The Tories taking a turn for the left?

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.

  • Nick A

    It is interesting how attitudes to Cameron amongst Conservative supporters seem to be formed and polarised by views on Mrs. Thatcher.

    If you believe that Thatcher represents the zenith of Conservative achievement in recent history, then that tends to lead to a disappointment with Cameron – he is, after all, no ideologue.

    On the other hand, if you believe that the Thatcher legacy is the major problem the Conservatives are faced with then the new leader perhaps offers a reason to be optimistic.

    I think a couple of things need to be stated about the Thatcher legacy, that her admirers almost always gloss over.

    Firstly, she wasn’t really a Conservative – she was a radical economic liberal, and therefore, does not sit in the same political tradition as Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan or Edward Heath.

    For most of the postwar period, the Conservatives had successfully managed to occupy the political centre ground (not a soundbite used at the time so much, but very akin to the idea of being the “one nation party”). Thatcher moved away from this ground.

    This leads to the second observation. After all, if Thatcher did not occupy the political centre ground, how was she so successful at winning elections? The answer to this is simple – the Labour Party also moved away from its founding traditions of Democratic Socialism. By the early 1980s, the party had a more militant and ideological outlook. This led to splits and division within the party on a grand scale – ultimately leading to the “Gang of Four”.

    However, when the Labour Party started to move back to the centre ground under Kinnock (and of course, this is a long run process, as there is always the issue of more centrist policies verses n more extreme perception) Thatcher’s grip on power started to slip. Indeed, had Thatcher stayed in office after 1990, she would almost certainly have lost the coming election.

    What Cameron seems to appreciate is that the Conservatives need to hold the political centre ground in order win, and thus return to the days of being a “one nation” rather than an ideological party.

    One thing he said during his conference speech that struck me especially (in fact I think it is the cleverest thing a Tory leader has said since 1997) – “The Conservatives are the party of society, Labour are the party of the state”. That riff is absolute political genius. Simultaneously, he is disavowing ideological conservatism, but also enhancing the perception that Labour are overly technocratic and centralising.

    Speaking as a Labour supporter, I am far more worried about the next election than I was a few months ago, because at least some Conservatives seem to have finally figured out why they cannot win the support of middle of the road voters.

  • seabhac siulach

    For another opposing view of ‘An tUasal Daithí Cam an tSroin’ (Mr. David Bent-Nose, sorry Cameron) see Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian.

    After all, Bush too was a ‘compassionate’ conservative once. Tell that now to the dead in Fallujah and elsewhere…

    So, don’t worry, I am sure Mr. Cameron will be right wing enough for all you closet tories out there…if he too is ever given a chance (God forbid)

  • Slugger O’Toole Admin

    Cameron is also looking forward to a pending ‘changing of the Guard’ in Labour. For all the public opproprium thrown at Blair, Labour will struggle in middle England without him.

    Cameron knows that. And so, I would imagine, does Gordon Brown. For all The Watchman’s concerns about the loss of substance in the headlong rush towards good presentation, Cameron has some intellectual heavywieghts in his corner – Michael Gove for instance.

    If I were a Tory, I’d be more concerned at getting involved in preparing the substance under the cover of the charming Mr Cameron, and only panic, if I thought the party was likely to waste the opportunity by not striking further on the radical Thatcherite road so firmly espoused by Mr Blair.

  • Brian Boru

    What’s Cameron’s position on NI?

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    Just to pick a couple of points for sport.

    “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.”

    As I recall the Soviet Union and the British socialist movement didn’t start in 1979 so would you be referring to the powerful election winning machine that did so well in 1964, 1966, Feb 1974 and again in Oct 1974? Just to limit myself to the 60’s and 70’s of course.

    I liked this list as well:
    “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.”

    Undermining marriage? Is this the civil partnerships? Or something else?
    Encouraging covert mass immigration, WTF! When has Labour every done that? Secondly what wrong with mass immigration anyway?
    Alien human rights tradition? Yep thats right because the philosophical foundation to natural law individual rights is definitely utterly alien (J S Mill, Thomas Paine, Locke, Hobbes, after I am damn sure some of them were Scottish!). Their codification was more unusual but as the principle of parliamentary sovereignty still survives that not that alien either.
    With you on the juries and ID cards though.

    I could poke away all day but I have better things to do. So if I understand the Watchman’s ‘argument’ (loose term). Essentially the conservatives would be much better off if they could successfully marry a ruthless commitment to the minimalisation of all state activity with an equally ruthless commitment to the reintroduction of 1950’s social mores. Tremendous who wouldn’t vote for that? The Anarcho capitalist version of upstairs downstairs. Marvellous a sure fire vote winner.

