Mr Cameron, The Tories & ‘compassionate’ conservatism: compelled to justify neoliberal politics at #ge2015?

As the 2015 British general election campaign gathers momentum, the prospect of a hung parliament looms large. Concerning Scotland, the 2014 Scottish Referendum may have produced a result that was to the satisfaction of supporters of the ‘no’ campaign, but the Scottish National Party’s subsequent rise as an extremely decisive contender in national-level politics could be described as the seminal consequence of #Indyref. Irrespective of the ultimate election result, the SNP, led by the articulate Nicola Sturgeon, is definitely set to be a decisive element in the post-election political dispensation.[1] Critics of the Conservative government’s policy agenda have developed strong arguments over the NHS, immigration policy, austerity and discriminatory practices. A cursory glance at the body of work by bloggers such as Thomas G. Clark (author of Another Angry Voice, which has attracted some 141,292 likes on Facebook) suffices to take stock of the key issues on which the Tory government has caused substantive public discontent.

This short article is an effort to briefly revisit David Cameron’s transformation from a young and reformist leader keen to break away from the Tory Party’s legacy of Thatcherism, and his position today, as a Conservative Prime Minister who is brought to defend Conservative policies, which are far from popular outside the politico-economic elite Cameron himself represents. It purports to shed light upon the challenge of ‘modernizing’ or giving a constructive and cosmopolitan face to the Conservative Party.

By no means is this article an adequate appraisal of the Conservative-LibDem coalition’s record in government under the Cameron-Clegg duo. Instead, what follows is rather an effort to outline several points that exemplify the challenges the Conservative Party under Mr Cameron has faced in its efforts to move on a path of – as Cameron repeatedly reiterated in his 2005 leadership bid speeches – compassionate conservatism (the definition of which, to borrow from Sophocles, is up to the wise to determine).

David Cameron’s accession to Tory Leadership: focus on compassionate conservatism

When David Cameron was appointed leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, efforts were made to give a ‘progressive’ touch to the traditionally establishment-friendly party, and also to distance the party from the legacy of Thatcherite neo-liberal politics. Having been an MP for only four years, Cameron emphasised his resolve to develop a brand of ‘modern compassionate conservatism’ soon after his election as party leader.

It was a time of dealing with the past, and setting the record right on a number of issues, from the party’s 1980s position on same-sex relationships, mass privatization, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and more. For a moment, Cameron did appear to bear the aura of a reformer, a man set to take the Tory Party to a new era in its political evolution. As Peter Dorey, an academic, wrote in 2007, Cameron’s initial efforts in demonstrating a move towards a socially inclusive and compassionate conservatism were somewhat successful, with the Conservative Party enjoying its first sustained poll leads over Labour since 1992.[2] Efforts to ‘modernise’ the party’s policy agenda have been at the heart of the Conservative Party’s agenda throughout the 20th century. In Cameron’s case, he initially demonstrated that he was more in tune with a modernisation agenda than his predecessors William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith.[3]

Drift in to the abyss of neoliberal politics?

 Since coming to power in 2010 through a coalition with the LibDems, Cameron began to gradually lose his reformist aura. Instead, the party’s polices, be it austerity, financial discipline, immigration, Europe, or the NHS, have marked a continuation of a neoliberal (and neoconservative) agenda, which favours the party’s wealthy donors and influential well-wishers, while widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Concerning the NHS, for instance, the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 turned out to be contradictory to election pledges, to say the least. In the on-going 2015 election campaign, Cameron’s modernising, reformist and progressive credentials have substantively waned, as the dominant image of the Prime Minister and his coalition government is that of a quintessentially Tory and neoliberal establishment. Jeremy Paxman’s pointed questions to Cameron at a recent TV show, if anything, provide proof of this reality. Unlike at no point in the recent past, more and more people have ended up dependent upon food banks under the Tory government. Pace ‘political’ readings of this trend, a somewhat nuanced view from across the water on the food banks phenomenon recently appeared in Le Monde.

