Alex Massie

The Danger of Wanting to be Californian

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Fraser's article on the Californification of the Tory party is a splendid piece of work and highly recommended. I enjoyed it very much. And yet, the more one thinks about it, the more problematic, and perhaps even contradicory, some parts of this vision of a Tory future seemed to be.

For one thing, it seems as though the California the Tories hope to learn from is actually a pretty small and exceedingly wealthy corner of a large and complicated state. That is, there's rather more to California than Cupertino and Palo Alto. The Bay Area is a lovely, lovely part of the world but it's hardly representative of its own state, let alone an obviously replicable vehicle for economic and - as the modern Tories might put it - "lifestyle" growth. Equally, if you were to pick a place to reinforce the notion that the party leadership is so wealthy and comfortably off that it struggles to appreciate the concerns of the Average Joe then, yup, San Francisco and the Bay Area might be the place you'd choose. It doesn't get much more comfortably "elitist" than that. (This is unfair of course, but it's the perception that counts). 

Furthermore, is it entirely wise, in the present economic and political climate, to be quite so closely associated with what one might term a globalised elite? The world looks rather different from Mountain View than it does from, say, Oakland. A Tory party that wants to be, in Fraser's words, "dynamic, high-tech, green and 'family-friendly'" is all very well and good, but what about the concerns of Main Street? That is to say: living in a Google world is fine, but it's not enough. This apparent love affair with the Bay Area elite is fine, but it risks leaving the Tory party associated with the families in the mansions, not the ordinary working man. For that matter, much of California's economy is dependent upon cheap immigrant labour (not all of it legally resident in the state). That doesn't seem likely to be part of the Tory message for Britain. Here too one sees a dangerous divide between the educated "winners" and the low-paid "losers" (to put matters rather and perhaps too crudely).

This divide is already apparent in the United States: Barack Obama won 78 of the 100 counties with the highest percentage of college graduates; by contrast John McCain won many of the poorest counties in the nation. The risk the Tories run in associating themselves so clearly with the international elite is that they'll face a populist backlash too ("British jobs for British workers" is just the stat of it). In other words, the Conservatives will be the Democrats and Labour the Republicans. Right now the winds are blowing in the Tories favour, but will this always be so? I think elites do matter, but they're not enough on their own.

For that matter, Fraser's piece glosses over the fact that California, for all its splendour, is also something of a basket-case. There are plenty of local reasons for this, of course, and, happily, there's no sense, one hopes, in which the conservatives are going to draw inspiration from the Golden State's horrific, and costly, prison system.

Nonetheless, one reason California is such a mess is the ease with which populist ballot initiatives are passed. Generally speaking, these have severely limited the state's ability to fund services (placing severe restrictions on property taxes, for example), leading to an ongoing fiscal crisis that destroyed Governor Gray Davis and has all but done in Arnold Schwarzenegger too. The Tories' proposals for referenda on rejecting hefty tax increases owe something to the progressive tradition in the western parts of the United States. That's the "progressive" part of "progressive Conservatism"; the Tory part of it is a little harder to discern. Certainly, it's not impossible to imagine British local authorities eventually facing a fiscal crisis comparable to that currently crippling many American states, including, of course, California.

As it happens, I'm generally in favour of ballot initiatives since Mencken's view that "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard" has much to commend it. This is true even when said initiatives have negative consequences. If that's what the people want, then fine. Placing a populist check on government is a good thing, but, like everything else, it can have negative consequences. Would a Tory government really let Birmingham go bust? I doubt it. Yet without that moral hazard, the value of diverting power away from Whitehall and back to the cities is severely reduced. The theory behind the Tories localism agenda - some of it borrowed from the United States, of course - is fine, but absent reform of local government finance, it's a much smaller thing than it might otherwise be, This may reduce the potential for catastrophic losses, but it also places a ceiling on the benefits such reform might hope to inspire. In other words, it's less than it might or could be.

The name that's missing from Fraser's piece is Thomas Friedman. Yet reading the article one could not help but be struck by how much of it seemed inspired by Friedman's vision of a world flattened - to everyone's benefit - by globalisation. The World is Flat, according to Friedman. Or at least it used to be. I think even he might acknowledge that it's now a little more mountainous than he suggested and that there are more problems with his short-history of the 21st century than seemed obvious when he wrote the book.

Now I'd quite like the world to be as flat as Friedman and George Osbourne and Steve Hilton seem to think it is. It suits my prejudices and, frankly, interests.  But I'm not sure it is like that and it seems to me that for all the attractions of hi-tech dynamism and family-friendly workplaces, this is not necessarily what the electorate is interested in right now. That is to say, there are dangers and downsides to too much California Dreaming.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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