  • Scotsman

    DSD, you’re right, except that none of the 4 you mentioned were Scots!

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    OH yes I had it in my mind that Mill was but of course he was from London. Well there you go then not at all alien.

  • Sean Fear

    “For most of the postwar period, the Conservatives had successfully managed to occupy the political centre ground (not a soundbite used at the time so much, but very akin to the idea of being the “one nation party”). Thatcher moved away from this ground”

    The problem with adopting that strategy was that it led to decades of relative economic decline, as the Conservatives ducked away from dealing with difficult economic issues. That’s why The Watchman is right to be concerned that the current Conservative leadership may be reverting to the line pursued by the Conservatives from 1945-1975.

  • Daugavas

    I was about to type a long critique of this but DSD beat me to it. However to add. The biggest problem here is that Watchman criticises the politics of style rather than substance. However he is just as guilty of that as his essay is laden with soundbites but lacking in substance. Rather than empirical evidence he prefers to rely on a few sweeping generalisations, stereotypes and unfounded allegations which sound like they’ve been nicked straight from a Daily Mail editorial.

    A classic example is his assertion (without any supporting evidence at all) that there is: “a galloping crime rate fuelled by liberal drugs attitudes in the governing class.” The idea that crime is rising, nevermind galloping, is open to question. The British Crime Survey for example shows the crime rate to have fallen in the last decade. Even figures which suggest a rise in crime do not have it galloping anywhere so that is plain wrong.

    Further what the link between that and liberal drugs attitudes is is not explained at all. Even the police blame the apparent rise in violent crime not on drug users, but on alcohol and even the most rabidly authoritarian right wingers usually baulk at the idea of outright prohibition of booze.

    One of the most popular illegal drugs is marijuana and its cheap cost means that the average user is no more likely to be thieving than a smoker.

    Class A drugs? Well yes a good argument can be made for them leading to increased crime but few liberals “in the governing class” would go as far as legalising crack or heroin. If Watchman thinks otherwise then the onus is on him to name those who do.

    The rest is often based on inaccuracies and dewy eyed nostalgia. We are led to believe that the pre-1990 tory party was all one big happy family sterring merrily down the river singing “ebony and ivory.” The reality of course is that there were serious tensions especially in the first Thatcher government. Indeed that first government lost one MP who committed suicide after frequently being critical of rightist economics and another who defected to the SDP and was marked throughout by splits between wets like Jim Prior and the rest. One of Thatchers most famous speeches calling on critics to “u-turn if you want to” was the product of this divisive era.

    As DSD says 4 election defeats from 5 in the 1964-74 era hardly inspires confidence in the previous “united” eras.

    Reading Watchman you could be forgiven for thinking that the style/soundbite over substance type of politics goes back to Big Bad Tony but in fact it has been around for some time – maybe as early as the 1960 US presidential election of Kennedy over Nixon (who looked worse in the TV debates.) It’s acceleration into British political life is arguably due to the Tories with Saatchi and Saatchi in 1979 being a classic example of clever marketing techniques being introduced. Blair + Cameron are simply following that trend.

    The central flaw in Watchmans arguments is his apparent desire to get back to the old chestnut of victorian moral values. Maybe nobody told him that Major’s travails pre-1997 were not helped by the disasterous Back to Basics campaign? Other reasons for that defeat included the parties big divisions over Europe vs North America – a legacy of the Thatcher era. The resignations of Heseltine, Lawson and Howe over issues connected with Europe laid the foundations for the bitterness of the 1990s whose reverberations still hinder the Tories road back to power.

    The central problem for Tories of this type is that for them freedom seems to begin and end at the front door of the bank. He begins well with the laudable statement that: “freedom, if it is to mean anything, is about removing government from people’s lives” but conversely seeks to impose greater government control of peoples bedroom activities with the implicit call to protect marriage. However surely freedom also means the freedom to accept Judaeo-Christian morality, with its insistence on marriage, or to reject it?

    Last years British Social Attitudes survey had 85% of teenagers agreeing that it was fine for couples to live together before marriage and 70% believing that one parent families could raise children just as effectively as two parent families. With the Tories generally doing worse among young voters than other parties, getting back to basics os hardly likely to energise or attract the youth vote.

    Until the Tories can learn from their mistakes they are likely to struggle to form a stable government. Watchmans essay hardly inspires confidence.

