[Viewpoint] Keys to conservatism’s survival

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[Viewpoint] Keys to conservatism’s survival

Questions about the viability of conservative politics led me to write a book about the history of Britain’s Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, colloquially called the Tories, has maintained political leadership and competitiveness over two centuries.

It made me wonder how British conservatives managed to defend their principles and values against tumultuous changes over the years while many other European states underwent seismic revolutions and wars.

The question resurfaced while reading American billionaire Warren Buffett’s recent powerful op-ed in The New York Times, titled “Stop Coddling Super Rich.”

In the article, Buffett suggested that higher taxes be levied on the “mega-rich” like him so they can pay their fair share to society and help ease the federal deficit.

Some of his best billionaire friends like Bill Gates and George Soros agree. Regardless of how much wealth they have, it is still refreshing to hear someone so eager to pay more taxes.

Why does he want “shared sacrifice”? Maybe he is a liberal at heart. In Korea, he may be even referred to as a socialist. But Buffett is too rich and too capitalistic to fit those definitions.

From another perspective, however, Buffett could be regarded as self-centered and extremely shrewd. He is one of the biggest beneficiaries from the difficult times America is going through. If tax hikes on the rich can help the United States amid the country’s disgraceful downgrade of its sovereign credit rating and revitalize the economy, it would be wealthy asset-holders like him who would benefit the most.

His proposal could also give hope to and ease anxiety for the majority of the nation’s population - who are distressed by the current economic order and are struggling to make ends meet - if economic and social problems could be ameliorated without further sacrifice on their part. In any case, he would gain more than lose.

The ongoing dispute over labor and welfare issues in Korea can be strangely compared to the situation in Britain in the 1920s. The British had been battling a sharp increase in unemployment as well as a recession. Their key industries - such as steelmaking, shipbuilding and mining - were threatened by rival countries. Their social welfare programs in environment, housing and public health were sapped.

The entire European continent was swept up by socialism. In Britain, the liberal Labour Party became a formidable contender to the Conservative Party. Stanley Baldwin was the leader of the Conservative Party at the time. He came from a wealthy family in the iron and steelmaking business, and after winning the general election in October 1924, he touted a new form of conservatism to accommodate the needs of the time. He pledged social integration, industrial partnership, agreement instead of conflict and restoration of public credibility and confidence.

Under his leadership, British conservatives sought moderate center-right policies and persuaded the public that they were not antilabour. The Tories treated the main opposition Labour Party with due respect. No major labor protests were reported during his government.

Baldwin’s biggest legacy - one that still dominates the country’s Conservative Party - is the One Nation Conservative, a political stance aspiring for social harmony rather than polarization. Britain’s leadership remained resilient even as other European nations were challenged and toppled by fascist and communist forces. This sort of pre-emptive move has kept the Conservatives’ power intact.

The conservatives in our society are overly self-conscious and muted on the welfare dispute. We can only assume that they are disinterested in sharing the pain of their communities stemming from economic difficulties and polarization. Any mention of shared sacrifice, responsibility or raising taxes leads to being stigmatized as a leftist.

In a democratic society, it is hard to maintain current values simply with force and ideological rhetoric. As Britain’s legacy evinces, conservative values can be sustained upon a consensus that the current order is worthy. From such aspect, Buffett, with his call for levying higher taxes on the rich, could be regarded as being conservative to the bone. If there’s a lot to protect, the sacrifice and responsibility should also be that great.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Kang Won-taek
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