David Cameron wants to heal the rift between Thatcherites and modernisers while also coining a distinctive new Tory ideology. To achieve this he must ditch flashy initiatives and show that he is truly committed to decentralising Britainby Ferdinand Mount / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
In his heyday, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin reserved his most venomous attacks for something he called “economism.” The “economists” were to be found among the social democrats, then the leading faction on the left in Russia, and their heresy was to believe that socialism was simply a matter of improving the wages and conditions of the workers. In his celebrated polemic What is to be Done? (1902), Lenin accused the economists of failing to understand that society had to be transformed before humanity could be liberated. A decent wage rise, a tolerable public health service, a holiday with pay—these were desirable, but they were never going to create the new Jerusalem. Today, bizarrely, it is in the bourgeois west and among British Conservatives in particular that a similar argument is raging. Tory “economism” is to be found among the generation of MPs and party supporters who earned their stripes on Margaret Thatcher’s long march, and who see no reason to alter or enlarge their opinions now. For them, the economic regeneration of Britain was always the holy grail, and now that it has been grasped it must not be allowed to tarnish. Britain must return to a rigorous programme of retrenchment in government expenditure; taxes must be reduced to around 35 per cent of GDP; entrepreneurs must be cut free of Gordon Brown’s red tape. Yes, if Britain is to outstrip her economic competitors, there must also be a framework of laws properly enforced; crime must be punished; children must be educated. But the primary thrust behind all these goals is economic. Thomas Gradgrind is the economists’ patron saint. The economists—men like Norman Tebbit, John Redwood and Edward Leigh—are described in the media as “traditionalists,” while their opponents are “modernisers.” Yet if economism is a Tory tradition at all, it is one that can be dated back no further than the 1970s and the fleeting appearance on the scene of “Selsdon Man,” to be followed, more lastingly, by the arrival of Thatcher. In fact, it is absurd to describe this “vulgar Thatcherism” as the traditional faith, when the so-called modernisers bear, on the face of it, a closer resemblance to the Conservatives of the Macmillan era. With the startling irruption of David Cameron, privilege resumes her reign, and after a brief Estonian interlude, the Etonians reassert their supremacy. Yet this analysis won’t do either, since clearly the new Tories are a good deal fuller of ideas, or at any rate fuller of themselves, than Supermac and his contemporaries ever were. In particular, they show a much greater desire to intervene in social and even moral matters. They do not echo Macmillan’s languid view that “if people want a sense of purpose they should get it from their archbishop.” So let us stick to calling them, more neutrally, the new Tories, on the lines of Blair’s insistence that his party be called “New Labour.” What characterises this new formulation? What hopes and fears does it aspire to answer? The first thing to get out of our heads is that new Toryism simply represents a sustained effort to imitate opponents who have been conspicuously successful. It is true that, when asked whether he considered himself the heir to Blair, David Cameron said words to the effect of, “Yes, I suppose so.” And the overall outline of new Toryism is indeed more similar to New Labour than was that of the party under Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard. Both parties are now competing for the centre ground. But new Toryism, like New Labour, is a more interesting phenomenon. It is a fresh amalgam, with at least four distinct traits that deserve closer examination. First, Cameron, Osborne and their associates have taken a tactical decision to cut the cant. Tories like to think political cant is a disease of the left, but there is a right-wing variety that consists in asserting, in a booming voice, that the next Conservative government will do such amazing and draconian things as to uplift stout British hearts and terrify the ungodly and slothful. It will slash taxes, prune state spending, hold Brussels at bay and keep out the immigrants. In reality, what tends to happen with postwar Tory governments (including Thatcher’s) is that they do reduce taxes and government spending as a percentage of GNP (although in cash terms both totals go on bounding forward by billions every year); the rate of net immigration decreases, though not to anything resembling a trickle; and as for the incursions of the EU, the worst are resisted, but that doesn’t stop a steady flow of European law and regulation up the creeks and inlets of our island nation, just as Lord Denning warned and Jacques Delors prophesied. Yet such is the ferocity of Conservative rhetoric that floating voters are often put off by it. And why be demonised by Labour for saying things you are never going to do? The argument resembles Blair’s case for abolishing clause IV. By the time Blair appeared, Labour had abandoned any hope of taking over the commanding heights of the economy. Blair’s lesson was: don’t alienate the public by exciting your loyalists with rhetoric which you have no intention of turning into reality. The new Tories’ first move, therefore, was to drop the hyperbole and promise no more and no less than what Tory governments usually deliver: a sharing of the proceeds of growth between public services and tax cuts. This is not a betrayal of all that true Conservatives hold dear; it is simply a more honest statement of intent. The second step has been to broaden the conversation. The menu offered by the Tories at the past three elections was as grim as that offered by east European restaurants during the cold war. This reached absurd levels in 2005 when the Tory manifesto could have been fitted on to the back of an envelope. Cameron’s opponents point out that he wrote the damn thing. So he did, just as it was he who was standing behind Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday, when Britain was ejected from the ERM. For someone regularly twitted with lack of experience, Cameron has considerable experience of disaster. He knows what doesn’t work. Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative (HarperPress), an entertaining and accurate biography by political journalists James Hanning and Francis Elliott, argues that Cameron was slower than some of his colleagues to grasp what a profound change the party had to make. He was swaddled in such a comforting hammock of traditional Tory connections—Eton, Oxford, solid Berkshire family of landowners and stockbrokers—that he did not realise quite how much the Conservatives were hated across much of the country. Yet it is because of those connections, because he is so bred-in-the-bone Tory, that he may be able to carry his party with him in a way that Blair never could his. Certainly he knows that out in the country there are many Tories who believe there is more to life than tax cuts. During the reign of the economists, huge areas of life—what our children were being taught, how the health service worked, the ecological effects of state-controlled agriculture—were regarded as the province of wimps. Now and then, gestures were made, such as the establishment of a department of the environment, but it was soon apparent that this was a fancy name for a ragbag of otherwise uncategorisable ministries and in no sense represented a turning towards green pastures. I remember visiting William Waldegrave when he was the junior minister responsible for such things, and he greeted me like a traveller in the wilderness, lamenting that nobody else in the Marsham Street ziggurat paid him the slightest attention. I remember, too, that in the five day debate on the 1993 November budget, in which Ken Clarke continued whittling away the married couple’s allowance (a process begun by Lamont and completed by Brown), not a single MP referred to this extraordinary attack on a traditional feature of the tax system, one which almost everywhere else in Europe is regarded as basic. In giving such issues prominence, the new Tories are not, for the most part, adopting fresh policies, let alone defecting from any traditional Tory approach. It was, for example, that acerbic Thatcherite Nick Ridley who as environment secretary first enunciated the principle that “the polluter pays.” Ridley was an almost perfect example of the ethos of the times. Himself a cultivated and talented character, he took a mordant delight in presenting the harshest face of Thatcherism. This harder-than-thou Conservatism has little to do with the tradition of Disraeli and Baldwin and Churchill. It mistook a temporary imperative—the need to focus on economic revival—for the permanent essence. True Conservatism ought to deploy broader sympathies and a more inclusive eye. The point of broadening the agenda is not to startle the public with unheard-of new policies. It is to reassure voters that the Conservatives are relatively normal members of the human race. Now and then all this may seem a bit staged and gooey, but the opposite image of the Tory party which gained hold of the public imagination was just as artificial. It is only when we come on to the third distinguishing feature of the new Tories—their approach to poverty—that we meet a fresh critique of modern Britain. Here the new Tories are saying something that not only goes beyond the Thatcherite gospel, but is different from it. Pure Thatcherites would concede that there still exist pockets of misery and demoralisation in this country, but they would tend to argue that these are mostly places that Thatcherism has not yet reached, such as sink council estates served by bog-standard comprehensives and depraved by drugs. In due course, home ownership, city academies and bobbies on the beat will cheer up even these places, which represent the last traces of state socialism and 1960s sloppiness. New Tories support these remedies too. However, they also concede that Thatcherism may be partly to blame for some of the difficulties. Alas, politicians of any party find it difficult to confront more than one challenge at a time. There is always a tendency to oversteer, so that in avoiding the hedge on one side of the road you slither close to the ditch on the other. Some substantial increase in the inequality of rewards was needed to restore incentives and ginger up the market economy; but in a free society, inequality has a tendency to spiral out of control, which not only embitters and demoralises those at the bottom but leaves them marooned there, becalmed by a combination of low wages and means-tested benefits. The worst threat of the new inequality may not be directly economic, but social and cultural. Society seems to divide into what I called “uppers” and “downers” in my book Mind the Gap: The New Class Divide in Britain: on the one hand those who are optimistic and see every chance of making something of their lives, and on the other those who feel not only excluded from opportunity but also exiled from their history. This dichotomy is denied by more optimistic observers, who see Britain as consisting of a large and growing mass of reasonably affluent homeowners, with much thinner layers of the new rich and the old poor above and below them. I find this picture too complacent. You don’t have to go far to observe the dismal state of a numerous underclass which is not confined to sink estates. It is this perception of widespread social and cultural failure that distinguishes the huge report published in July by Iain Duncan Smith’s task force. Not since the second world war, I think, has any party committed itself to the view that such a large part of our society exists in a state of breakdown. This is territory that Labour cannot colonise, for it cannot be part of Labour’s analysis that the growth of the welfare state is part of the problem, since the new targeted and means-tested