Unionist commentator The Watchman produces an occasional column for Slugger. He’s been watching the longer term trend in British politics to move from content towards style, with considerable dismay. He’s views the election of David Cameron with some concern, not least because politically he fears the new Tory leader has been conditioned to move away from the party’s Thatcherite heritage (in the view of many, it’s strongest differentiator) and head leftwards towards the centre.By The Watchman
The Politics of the Broom Cupboard
At one of the Conservative Party’s hustings, its leader-in-waiting David Cameron was asked about his most embarrassing moment in politics. He told a story about showing some constituents around the Palace of Westminster and taking them by mistake into a broom cupboard. How we all laughed. But some of us must have thought it was an omen.
The New Labour Government is weaker than it has ever been, but beyond today’s adulatory media prattle there should be grave doubts about Cameron.
Why? “It’s the 60’s, stupid”
The Conservative Party near the end of the twentieth century was lucky to have enemies that generated internal unity. The twin threats from socialism at home and communism from abroad welded New Right economic liberals, John Bull patriots and everything-in-between into a powerful election-winning machine.
By the time Mrs. Thatcher departed, socialism and communism were slain dragons. Now that its enemies could no longer define it, what was a Conservative Party actually for?
Thatcherism transformed the UK economy for the better. But its preoccupation with economic reform meant a disinterest in social policy. Free markets could and did deliver prosperity but for what kind of society?
Thatcherism failed to come to terms with two key issues: (1) the seismic social changes of the 1960’s, and (2) the unfolding failure of the welfare state to meet people’s expectations and needs.
It offered no real response to the social and cultural revolution driven by the Left 20 years earlier because the then Conservative elite did not understand social conservatism.
Not much has changed. Today’s modernisers in the Tory Party are the children of Thatcher and of the permissive society. From Thatcher, they learned her economic lessons. But as children of the 1960’s they also took on that era’s liberal social values. The result, as many of us observed at university, was a crass and ugly libertarianism.
Two events in 1997 helped to crystallise what is now known as the modernising tendency within the Tory Party: the shattering defeat of May by a man (wrongly) seen as a pseudo-Tory and the collective public grief over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
In the words of John O’Sullivan, Lady Thatcher’s former special adviser, the modernisers: –
“…detected a growing warmth in the nation’s blood and proposed a more emotional style of politics. Here what matters is not getting the right policy on health, but getting the right words on it – words that will persuade people that you are at one with a more relaxed, libertarian, multi-ethnic modern Britain.
This is the message of Portilloism.”
The Conservative Party has never been able to unite behind an adequate critique of New Labour. Far too many Tories see Blair as following, however imperfectly, in the path laid out for him by Lady Thatcher. Faced with the irreversible legacy of the 1980’s, the Left regrouped under New Labour. State control over the economy was out, state direction was in.
This has happened under the guise of “modernisation”: constitutional change, attempts to nationalise child-rearing, undermining marriage, attacking juries, encouraging covert mass immigration, educational egalitarianism, identity cards, deeper European involvement, the introduction of an alien human rights tradition into our laws, etc.
The Conservative Party is useless at opposing New Labour because it is riddled with elements that have no serious disagreement with the Blair Project. Its elite is at ease with modern Britain because it is insulated by wealth from the social problems facing those who live with the consequences of New Labour: welfare policies that penalise virtue, a galloping crime rate fuelled by liberal drugs attitudes in the governing class, the pensions crisis, etc.
The party’s lack of spine is shown by the way in which leading Tories echo the New Labour clarion call and warn against a “lurch to the Right”. Choosing to use the abusive language of opponents is a sure sign of cowardice.
And so to Cameron. What explains the sudden rise of David Cameron? Here’s a possible answer: Allison Pearson in the London Evening Standard on 18 October in a column entitled “At last – a Tory who lacks the Zzz Factor”:
“In The X Factor, as in the Tory leadership election, the point is to select a winner who can go on to beat other winners. Over the past decade, Tory MPs have only managed to isolate The Zzz Factor; which sends millions into a coma. The X Factor tells us emotive stories about talented people which make people want to vote for them. The Zzz Factor makes people want to turn over and watch the other side.”
