On a visit to Washington DC in 2012 Barack Obama and David Cameron spoke as one. The ‘special relationship’ (a term only used in the UK) was on show. Still, the terms were glowing. President Obama portrayed a “rock-solid alliance” as constant in an ever-changing world. Prime Minister Cameron went further to describe the relationship as “the United States of Liberty and Enterprise”.
It was obvious the two men shared more than just speech notes. In many ways, David Cameron is the most American of British Prime Ministers. He’s a cultural liberal and fiscal conservative, to take the US phraseology. On Cameron’s watch the Conservative Party has embraced same-sex marriage and distanced itself from issues like Section 28. David Cameron seeks a ‘big society’ in the sense that he wants to withdraw the state from society and not just the economy. This is the essence of classical liberalism.
This scepticism of power extends to the European Union. The Conservative government has now committed itself to a referendum in 2017. The stakes are big. Europe has been the dividing issue going back decades. Much of liberal cosmopolitan Britain wants the best of both worlds: the American Anglosphere and European integration. While a lot of English people resent Brussels and Strasbourg for an array of reasons – part fear of immigration, part anxiety of a precarious work life – it seems Welsh and Scottish nationalists view the European Union as an alternative to the British Union.
Of course, Whitehall looks westward for its alternative to Europe. This is nothing new. It’s the reason why the UK followed the US into Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to overlook Libya and Syria. The British government now sends military advisers and trainers to Ukraine. The military establishment can pretend it stands tall on the world-stage. So the former empire plays host to US military bases and nuclear weapons. This is despite the catastrophes of the last 15 years. As Gore Vidal put it “This isn’t a country, it’s an American aircraft carrier.”
At the same time, the bulk of the British economy can see the benefits of European integration. The financial colossus in Canary Wharf has long been pro-European. It only fears the possibility of regulation and taxation by a foreign power. As a capital-intensive sector, the finance markets can see the benefits of open borders and international cooperation. Equally, the service sector will always have a role for inflows of cheap labour. The same can be said of the shrinking industrial and agricultural sectors.
Once it was the financial system that was open to social democracy. This has changed, but its history can still be detected. In 2011, David Cameron was willing to veto EU proposals to institute minor regulatory and tax mechanisms over finance. The fact that he, effectively, vetoed measures to limit spending across the EU was lost on him. It was a chance to entrench austerity across the region, but Cameron opposed it. Perhaps the Prime Minister knows history.
In 1990, the UK entered the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. John Major had persuaded Margaret Thatcher it was the best move. The logic: lock the pound in with the deutschmark, to constrain inflation, and keep interest rates low. Two years later John Major would eat his words. Black Wednesday forced Britain to withdraw from the ERM. Interest rates rose to 15%, and the pound was devalued. The markets ate through the Bank of England’s reserves at £2 billion an hour.
Following the crisis, the UK economy would enter over 15 years of economic growth. The Conservative government would never recover. Cameron has a narrow line to walk. He has to satisfy the right-wing opposition to Europe. But he can’t jeopardise the interests vested in the European project. After all, it is a neoliberal system. It’s plausible the Prime Minister will lose his footing. The fallout will be hard to recover from. The same can be said for the possibility of another financial crisis.
Nonetheless, the social and economic impact will remain with us. This means the concentration of vast wealth in a few hands, while the rest of society is doomed to a precarious life of endless toil. David Cameron has been fairly open about his ideological commitment. It was in late 2013 that the Prime Minister said: “We are sticking to the task. But that doesn’t just mean making difficult decisions on public spending… It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.”
Traditionally, in economic liberalism social constraints are predicated upon economic liberty, whereas in social liberalism, individual liberty is set loose from economic constraints. The complete transformation of the state and society by market forces might take us beyond this dichotomy. The social system may not be able to propel itself forward. But it can well initiate structural adjustments. It’s not simply the small state, which remains heavily indebted; it is the renewal of disciplinary pressures against the working-class.
What we might call ‘Cameron time’ stands up for American-style queer equality, as much as it does for tax havens, quantitative easing and austerity measures. Even when it comes to immigration and multiculturalism, the framework remains liberal albeit of the ‘muscular’ variety. There is no chance of repatriation, but refugees will be left to die at sea. It’s the stuff of libertarian wet dreams. Yet it’s precisely because of this, that the liberal capitalist party has largely conjured up the populist carcinoma of nationalism. This is where Cameron differs with American small-government liberalism.