($7,200) per family. The Bumper Book of Government Waste, which he just co-authored, cites a £77,000 ($138,000) British Arts Council grant to send artists to build a snowman at the North Pole. A £225,000 ($405,000) scheme teaches elderly women how to wear house slippers so they avoid slips and falls. An estimated 400 governmental “Five a Day” advisors earn £30,000–£35,000 ($54,000–$63,000) each urging Britons to consume at least five pieces of fresh fruit every 24 hours. Between 2002 and 2006, the British government devoted £100 million ($180 million) to keep 25,000 homes empty for asylum applicants.
Third, the Tories should repel Britain’s ever-advancing army of regulators. For instance, Brula, a delightful Twickenham bistro, buys its ice cream from a nearby supplier.
“They have an ice cream license, and we don’t,” Brula’s manager informs me. He says any British restaurant that serves homemade ice cream needs one license for the establishment and another permit for the chef who actually makes the stuff. Why? “You could cook the milk at the wrong temperature,” he speculates. True. But botching mixed greens could sicken patrons, too. So, why not salad licenses?
In another masterstroke, British gas-station convenience stores now need licenses to serve hot food and drinks between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. These initially cost up to £635 ($1,143) and up to £350 for annual renewal ($657). Some owners will balk at this absurd expense, leaving drowsy drivers yearning for coffee or tea. The truly exhausted among them may doze off and smack into trees. What a concept.
Following the European Union’s lead, meanwhile, Labour will require parents to keep children in automobile booster seats until age 11. Tell that to an 11-year-old. Parents who violate this new rule could be fined £500 ($900).
Citing British Chamber of Commerce figures, the March 1 Daily Telegraph reported that red tape has cost £50.3 billion ($90.54 billion) since Labour’s 1997 election. Tory Trade and Industry spokesman Alan Duncan said Blair’s government has amended only 27 regulations since 2001, while it has imposed 17,800 new rules.
Under their previous leader, Michael Howard, Conservatives failed to oust Labour, but they grew 19 percent, from 166 seats to 198. They did this, partially, by advancing a modest, £8 billion ($14.4 billion) tax cut. A bolder proposal could have won more seats last time and could do so again.
On taxes and more, David Cameron and his Cameroons should heed this advice, equally valid on either shore of the Atlantic, from former House Majority Leader Dick Armey: “When we act like us, we win; when we act like them, we lose.”
Deroy Murdock is a New York based-columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.