Cameron’s earlier zest as a young party leader intent upon progressive transformation, the election manifesto of 2010 built in the backdrop of that discourse, and his track record as Prime Minister have led to considerable inconsistencies that political analysts have strongly criticised. As Thomas Clark noted in an article in November 2014, the Tories have deleted their 2010 election manifesto (the pre-election “contract”, as they used to call it) from their website, most likely in an effort to avoid public attention on policy inconsistencies, broken promises, under-achieved targets and policy mishaps. In the cyber age we live in, it is extremely difficult for a government, be it in the global North or the global South, to conceal hard facts and contradictory policies from the electorate.

Yet another controversial policy decision that caused the wrath of academics, the literati, school teachers and pupils alike, was Michael Gove’s efforts to reform the English curriculum in schools (and to make English literature an optional subject), giving more attention to British literature and scrapping key texts of American literature.[4] This zest to reform curricula was somewhat reminiscent of Mrs Thatcher’s efforts to influence the teaching of history. Thatcher took a strong interest in a new ‘national curriculum’ in history. As she wrote in her memoires, ‘though not an historian myself…, I had a very clear ­– and I had naïvely imagined uncontroversial – idea of what history was’.[5]

Uptight attitudes? 

To make things worse, it is hard to deny that an uptight, arrogant and somewhat boisterous attitude has added to the scars on the Cameron government’s track record. The controversial bedroom tax issue led to a report filed by a UN Investigator, Raquel Rolnik, which was critical about the tax, and the way in which it affected the most vulnerable. It was Grant Shapps, the Chairperson of the Conservative Party, who launched a scathing attack on Ms Rolnik, with several other politicians following suit. This was, as several analysts have correctly highlighted, an extremely undiplomatic and undignified reaction on behalf of a government. The arrogance involved somewhat echoed Andrew Mitchell’s angry ‘plebgate’ altercation of 19 September 2012.

Is Compassionate Conservatism a mirage?

This legacy of policy orientation and ‘attitudes’ of senior personalities may prompt the discerning analyst to raise a vital question. As noted above, initial assessments of Cameron’s modernisation agenda (in contrast to the failures of his predecessors on the driving seat, Messrs Hague and Duncan Smith) often maintained that he was successful in upholding a modernisation agenda in his party. In the long run – and especially with regards to the years spent in office – could one reach the same conclusion? Or rather, does the Conservative Party continue to operate along an agenda that takes Thatcherite policies to the next level? These are questions that Tory policymakers and policy strategists ought to raise seriously, in determining their policy focal points in future, irrespective of the general election result.

What is unique about #ge2015 is the very real possibility that no party will be in a position to secure a safe majority. As Sadiq Kahn MP has rightly admitted, the Labour Party faces an unprecedented challenge from the rise of the SNP in Scotland, traditionally an electoral minefield for Labour. Indeed, the emergence of UKIP, the Green Party and the SNP mark a new phase in the gradual demise of a strictly speaking two-party system, in which the two main parties on the right as well as the left are faced with substantive challengers.

In such trying times for political parties seeking a place in the British House of Commons, it is worth for politicians across party and ideological dividing lines to reflect upon Sir John Major’s retrospective comments from a book chapter he authored, entitled ‘The Limits of Power’:

‘In government, we should have explained more and assumed less. In Opposition, we shouldn’t have let myths take root: but we were demoralized by defeat–and did’.[6]

 

Notes:

[1] The primary focus of this article is not the impact of the Scottish referendum on the election campaign, or the overall role of the Scottish question in the election. It is a topic best discussed in a separate article.

[2] Dorey, Peter, 2007, A New Direction or Another False Dawn? David Cameron and the Crisis of British Conservatism. British Politics, 2, 137-166.

[3] On the Conservative Party’s modernisation discourses, see, for example, Denham, A. and O’Hara, K. 2007, The Three ‘Manthras’: ‘Modernization’ and The Conservative Party. British Politics, 2, 167-190.

[4] The Gove reforms on the English curriculum sparked a broad critique, with some analysts, such as Claire Fox, supporting Gove’s decisions.

[5] On Mrs Thatcher’s involvement in the history curriculum and her confrontations with historians, see Bernard Porter, 1994, ‘Though not an historian myself…’: Margaret Thatcher and the historians’, Twentieth Century British History, 5:2, 246-256.

[6] Major, John, 2013, The Limits of Power. In R. Carr and b. Hart (Eds.), The Foundations of the British Conservative Party: Essays on Conservatism from Lord Salisbury to David Cameron. London: Bloomsbury.

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  • Pasty2012

    Mr Cameron has been demanding that Labour state they will not go into coalition or any kind of partnership with anyone who could put them into Government but wants to have the right to form a Government with whoever he likes. The DUP are anti Gay, Anti Catholic and Religious nuts. While everyone else is wanting an end to austerity and more money spent on Health and Education they want money spent on Flags to be flown on every “Prominent” building throughout the UK and for this to be made Law at Westminster because they could not get it passed in the Stormont Assembly. They demand the Westminster Government pass a Law to allow them to Parade through Catholic Nationalist areas in the North of Ireland against the will of the local residents while at the same time denying Irish Catholics the same rights, and will likely add Gays to those to be banned and as it will be a UK law it will affect people in England, Scotland and Wales. Why will Cameron not state he will not go into a coalition or any kind of arrangement with the DUP ?

  • Chaminda
    “The primary focus of this article is not the impact of the Scottish referendum on the election campaign, or the overall role of the Scottish question in the election.”

    Well, given the apparent primary focus of this article, and the recommendation of “the body of work by bloggers such as Thomas G. Clark (author of Another Angry Voice, which has attracted some 141,292 likes on Facebook)”. [141,292 ‘likes’, you say? Well, they can’t all be wrong! Can they? – Ed]

    I think it appropriate to add that same blogger’s view on some other political parties.

    The Conservative party are the worst of the three tory parties. They are led by a brazen liar and many of the current Tory ministers are the most malicious and incompetent people ever hold such positions, the worst examples being George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith.

    The Labour party is now a hollowed out husk of the party it is supposed to be. After nearly two decades of Neo-Labourism, virtually all of the genuinely left-wing politicians have been cleared out, to be replaced by a bunch of self-serving orthodox neoliberal career politicians. The Labour party no longer even pretends to fight for workers rights or social justice, instead adopting the Tory-lite position on virtually every conceivable issue. During their period in government they set in motion many of the coalition government’s most unpopular policies. The origins of the privatisation of the NHS, Workfare, the privatisation of state education (academification), the horrific Atos Work Capacity Assessment regime, lumbering university students from poor and ordinary backgrounds with ludicrous debts, and the privatisation of the Royal Mail can all be traced directly back to Neo-Labour legislation. [added emphasis]

    Liberal Democrats – There really isn’t much to say about this bunch of quislings other than “roll on 2015”.

    SNP and Plaid Cymru – I’m not a resident of Scotland or Wales, so I can’t vote for either of these parties. However, they occupy territory a lot closer to my own on the political compass, so I’d endorse voting for them as preferable to voting for the extreme-right authoritarian parties of the Westminster political establishment.

    The Green party are the only left-libertarian party with a representative in parliament. The Green MP Caroline Lucas is brilliant, she works tirelessly and always votes on the side of social justice.

    I am interested in “new left” developments such as Left Unity and The People’s Assembly. Anything that improves political engagement as these campaigns are doing, can’t be all bad. If you are sick of the lack of political diversity offered by the neoliberal pseudo-economics fixated establishment parties, I suggest you try and get involved with some of these grass-roots movements.

    I think that the various left groups (including the Greens) desperately need to affiliate into a broad anti-neoliberalism, anti-austerity coalition (something like Syriza in Greece) in order to give the electorate a single alternative to the cosy establishment orthodoxy.

    That, I would suggest, “suffices to take stock of the key issues”. After all, he is a Chomsky fan…

    Personally, I’m still waiting for the outcome of “the Syriza experiment”.

    But it doesn’t look good…

  • Pasty2012

    The Scottish people, and the Welsh for that matter need to see the opportunity that is before them. Voting for the SND and Plaid gives them the chance to enhance their power and get the best for their own people by holding the balance of power. If they vote for Labour or Conservatives then they are returning MP’s who are in the larger Party and who will roll over easily. By returning SNP and Plaid MP’s they will have people who can demand more fairness as both countries have large rural areas which need more funding. Voting SNP and Plaid is a Win Win for the people in Scotland and Wales.

  • barnshee

    Who will pay for the situation where they ” can demand more fairness as both countries have large rural areas which need more funding.”

    More “fairness” might mean that Scotland and Wales live with the tax income they generate and cease bothering those nasty English

  • barnshee

    ” While everyone else is wanting an end to austerity and more money spent on Health and Education they want money spent on Flags to be flown on every “Prominent” building throughout the UK and for this to be made Law at Westminster because they could not get it passed in the Stormont Assembly. They demand the Westminster Government pass a Law to allow them to Parade through Catholic Nationalist areas in the North of Ireland against the will of the local residents while at the same time denying Irish Catholics the same rights,”

    What ” Catholic Nationalist areas” do they try to parade THROUGH

    What rights are denied to “Irish Catholics”

    A community that owes its existance to the British welfare state a community which blew the arse out of NI-caused billions in damage and death now has the temerity to complain about costs—surreal

  • I’ve added, and emphasised, a couple of pertinent lines above regarding the original article’s primary focus.

  • Zeno

    “A community that owes its existance to the British welfare state a community which blew the arse out of NI-caused billions in damage and death now has the temerity to complain about costs—surreal”

    I think you are mixing up Catholics and the IRA there mucker.

  • barnshee

    I see the IRA were protestants?

  • Reader

    Chaminda Weerawardwhana: This short article is an effort to briefly revisit David Cameron’s transformation from a young and reformist leader keen to break away from the Tory Party’s legacy of Thatcherism, and his position today, as a Conservative Prime Minister who is brought to defend Conservative policies, which are far from popular outside the politico-economic elite Cameron himself represents.
    “this short article” fails to take on board that neo-liberalism is still a form of liberalism and does not preclude social liberalism (e.g. gay marriage). And social liberalism does not preclude tough economic measures.
    There’s a reason that the political compass has two dimensions.

  • Zeno

    Some were actually, but it’s hardly the point. You are making sectarian comments, attacking a whole community of Catholics. Just because the Shankill Butchers were Protestants does not mean that all Protestants are Shankill Butchers………. got it?

  • barnshee

    How many people vote/voted for the “shankill butchers” and their familiars
    How many people vote/voted for the IRA and its familiars
    Hint try MPs for a start

    Got It

  • Zeno

    I get it fine. It’s blatant sectarian ranting by you. Over 5000 people voted for George Seawright after his “incinerate Catholics” remark

  • barnshee

    was he elected?
    how many convicted protestant criminal have been elected?

  • the rich get richer

    In the “good old days’ it sure wasn’t too easy to convict “some protestant” of anything.

    There certainly were plenty of “morally criminal” protestants elected.

  • barnshee

    None then?

  • Pasty2012

    The “English” Party’s, that is Labour, Conservatives and even the Lib Dems have now set out their opposition to the Rights of Scottish people to vote for a Party of their own choice. The Conservatives have been shouting loud about there only being 5million people in Scotland and how any SNP Westminster MP’s should not be allowed to do a deal to provide votes for the UK Government. English Independent MP’s are allowed to provide their votes to get a Party over the line to form a Government but not Scottish SNP MP’s.
    During the Chinese Leaders visit to the UK David Cameron said he wanted to make the UK the China of Europe and with these political declarations of who’s votes count more than others along with the near 1 million Zero Hours contract jobs established over the last 5 years it really is getting like China. A New Tory/Lib Dem Government is likely to see UK Citizens going abroad to sell their organs to provide for their families.