Having written my first book, based on an Oxford doctorate on economic policy-making by British Conservatives during the Depression of the 1930s, I have been intrigued by the mix of change and continuity located in the approach of David Cameron's government.
A quick trip to Britain in the wake of the British "No" at the EU summit, however, rekindled an interest in discussing more explicitly how strong the echoes of the past are in shaping the British response under conditions of hard times.
One notable similarity that jumps out is the strong sense of exceptionalism located in the thinking and policy playbook among British Conservatives in both the 1930s and now. The difference, of course, is that there was greater space to express this exceptionalism in the 1930s through symbolically significant, if not instrumentally successful, initiatives such as the campaign for an extension of imperial trade preferences.
Now Britain is stuck on the periphery of Europe geo-economically, if not mentally. British exceptionalsim is expressed most robustly through a sense of triumphalism for having retained the pound sterling over the euro, allowing Britain room for manoeuvre in battles over perceived French pushes for greater regulation over the financial City of London, German ascendancy in terms of control over the EU agenda in terms of economic/political union and the fallout from the excesses of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).
The second theme that captures attention is the persistent enthusiasm by British Conservatives to austerity, notwithstanding the implications for greater unemployment and social unrest. In the 1930s British Conservatives stuck rigidly to orthodoxy as opposed to initiating a replica of the U.S. New Deal as campaigned for by J.M. Keynes and others.
The mantra continued to be cutting the deficit and the state of national finances. Only when 'confidence' had been restored through rigid spending cuts could any departure in fiscal policy be contemplated. The parallel with current Conservative attitudes is striking. Likewise, British Conservatives in the 1930s - as now - resisted any move to cheapen money as the U.S. did both under President Roosevelt with the devaluation of the dollar and the Obama administration with quantitative easing. Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer through much of the Depression, regarded any currency 'manipulation' or 'auctions' with deep suspicion.
The third sign of similarity is the blend of political dominance by key Conservative politicians in coalitional settings. From 1931, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain led the national government containing some Liberal cabinet ministers - a situation with parallels to the current coalition government containing Liberal Democrats. In both cases, though, dominance should not be equated with visionary leadership. It is the very ordinariness of the mode of leadership animated by Neville Chamberlain - labelled famously as a good mayor of Birmingham in a lean year - that is remembered. So it may transpire concerning the historical assessments of Cameron's performance, already castigated by his Liberal Democrat partners as going into the EU summit with "no intelligence, no friends and no flexibility." Indeed, the rush by Conservatives to use the words from the past of Mrs Thatcher as a guide for action illustrates that vision - even if it is used to defend British exceptionalism - will need to come from beyond the current leadership.
The fourth area of convergence is the role of the media in influencing ideological attitudes. As an outsider, it is always fascinating to see the headlines of so many newspapers in their hostility to the EU, Sarko and other French politicians when so many of their readers enjoy European/French wine and food, vacations, and in numerous cases second holiday homes. The parallels with the out in front role taken on by the major media barons in the 1930s in campaigning for imperial free trade is compelling.
The major difference I find between the Conservatives of the 1930s and now comes out in the ambit of their economic priorities. Although much of the application of the approach can be severely critiqued, including the moves to apply protectionist measures, there is no question that the national government was trying to act on behalf of not just the City of London and financial interests, but also to some degree at least manufacturers and agriculturalists. The current Conservatives seem very different, with an eye to defending financial interests at all costs even if it means sacrificing the remaining manufacturers of Neville Chamberlain's Birmingham or other sites and the British shopkeepers and affluent workers (the so-called Essex man) so central to the consistency of Margaret Thatcher.
The Cameron veto on a treaty of euro-surveillance is a turn back to a defensive and insular approach that bigger Conservative politicians in the past would not have been trapped in. From this perspective, the Cameron approach not only makes Britain the odd country out but makes its brand of Conservatism a sharp departure from the past.