Q & A with David Cameron: Why Britain Needs a 'Compassionate Conservative'

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During the course of a day spent campaigning in Scotland, Conservative Party leader David Cameron explains his political philosophy, while ducking comparisons with Margaret Thatcher and JFK.

TIME: Since the Conservative Party last held power in 1997, three men have led the party before you. A year into the job, the polls suggest you are enjoying more success than your predecessors. Why?

David Cameron: I think I've had the advantage of being able to spend time learning the lessons of the last 10 years. We've got a long way still to go but the progress over the last year has been based on the fact that we had a clear understanding of what was wrong and what needed to be put right and I sought a mandate from the Conservative Party to put it right and said there was going to be a lot of change: party modernization in terms of candidates, changing some of the positions of the party and ditching some of the baggage of the past, changing the approach of the party. The way we've been doing politics has been a bit more positive. We're been working with the government when we agree with them, all those things that I talked about in the leadership election which we've done. All of them have made a bit of a difference, so I had the advantage of time but it was a clear plan and a new approach — and one that I feel personally very strongly about — and fits with my view of the world so it's been easier to carry it through.

TIME: A key element of your strategy appears to have been to rebrand the Conservative Party as a party that cares. You've used the phrase "compassionate conservative," which has a different resonance in the U.S.

David Cameron: Yes, labels are often misleading or unfortunate, but I always thought the label "modern, compassionate Conservative" was a good mantra. Modern, because I think the Conservative Party has always been a party about the future and the changes necessary to take advantage of current circumstances, and the party needed to modernize. Compassionate, because conservatism does have a lot to say to me about helping those people who can get left behind. But Conservative, because we believe that if you trust people and give them more power and responsibility over their lives, you get a stronger society. So that's why I use the mantra "modern, compassionate Conservative," but it can mean different things to different people and in different countries, so I know it may not translate very well.

TIME: In the U.S., the term is associated with a president whose popularity has taken a big hit in large part because of the Iraq war. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has also suffered badly from an Iraq backlash. What would you have done differently?

David Cameron: I supported the decision to go to war, and most of the Conservative Party voted with the government at the time. There were serious mistakes made subsequent to that — disbanding the Iraqi army and the police force, allowing a situation of anarchy to develop, the lack of proper post-war planning in terms of how Iraq was going to run — and I think there are some different decisions that could have been taken that would have led to very different consequences. Even now, I would be more comfortable with something that was closer to the Baker-Hamilton plan than what would seem to be being put in place. I went to Iraq last year and met with the Iraqi vice president last week and take a very close interest in trying to make sure we make the right decisions. There are differences in the approach to this issue with the government, but we don't try to play politics with this issue. I don't stand at Prime Minister's Questions and try to catch the Prime Minister out on Iraq. I genuinely want Britain to make the right decisions so we can have a more stable Iraq and can bring our troops home.

TIME: Have you been developing contacts in Washington?

David Cameron: We have. [Senator] John McCain came to our conference and I admire him a great deal. Lots of things we won't agree about on every dot and comma — our approach to Iraq is probably quite different. The Conservative Party has also always had a number of good contacts with the Democrats, and we should have contacts with both sides but obviously the Republicans are our sister party. We're together in the International Democratic Union and other bodies and there are good and strong ties there.

TIME: Foreign affairs closer to home must be causing you concern: Your party tore itself apart over the European Union, and now the nightmare is returning, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel trying to revive the EU constitution. David Cameron: It shouldn't be a difficult issue for our party because it's an issue on which the Conservative Party now has a settled view, which is that we want to be in the European Union, but we want a flexible, open, trading union and we are opposed to further integration of the European Union. And it's a position that the vast mass of the British public agrees with us about. Ten years ago, [former Conservative Party leader] William Hague was a lone voice against the single currency. The Confederation of British Industry and the Labour Party and lots of others were saying Britain wouldn't have a future outside the single currency. Now, you can hardly find a politician who wants to join the single currency, so I think the Conservative Party is in the right position. The idea of bringing back a constitution with lots of transfer of power from the nation states to the center is complete head-in-the-sand. The French and the Dutch voted no. This constitution is dead. It doesn't matter how hard you try to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation — to mix my metaphors — this bird is not going to fly. So the Conservative Party is in a rather strong position. I was just reading the papers this morning — the government is in rather an awkward position because Blair said a number of things, and [his presumed successor, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon] Brown. They said Europe can't work without this new constitution. They said we needed a great battle in the United Kingdom — "Let battle be joined" was Blair's remark — and we're going to have a referendum. It's intensely embarrassing for them now. The last thing they want is for this constitution to come back and for there to be a referendum. But they're having to eat all their words, and it's the Conservative Party that's been proved right. So, if we're sensible and stick to our principles and set out why Europe can work better as it is now without a constitution, then there's every reason why we can win this issue.

TIME: You've lost a couple of people in your parliamentary party recently because they felt you were insufficiently Euroskeptic...

David Cameron: I didn't really lose them. There were two peers [members of the House of Lords] who had advised people to vote for another party, who we'd suspended from the Conservative Party, who then eventually defected. So it was very much of the Dog Bites Man news story.

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