  • Daugavas,

    I would dearly have loved to source empirical evidence to back up every point I made, but that would have made what is an op-ed piece into a thesis. And as I’m pressed for time tonight I will probably again have to be brief in my reply.

    Crime rate. I am wary of any official statistics because there are so many vested interests in massaging them. No one can doubt, regardless of what figures are used, that crime has exploded over the past century but particularly over the last 40 years. None of us will ever know the true level of crime because so much of it goes unreported or is dismissed as “anti-social behaviour”. I live in a lower middle class suburb where the local newspapers are full of horror every week but where the police has virtually withdrawn from the streets. I see all of this on my daily commute and I can see in my own area how this is fuelled by drugs. If you really think that drugs have nothing to do with crime then you don’t live in the real world and certainly not where decent ordinary people have to suffer the consequences. That’s why I am contemptuous of those those blue blooded Tories who did cocaine at university and who lined the pockets of some of the worst elements in society. (Well, they didn’t make the cocaine themselves.)

    That’s why I am a social conservative because I believe that the cultural changes that have swept Britain over the past 40 years have bred streets that are substantially less safe than in previous years, have created a welfare culture that rewards sloth and not virtue, and where the collapse of traditional families is manifested in e.g. the nasty feral kids hanging round my station. I believe in freedom from government interference but I am not a libertarian. Freedom which is not subject to limitation, e.g. by religion, family, social convention, etc. leads to anarchy, which always violate someone else’s freedom. Oh, I’m happy to take the point that if the Tories are serious about putting society back together again then they will have to make themselves unpopular with some groups of people, alhough I believe that such groups are noisier than they are numerous. But there we go. I’m sure I’d be a rotten Cameroon because I believe there is more to politics than winning power for its own sake. We’ve had enough wretched “Tory” governments over the years that did nothing for social conservatism and we see the repercussions now.

    Better go now. I tell you when I’ll be satisfied: to go home at night and not be wondering if my car has been broken into. Better get into the real world, Daugavas, before the barbarians come to your door too.

  • Daugavas

    I never said that crime didn’t have anything to do with drugs. Your assertion however was that there is: “a galloping crime rate fuelled by liberal drugs attitudes in the governing class” somewhing which I did dispute. You’ve now elaborated that the drug in question is coke and I’m still at a loss to see which politicians for example support legalising coke? Cocaine incidentally was legal a century ago so if what you say is true the crime rate should have been higher back in those more liberal drugs policy times. But as you say it was lower you’ve just totally contradicted yourself.

    On the welfare issue I’ll certainly grant you your points… However as for

    “No one can doubt, regardless of what figures are used, that crime has exploded over the past century but particularly over the last 40 years. None of us will ever know the true level of crime because so much of it goes unreported or is dismissed as “anti-social behaviour”. ”

    I do doubt it. Well in so far as the past decade is concerned at least where there is ample evidence eg the British crime survey and the association of Police Authorities, both of which say that overall crime has fallen. Sorry Watchman but faced with hearsay from one who harks for a rose tinted glasses view of life 40 years ago or hard evidence from those at the deep end I think I’ll go with the police themselves thank you very much.

    As regards your point about massaging the figures, that applies to both sides of the political spectrum. Those of an illiberal / authoritarian outlook have a clear agenda in massaging or exaggerating the crime figures in order to justify lamentable anti-liberty policies.

    What else? Ah yes the tired old “real world cliches” wheeled out like a stuck record… you do rather seem to have difficulty coming to terms with the real world – in your parallel universe “the collapse of traditional families is manifested in e.g. the nasty feral kids hanging round my station” but yet the past decade has brought falling crime and simultaneously the biggest rise in single parent families which again totally contradicts all that you say.

  • Sean Fear

    FWIW, I think that crime rates, overall, have fallen since about 1993. A very important factor in that has been the increased use of imprisonment. The prison population has risen from about 45,000 in 1990 to about 75,000 today. Given how much crime is committed by a small number of recidivists, this has had an impact of on the overall figures, as well as more prosaic measures such as more people owning burglar alarms. Some offences, such as burglary, and TDA, have seen very sharp falls over that period.

    Violent crime, however, has continued its long term rise.

    The Watchman’s point about the family though is important. There is a wealth of evidence that children with two parents who stick together during their upbringing will do better in life than those without. Such a relationship is more likely to exist within marriage than without. And where the family breaks down, the Government steps in to fill the vacuum.