benefits are Gordon Brown’s pride and joy. And Labour’s “respect agenda” consists largely of top-down compulsion and harassment. Genuine devolving of responsibility and power to the worst off seems beyond Labour’s capacity. That dreadful contradiction “earned autonomy” appears to be as far as they will go. Which brings us to the fourth distinctive trait of the new Tories: the belief that some kind of social transformation is needed if social harmony and self-assurance are to be achieved alongside affluence. Cameron himself, though not colleagues such as Oliver Letwin and Andrew Tyrie, believes that this must involve a revival of the family, and in particular of marriage, the ultimate little platoon. This is a distinct position, quite unlike any ever adopted by Thatcher or Blair. Plenty of Blairites have pointed out that ten years of New Labour has done little to remedy the inequality of life chances, and that people at the bottom are more stuck in their birth position than their parents were. But no leading Labour spokesman is prepared to talk about the importance of marriage in other than the vaguest terms. The massed and still growing ranks of the unmarried seem to them a fearful force which they alienate at their peril. And in any case, Labour is afflicted by its own version of individualism every bit as badly as the old Thatcherites. Labour tends to see society as composed of individuals on the one hand and the state on the other. Intermediate institutions—from local government to the family—can be accorded only a secondary role. Research may show that being married is the best recipe for improving health and happiness, but there can be no question of privileging marriage over other forms of relationship. Similarly, although Labour, like all the other parties, pays lip service to the new localism, genuine independence for local councils is prohibited, because some councils would do better than others and the state would then have surrendered its power to ensure equality of performance. Thatcher was equally intolerant of underperforming or ideologically driven local councils, and equally reluctant to privilege marriage. She notoriously said “There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families.” Her defenders properly argue that this was not a defence of selfishness but an assertion of individual responsibility. But it is noticeable that she rarely had much to say in praise of local government or any other intermediate institution. In that sense there is a continuum between Thatcherism and New Labour: both believe that something either has to be privatised or supervised by the state; there is nothing in between. Cameron, by contrast, states in his most successful soundbite to date: “There is such a thing as society. It is just not the same thing as the state.” The declared aim of the new Conservatism is to build up the intermediate institutions, both statutory and voluntary. The specific pledges that follow from this are not yet detailed: there is to be some form of tax incentive for marriage, local councils are no longer to be capped, a huge quantity of national targets for local services are to be done away with, power is to be devolved to the lowest possible level. How far they will dare to go is still unclear. How far they need to go is clearer. It is obvious, for example, that one effective incentive for marriage would be to make tax allowances fully transferable between husband and wife, giving married couples a fixed joint allowance, even if one of them chooses to stay at home. Similarly, in implementing their declared policy of establishing elected police commissioners, the Tories need to ensure that these new local overlords really would have the power to insist on more beat policing. Again, state-funded schools must be given genuine independence by issuing parents with something resembling vouchers or tickets which they can spend on their children’s behalf at any school they choose. If a system like this is possible in Sweden and the Netherlands, can it really be too radical for Britain? On the welfare front, the aim clearly has to be to break up Gordon Brown’s demeaning web of means-tested tax credits (see Prospect, June 2007) and restore the primacy of universal flat-rate benefits by raising child benefit and the state pension. By spelling out such a menu, we can see that it is absurd to describe it as either “traditional” or “modernising.” In some cases, such as local government, we are talking about restoring the traditional architecture. In others, the Tories would be fulfilling long-held aspirations: WE Forster included education tickets in his 1870 Education Act. In some fields, they would be breaking fresh ground: it might be possible to give parishes and wards powers they have never held before. Local referendums on council tax levels or big development plans may be a remedy for political disenchantment. The huge queues for allotments suggest that splitting up unneeded agricultural land for use as market gardens and holiday retreats could create a new landscape both charming and lived-in, of the sort you find across parts of continental Europe. If they are to carry conviction, the new Tories will have to carry this revival of democracy up as well as down. The two houses of parliament need to be given or given back the power to debate and scrutinise topically and thoroughly; and the traditional processes of cabinet government need to be revived. In short, all our political institutions need to be able to exercise the functions they are supposed to be exercising, instead of living as mere puppets of the central apparat. The fact that Brown has moved to take up these themes (which Blair was bored by) simply offers Cameron a running opportunity to keep him to his initial fine words. Far from having nothing distinctive or specific to say, a new Tory government could represent a break with the long, postwar drift towards centralisation. Whether it would actually do so, or whether it would become an amiable melange of previous Tory governments—a dash of Macmillan-ish paternalism, a Thatcherite preference