Anglosphere conservatives have reason to be a bit pessimistic these days. Donald Trump’s usurpation of the Republican Party and the political defeats of Stephen Harper in Canada and Tony Abbott in Australia have come to be seen as a collective setback for the ideas that animate modern conservatism.
For many conservatives, British Prime Minister Theresa May is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak political environment. She has come out of the Brexit referendum with considerable political strength and now seems poised to win a renewed parliamentary majority in next week’s election. Her working-class conservatism has been characterized as a model for other Anglosphere conservatives to emulate in a populist age including by The New York Times’s Ross Douthat and National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty.
There is much to like in Ms. May’s recently released election manifesto. Her rhetoric is steeped in long-standing conservative principles such as a Burkean respect for the enduring relationship between past, present, and future generations. Her global orientation and commitment to free trade should also put to rest false claims that Brexit was about racism or simply an inward turn.
But the Conservative Party’s manifesto also exhibits the tensions with which reform conservatives in the United States and conservatives in Canada are grappling. It is one thing to apply conservative ideas such as markets and choices to working-class issues and concerns. But it is something else entirely to adopt left-wing prescriptions. There are aspects of Mayism that undeniably fall into the latter category.
Thus the Conservative Party’s manifesto has been criticized in some quarters. Public intellectual Andrew Roberts has called it “troubling” and a “programme of social engineering.” Cato Institute economist Ryan Bourne has described it as “extremely disappointing for those of a classical liberal persuasion.” And The Economist has claimed that Ms. May’s instincts are “more interventionist than any predecessor since Edward Heath in 1965–75.”
Some of these right-wing critiques are justified. Promoting a modern industrial strategy, backtracking on deficit reduction, and a propensity for heavy-handed regulation (including for instance the Internet) are not just deviations from conservative orthodoxy. Such proposals ignore the evidence of the failures of similar policies over the past several decades. Whether these positions have been adopted out of personal conviction or political calculus, conservative critics are correct to point out their flaws.
But in other areas conservatives ought to be more forbearing. Mayism may be imperfect, but it represents a worthwhile process of intellectual trial and error in which conservatives today must engage. Rooting conservative ideas in the “interests of ordinary, working families” is the right goal, even if the translation of this vision into a true conservative policy agenda remains an incomplete project.
It may be said, therefore, that even where Mayism fails, it represents the wrong answer to the right question. And it is a worthwhile pursuit for conservatives to find the right answers.
Remember that Ms. May’s manifesto is an outgrowth of the Brexit vote and Mr. Trump’s unexpected election. These two watershed political events necessitated conservative introspection and adjustment. To address legitimate populist concerns about financial security, community cohesion, and unequal opportunities requires some rethinking of conservative orthodoxy. It does not mean the abandonment of principles but, rather, a re-application of them.
Here is where Ms. May’s political vision is worthy of attention across the pond. Her working-class instincts are a proper grounding for the current political milieu. Her policy orientation with a focus on working-class opportunity is a useful adjustment to a mainstream politics that has come to be seen as too disconnected from interests, concerns, and the aspirations of working men and women. It is a critical conservative antidote to the unmoored populism of Mr. Trump or the backward-looking leftism of Jeremy Corbyn.
To the extent that Ms. May’s political vision has produced infelicitous policy proposals, the problem is not with the underlying ideas or the reformist impulse so much as the challenges of translating principles into policy. This is particularly so in new and evolving areas such as modern skills-training and the digital economy.
What is the conservative response to worker dislocation caused by automation and other technological advances? How do conservatives reconcile greater labor mobility and the maintenance of a community ethic? And, more generally, how can we best realize the benefits of dynamic capitalism while supporting those adversely affected by the process of creative destruction? Answering these questions may involve revisiting old assumptions or breaking new ground. It is inevitable that this process will be evolutionary and produce some misses along the way. But it is still worth doing.
Conservatives cannot afford to be silent on pressing working-class concerns. Otherwise, wrong-headed — and un-conservative — ideas, such as Mr. Trump’s or Mr. Corbyn’s, will fill the political void.
Fortunately, there are lessons to be shared across the Anglosphere. The national and local circumstances may be different, but because we share common cultures, institutions, and values, we have plenty to learn from one another in this search for ideas and answers.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservatism should be one such example for conservatives, including Ms. May. He once said:
If you make conservatism relevant to ordinary working people, you make it the most powerful political philosophy in Western democratic society. Where Conservative parties are successful, and successful on a sustained basis, that’s what they do.
Mr. Harper’s 10-year record contributed to new conservative policies related to child care, technical education, poverty, and homelessness, among others. In so doing, he rebuilt Conservative support among working-class Canadians.
Mr. Harper’s government was also, of course, imperfect. But he understood that conservatism needed to be about more than a finite set of supply-side policy prescriptions. A successful conservative vision requires the application of fixed principles to dynamic questions.
This brings us to the efforts of reform conservatives in the United States. Conservatives such as Reihan Salam, Yuval Levin, and Ramesh Ponnuru began arguing pre-Trump that U.S. conservatism needed to shift its focus to working-class concerns. The Republican Party failed to heed their advice. We now know the outcome.
There should therefore be a more attentive audience for their vision today. Early signs are positive. Mr. Trump’s election has caused a sharpened interest in modifying and adding to the conservative agenda in the name of building a broader coalition of political support — particularly among working-class Americans. It is a healthy impulse that is already producing fresh ideas and perspectives, including (but hardly limited to) paid-leave for working parents, anti-poverty reforms, and the liberalization of exclusionary zoning.
These are good first steps, but much more work is needed to develop and popularize a working-class conservatism for the U.S. political context. It will not be easy. The reform conservatives are up against challenging odds including institutional and political inertia, and establishmentarian and donor-class resistance. Meanwhile, President Trump’s personal and policy failings are not helping the cause.
An iterative process of trial and error launched by Ms. May’s manifesto should aid in these efforts. Anglosphere conservatives should be prepared to participate in and support this agenda, even if it is experimental and even imperfect.
Mayism is a sincere yet flawed attempt at reform or applied conservatism. The onus is now on the rest of us to build on and improve it, rather than simply point out its weaknesses or revert to the status quo. The fortunes of both conservatism and the working class depend on it.
Sean Speer is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Canada.