Were she still alive, Margaret Thatcher would be rather pleased with today’s governments in what used to be called the countries of the “white Commonwealth” and are still occasionally known as the Anglosphere.
Mrs. Thatcher’s children, intellectually speaking, are prime ministers in four countries: Tony Abbott in Australia, Stephen Harper in Canada, David Cameron in Britain and John Key in New Zealand.
They are obviously not carbon copies of the Iron Lady, as their respective countries’ different political and economic circumstances require different approaches. But these conservative prime ministers are Thatcherites at heart. They see the state more as an impediment to growth and social progress than an asset, they think tax rates are too high and they believe the private sector can run most things most efficiently.
Mr. Abbott is the latest proponent of the foundational belief that the state runs many things more poorly than the private sector does. In a country where major public assets have already been sold off – from ports to power distribution networks – Mr. Abbott speaks about finding upward of $100-billion in additional assets to put on the block. In Britain, Mr. Cameron’s government recently privatized the Royal Mail – a step too far for Mr. Harper, who authorized the shrinking of Canada Post, including the end of home mail delivery, but did not espouse privatization.
In Britain, Canada and New Zealand, large cuts have been made to the civil service, a Thatcherite recipe. So, too, the remuneration and pensions of public servants have come under assault. Similar policies are about to unfold in Australia, where Mr. Abbott is promising huge public servant cuts. The government has no more money, Finance Minister Joe Hockey – he should be a Canadian with a name like that – has declared, a statement more founded in ideology than fact.
Economic policy in these countries reflects a much broader and deeper shift in conservative thinking that is also apparent in the Republican Party of the United States. Moderate conservatives Mrs. Thatcher once scorned – “High Tories” with a sense of noblesse oblige about the less fortunate, weak-kneed worriers about social unrest, politicians who saw something called society instead of an agglomeration of individuals – have all but disappeared from today’s conservative parties.
In Australia, if one goes back a few conservative leaders, one recalls Malcolm Fraser and Robert Menzies. Canada had Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. In the United States, there were the northeastern “Rockefeller” Republicans. And in Britain, there were Mrs. Thatcher’s “wets,” who she replaced, banished or marginalized – men such as Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine and Francis Pym.
Today, the conservative Anglosphere world is a deeply populist one, suspicious of government and people who work for it, angry at secular elites, not particularly partial to big business, convinced that the main objective of overall policy should be to balance budgets, reduce taxes and alleviate burdens on the loosely defined middle class.
The flip side of this approach is an aversion to any kind of “vision” for society, because vision usually means mobilizing the resources of the state for some collective purpose, and populist conservatives don’t believe there’s much the state can get right.
The irony of this drift (an irony not exclusive to conservatives) is that it often promises more than it delivers. In Canada, for example, the civil service swelled and government spending went up way above the inflation rate under Mr. Harper’s government before the recession of 2008. In the United States, president Ronald Reagan produced only federal deficits, as did George W. Bush.
Australia’s Mr. Abbott pledges to balance his budget without raising taxes – a standard conservative approach. He’s already killed a carbon tax and promises lower taxes on corporations and businesses.
But he faces another problem similar to those of the other countries. The last Australian auto makers, General Motors and Toyota, have just announced that they’re closing shop. Australia has already lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, like Canada, Britain and the United States. Qantas, the money-losing Australian airline, has just announced 5,000 job cuts.
With parts of the economy hollowing out, public employment shrinking and global economic growth still fragile, these conservative governments have their hands full boosting their economies.