for market solutions, a top-dressing of Major’s affability—depends on several imponderables: whether Cameron’s political chutzpah is matched by administrative drive; whether his party is afflicted by the usual Tory panic; above all, whether he has a usable majority in parliament. But it is possible to see the outline of an answer to the question: what would a Cameron government be for? We are only waiting for the outline to be filled in. In his early speeches as leader, Cameron promised a thoughtful and methodical approach to policymaking. It was entirely consistent that he should offer few if any concrete proposals at the kick-off but rather set up a series of task forces. The recommendations of these are not to be translated wholesale into party policy but rather chewed over and selectively endorsed only when the time comes to start unveiling the building blocks of a manifesto. Those in other parties and on the frustrated Tory right who go on chanting that Cameron “has no policies” wilfully don’t get it. The point of these prolonged ruminations is to demonstrate both the depth of the Tory transformation and how a new Tory government would be different, both in style and outcome, from the Blair and Brown administrations. None of the work done so far deserves to be swamped by the choppy water Cameron has run into recently. It was impossible to broaden the Tory appeal without infuriating large parts of the old right. Sooner or later, there was bound to be an explosion after some blunt statement of the realities: for example, that there can be no going back to a national system of grammar schools. It was also predictable that Brown would enjoy a nice bounce. A new PM taking over in mid-term can scarcely help being refreshing simply by not being his predecessor. But some worrying aspects of the Cameron regime were visible before the grammar school row, let alone the Brown takeover. The attempt to recruit the obviously unsuitable Greg Dyke as the Tory candidate for London mayor was one example. Nor does the appointment of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as Cameron’s press spokesman look like a sign of gathering gravitas. What the new Tories need to distinguish themselves from Labour are two qualities, which I would roughly describe as dignity and democracy. Dignity sounds like a pompous thing to be worrying about. I mean it to be. If things are to be done properly, they must also be done according to due form and process. The “eye-catching initiatives” with which Blair associated himself often ended up catching the public eye for the wrong reasons. And Cameron may be “the heir to Blair” in this sense too. He too likes to shoot from the hip and to be seen with celebrities. This can be defended as part of the campaign to show that the Tories are acceptable in society again. But if they are to gain authority as a plausible government, they need also to identify themselves with the serious institutions of this country. For it is these institutions which have suffered the most degradation under Blair: the armed services were kept short of men, arms and equipment, while asked to take on a fearsome variety of missions; the standards of the BBC slid inexorably downhill; in universities, the resources both for research and undergraduate teaching dwindled, while posts in difficult subjects were frozen and departments closed; museums were starved of running cash and of acquisitions. All this needs to be reversed, for reasons of vote-getting as well as of national regeneration. Moreover, in general the new Tories have shown only sporadic willingness to trust the people, to let local supporters and citizens choose how things are to be done. It is welcome that Cameron promises to have a bonfire of central targets, but he needs to go further and allow local bodies full-blooded freedom. It is exciting to see the first sprouting of open local primaries, such as the one that selected the black campaigner Shaun Bailey for the new parliamentary constituency of Hammersmith. But the suspicion remains that these initiatives are central office stunts rather than indications of a determination to truly democratise the party. These imperatives, to restore both dignity and democracy to a degraded public life, are all the more urgent for Cameron because they are precisely the themes which Brown has lost no time in asserting for himself. Brown has always been a more serious character than Blair, and he was preaching the need to unglue and decentralise British democracy back in the early 1990s, even if as chancellor he then contributed to the congealment and centralisation. Still, he has made quite a convincing show of repentance, and Cameron will have to bestir himself if he is not to become vulnerable to the charge that he is a lightweight who learned all the wrong lessons from Blair. All the same, Brown and Cameron are highly accomplished political tacticians, and I would expect them to neutralise each other on these fronts. Which brings us back to a curious paradox. The fashionable chatter is all about the new agenda, but the real battle is likely to be fought around the “old” agenda, an agenda which presents dangers for both leaders: Cameron risks being caricatured as lurching back to the right, as his three predecessors did, while Brown is hamstrung from doing anything much, both by his own prejudices and by the desperate need to re-enthuse the Labour party. But the success or failure of Brown’s government will be largely decided by whether it answers the old questions posed by the self-styled true blues: has it managed to control immigration effectively and reduce the strain on areas where immigrants are concentrated? Is the share of national wealth taken by taxation reduced from its present unsustainable level? Has Britain managed to halt the growth of EU powers, even perhaps repatriated a few? And the success or failure of this opposition will be determined by whether it manages to work out convincing alternative answers. Without ticking off the main items on the old agenda, fulfilling the new agenda will bring only a brief and hollow victory.