A Peaceful Revolution : Are Britain's Tories More Progressive Than U.S. Democrats?

Sometimes the case for progressive change comes from surprising quarters. Though few in the United States have even heard of it, a new policy plan, Blueprint for a Green Economy, released by--believe it or not--the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, is a perfect example. It may also be a blueprint for a new bi-partisan effort to create US policies that value children and families.

While France's Nicolas Sarkozy wants his country to work longer and harder in order to compete with US GDP growth--conveniently ignoring the fact that the French lead the US in almost every quality of life indicator (longevity, health care--their system is ranked #1 by the WHO, family time, safety, educational achievement, personal savings, and the world's fastest trains--to mention just a few), Britain's Tories and their leader David Cameron have begun to seriously question whether GDP measures a nation's success at all.


Nearly two years ago, Cameron commissioned a "Quality of Life Policy Group," to, in the words of the group's director Jules Peck, "rethink the whole way we look at the world." In introducing the idea, Cameron pointed out that despite rapid gains in material wealth over the past several decades, life satisfaction in the UK had actually fallen.

"To reconnect with younger generations and the electorate as a whole," Cameron declared, "we need to recognize that for people today, the quality of life matters just as much as the quantity of money." "Families today," Cameron added, "are asking how they can earn enough to maintain the standard of living they want, while having enough time to spend with their kids. Working mothers wrestle with the cost and availability of childcare and families often struggle to find time for the things that make life worth living: family, friends, leisure, just enjoying life." Sound familiar?

This September, after extensive conversations with people from all walks of British life, the policy group released its 550-page report, Blueprint for a Green Economy, to enormous fanfare in the UK press.

Though littered with praise for Margaret Thatcher and other bones thrown to the Tory faithful, the document is a radical departure from Conservative orthodoxy: "The effective system we call the market must be our servant and not our master. Treating it as a god and doing its bidding does not make men and women happy. The market is only valuable as a tool; it is not an end in itself...Pursued as an ideology, it induces social poverty. Conservatives have a real vocation to develop a society that can use the mechanisms of capitalism without being consumed by them." (page 58).

At times, the criticism of the market is harsh: "Unrestrained, it will catch till the last fish is landed, drill till there is no more oil, and pollute till the planet is destroyed...If markets are not to master us then Governments have to intervene to ensure that they keep their place and remain our servants." (page 17) Republicans, read that and weep!

Much of the easily-readable document is a call for Green Taxes and a national mobilization against global warming, recognized by the Policy Group as the greatest threat to our future. It proposes massive investments in solar and wind technology, reductions in air travel, promotion of walking and cycling, support for green building and less auto-dependent cities.


But early on, the Blueprint recognizes "the crucial importance of work/life balance to wellbeing and the need to tilt the balance back from economy-friendly families to family-friendly economies...If so much of our modern globalized consumer culture seems unsatisfying then it is because it fails to satisfy this deep human need...From the slow food movement to the rise in 'downshifting', there is a growing thirst in society to slow things down, for the sake of our wellbeing." (page 21). "Affluence has not meant a growth in relationships, in family cohesion and in social interaction. We have made the money but we simply haven't made the time." ( my italics, page 52).

In response, the Blueprint calls for focusing "not just about how we give people a tax cut, but how we give them a time increase." (page 53). It calls for a national dialogue to find effective ways to increase workplace flexibility, "rewarding the valuable but currently unwaged work within the family" and shape policies that can not only improve work/life balance but gender equality as well.

"Society has moved ahead of the politicians in these matters, both in its recognition of the seriousness of our loss in denigrating work in the home and in the acceptance that this is a worthwhile occupation for both men and women (my italics). The continued maintenance of the stereotypes is now partly the result of institutional structures, and government and business need to make it easier for people to work in less formal ways. The new generation of both sexes are ahead of their seniors in this understanding and we would do well to accommodate the wide variety of life and work styles they seek." (page53).

Moreover, welfare of children is given high priority as the document acknowledges that UNICEF found the UK last among 21 industrial nations when it comes to how well children are doing. The UNICEF report drew powerful attention in the British press, while in the US, our rating of next-to-last (and only a fingernail better than the UK's) prompted only a collective yawn.


Repeatedly, the Blueprint challenges the notion that Gross Domestic Product is a measure of economic success. "Consumption growth...may actually be causing harms, particularly when the pursuit of material wealth takes away from the quality of personal relationships or a proper balance between work and life." (page 40). The plan calls for the creation of new and comprehensive measures of social and economic health that can provide real indicators of government policy successes or failures in improving wellbeing.

Not surprisingly, the release of the Blueprint for a Green Economy created a firestorm of controversy, with most of the hostility coming from within the Conservative Party itself. The Party's powerful financial interests condemned it roundly as "subversive and socialistic." By contrast, environmentalists and the Left offered praise, coupled with a sense of disbelief that the Tories would offer up such a document at all. In the past two months, even David Cameron has retreated from his initial enthusiastic support of the Blueprint. Money talks, after all, and he needs his financial backers for the next election.

Nonetheless, the Blueprint for a Green Economy represents an amazing step forward, a far-sighted, comprehensive critique of unfettered capitalism from one of capitalism's strongest bastions. It is far from perfect, but it represents a far more progressive vision than even our Democratic Party has yet put forward. And given its source, it has the possibility to generate a new non-partisan call for change. A Republican friend of mine and former State Senator, put it this way: "Remarkable: A worldwide movement is afoot. When British conservatives can talk about these issues in print, Americans might not be far behind."

A Peaceful Revolution is a weekly blog about work/life satisfaction done in collaboration with MomsRising.org. Read a blog by a leading thinker in the field every Tuesday.