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.”