“In party politics, your worth is still measured by your opinions, while in modern Britain you are judged on different things entirely. Before I went to interview David Cameron on Friday, I asked both men and women what they wanted to know about this potential PM. They said: ‘Is he a nice guy? Does he have good judgment? Would I fancy him? Does he look good on telly? Where does he stand on Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Spanish accent?'”…
“Wake up, gentlemen: style has long since trounced substance … Tony Blair understood that we had moved from an institutional culture to a therapeutic one. He soothed to conquer … in the Empathy Era, [David Davis] looks like a bad-tempered Lexus salesman who isn’t going to hit this month’s target.”
This “culture of therapy” personified by varied figures like Blair, Clinton, Portillo and Cameron clashes with the “culture of discipline” of past years. The old body politic was for serious grown-ups with serious ideas and it was built upon robust debate about the nature of society. The modern body politic has been reduced to dumbed-down and pseudo-light entertainment. Where style supersedes substance, the result is triviality and politicians feeling your pain. When political discourse becomes a form of entertainment, there is no place to debate the issues that divide Britain today
If he becomes leader, David Cameron will owe everything to Tony Blair. His similarities to Tony Blair in terms of social class and educational background are well known. Bereft of front-line political experience or real experience of the working world outside politics, he built his reputation on one carefully rehearsed 20 minute speech. He won over the Tory conference because he reminded the demoralised delegates of the man who had just beaten their party for the third time. With Cameron, as with Blair, the medium and the message blend together.
Some of the reasons for backing Cameron are feeble. In a cowardly leader column endorsement, The Daily Telegraph identified some perfectly good reasons not to vote for him: his desire to share the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and public service investment (whatever that means) and his tendency to be dazzled by Tony Blair. But with a mixture of chutzpah and funk, it dismissed these as “curmudgeonly caveats”, for Cameron would bring “vigour” and “optimism”. When even the trumpet of the Torygraph sounds an uncertain tone, who will prepare for the real battle?
I attended the hustings I mentioned at the start. Cameron did not impress me. His performance was indeed slick and well rehearsed but it was full of waffle and lacked any substantive critique of New Labour. By contrast, David Davis had limited charisma but he did have bold and courageous ideas about what he wanted to do. Davis grasped that a strong economy requires low tax and that no right-wing party thrives in its absence. Cameron spoke of sharing the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and public service investment, without realising that without fundamental reform in the economy – which must include substantial tax cuts – there will never be proceeds to share. Behind his blether, there is also the larger question as to whether the state should even be involved in the present gamut of public services, given its record of failure over the last 60 years.
Take education, for example. Cameron has backed Blair’s city academies as an answer to the deplorable condition of state education. But city academies, like foundation hospitals in health, simply tinker with the problem. Cameron has declared “Full autonomy within the state sector: that’s my vision for secondary schools.” So instead of Labour regulation, the preference is for Tory regulation, albeit regulation geared towards “freedom”. But freedom, if it is to mean anything, is about removing government from people’s lives: i.e. freeing schools and universities from government control. That is politically risky. But Cameron seems intent as leader to avoid risk, to shadow New Labour as “Blair’s Heir”, and compete on the basis that the Tories could run the existing state apparatus better than New Labour could do itself. That is a recipe for another defeat. Simply trying to be better managers is not enough.
For these reasons, the underlying weaknesses in the Cameron platform are obvious. His strategy will come unstuck because so many of Britain’s problems will take intellectual honesty and political bravery to solve, given vested interests. For example, who is prepared to grasp the nettle of root and branch welfare reform? The modernising tendency, of which Cameron is the new figurehead, has been so mesmerised by New Labour that it offers no coherent challenge to the damage caused since 1997. One Cameroon soundbite is that “Dave” wants to “set people free”. But if he intends that to be more than rhetoric, it means shrinking the size of the state. Nothing that Cameron has said or done during the leadership campaign suggests the necessary intent.
A shaggy dog story to end.
The Daily Mail reported the sad story of Sandy, a Shetland sheep-dog who lives with her owners in Manchester. When her owners took Sandy for a walk, she would only turn leftwards. When they attempted to turn right, Sandy lay down and refused to budge or ran off in the opposite direction. Dr David Sands of the Animal Behaviour Clinic said, “I think Sandy has formed a negative association with something that happened to her right.”
And the same, I suspect, goes for the Tory Party.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty