Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Who are the Conservatives?

Last night I watched the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary 'Cameron Uncovered'. The main question of the show was 'Who is David Cameron?' With interviews from Mandelson to Cameron himself the documentary was good viewing. Yet, I feel it answered a question I already knew the answer to. Who is Cameron? He is a not particularly ideological Conservative with good PR skills, whose primary concern is to return the Tories to power. This is hardly news.

Yet in a sense, I think a bigger question is 'Who are the Conservatives?' We all have a certain idea of what a Conservative is in our heads. Yet our vision of the Conservative Party is shaped by the Thatcher years when the Conservatives have, perhaps, returned to an older tradition.

The Conservative Party is the oldest political party in the world, and one of its most successful election winning machines .The Conservatives spent 75 years of the Twentieth Century in power alone or with allies. For most of that time it has been dominated by 'One Nation' Conservatives. One Nation Conservatism is concerned with national unity. The fear is that an unhappy populace could threaten all that was good about the status quo. In a sense the One Nationers were first and foremost concerned with the defence of the traditional and of the status quo. The institution of monarchy, the political system, the Church of England, all were to be defended, but when the public mood turned against anything it was to be changed just enough to keep the public happy. Later on the desire for unity lead many One Nationers to become pro-European. Perhaps an archetypal One Nation Conservative was Harold Macmillan, PM from 1957 until 1963. Macmillan's time in office can hardly be described as radical, but he is responsible for several achievements. He presided over a successful economy, he is responsible for building more council houses than any other Prime Minister, he presided over Britain's first attempt to gain entry to the European Union, and he made the famous 'Winds of Change' speech that signalled that Britain was willing to give up its African colonies. Each of these acts was aimed at maintaining unity.

By the 1970s the post-war model was on its knees. One Nation Conservatism, with its embrace of the post-war orthodoxy and opposition to radical change was unable to deal with the challenges facing Britain. The One Nationers were challenged by the New Right, the new economic orthodoxy which embraced a low tax, low regulation, flexible economy. The One Nationers were pushed aside, and the New Right found its champion in Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher was different to all the Conservatives who had come before her. She embraced theory, believing in the New Right economics of Hayek and Friedman. Yet all the time she was always tactically aware. Chris Patten, a cabinet member of Thatcher's says in his book Not Quite the Diplomat "Privatising the railways was described as a 'Thatcherite' policy. But I doubt whether she would have pursued it – too messy and too likely to be too unpopular. She favoured big ideas, but invariably (until near the end) pursued them pretty cautiously, carefully testing and preparing the ground." When the Conservatives jettisoned Thatcher her supporters forgot this important part of Thatcher's leadership style, leading to their years in the wilderness.

In a sense then Cameron is taking the Conservative Party back to its origins. Cameron was elected on a 'modernist' ticket, but modernism is, in truth, a subjective term. In a sense, what is less interesting than Cameron's own thought process is the ideals of those who back him.

Behind Cameron are essentially two groups. First, the libertarian Conservatives who simply oppose the state from top to bottom. For example Alan Duncan is in favour of radically lower taxes and also favours the legalisation of drugs. A chapter from his book, outlining his views on the subject is available on his website. Or Daniel Hannan, the radical Tory MEP, famous for decrying the NHS as a "Sixty-year mistake" who also calls for radical democratic reform in his book 'The Plan'. It is my personal suspicion that Cameron's personal views lie close to this group, having previously calling for drugs legalisation. Though of course, it is unlikely that Cameron will do this. It is this group that is pushing for radical cuts in the state budget.

The other group that backs Cameron is a socially conservative group who prioritise social justice. This group is culturally Conservative, opposing consumerism. Take Phillip Blond's 'Red Tories'. Blond argues against both the welfare state and Thatcherism. Blond argues for a 're-capitalisation of the poor' by, for example, expansion of the post office banking service into something designed to help the poor invest, and 'markets built on morals'. Similar is Iain Duncan Smith, whose 'centre for social justice' has become greatly influential, with a big idea being that marriage needs to be strengthened as an institution for the sake of the poor. IDS will receive a social justice cabinet portfolio if Cameron wins the election.

There is a tension within Cameron's backers between the libertarian and the communitarian. Those who focus on the individual and who are against the state, and those who envision a role for the state, if a different one to before. In a sense this is useful to Cameron, as it gives him a type of political centre from which to work within. In a sense this division between cultural and economic conservatism has always been there. Yet, perhaps the big problem of the Cameron project is that it does not have a vision, it has competing visions. You cannot simply follow public opinion to reach power. Nor can you simply harp on at an unpopular government because sooner or later scrutiny will fall on you. You need a vision, a view of what kind of society you want to create. Blair for example sold the country a view of a meritocratic society, with opportunity, world class public services and economic affluence for all. Cameron's big idea is said to be to withdraw the state and allow charities and grassroots action to replace it. This idea is in keeping with both libertarian and communitarian viewpoints, but it has yet to provide any cohesive policy ideas. As the election closes the polls are getting worse for the Conservatives. Their inability to provide a simple narrative of what life under a Tory government would look like is damaging them. The worst reaction a party can have from an electorate is one of fear and uncertainty. Electorates generally go with the theory of 'The devil you know...' and as the polls close the electorate may be increasingly asking themselves 'Who are the Conservatives?'

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