This is a guest post by Sunder Katwala
Asked what he thought of western civilisation, Gandhi replied “I think it would be a good idea”. That is the attitude which non-Tories should take to claims of a progressive Conservatism.
Yet Cameronism in 2010 is a less centrist or modernising creed than appeared likely when he became leader in 2005. Until 2007, Cameronism was primarily a conservative project of accomodation to the New Labour legacy. Yet his party enters the election campaign declaring Britain a “broken society”, manipulating statistics to try and deny that violent crime and teenage pregnancy have fallen.
The financial crisis and recession changed Cameronism. The Keynesian tradition of Macmillan’s progressive Conservatism was decisively rejected. As ex-Tory MP and Cameron-sympathetic columnist Matthew Parris put it, when the Tories rediscovered their voice, “it was, as it turned out, the old faith: a faith that Margaret Thatcher would recognise”.
The limits of Tory modernisation
Yet the spectre of Thatcherism has haunted Tory modernisation for rather longer. Before the Conservatives decided that they did not need a “Clause Four” moment, they did try to have one. The limits of Tory modernization were set a decade ago, in April 1999, when deputy leader Peter Lilley tried to lay the Thatcherite ghost and failed.
Lilley’s R.A. Butler lecture now reads like a litany of mild Cameronite truisms, primarily that the party would never be trusted on public services if voters believed they were essentially hostile to a publicly funded welfare state. Lilley seemed to have the right Thatcherite credentials to mildly suggest not any form of apology, but that the party should stop “glorying in past successes” or “refighting battles” it had now won.
Yet all hell broke out. Party reaction at every level was “overwhelmingly negative”, as Tim Bale details in his excellent new book
Gove wrote that “no location is as undignified as being ‘in the centre’, where the lowest common denominator and the highest public spending meet … an arid region where no principles can take root … a particularly shameless place for politicians to be”. For Gove, government could never spend better than “freer citizens liberated by a smaller state”.
This had two long-term effects. That it delayed any Tory rethink until two more defeats is well known. Less noticed is that the neuralgic reaction to Lilley set an electric fence to demarcate the limits of Tory modernisation: no Conservative frontbencher has offered any substantive critical assessment of the Thatcher legacy since.
So Cameronism has been primarily an often successful exercise in “brand decontamination”. Every means of modern political communications was central to the project. What was off limits was any substantive or contentful critique of the party’s recent past or its deeper ideological commitments.
By contrast with New Labour, which created the sharpest of breaks with the party’s history in its caricature of “Old Labour”, the ProgCons have had no account of their recent history at all. This also cuts them off from reclaiming the party’s pre-Thatcher political and intellectual traditions which thoughtful modernizers like David Willetts wish to revive.
After all, Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher could hardly have been clearer about the scale of the rupture the New Right would make with soggy, consensus Conservativism of the post-war period. “Before 1974, I had not been a Conservative at all”, as Joseph famously wrote.
Society and the role of the state
This central ambiguity of Cameronism – whether he seeks to break with Thatcherism, or rehabilitate it for gentler times – is encapsulated in his signature soundbite: “there is such a thing as society: it’s just not the same thing as the state”.
The mood music is Thatcher-distancing. Tory aides tell journalists the phrase was coined by Samantha Cameron, presented as a refreshingly untribal influence. But the leader’s wife is not the original author. Proper credit should go to another influential Tory woman: Margaret Thatcher. Her Keith Joseph memorial lecture of 1996 argued that “To set the record straight, once again, I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the State rather than other people”.
David Cameron often reaches out to progressive audiences, and he goes to great lengths to avoid uttering a syllable of criticism of Thatcherism when doing so. So he skipped out the 1980s entirely when talking about poverty across the last century in his Hugo Young lecture at the Guardian.
He does not therefore contradict himself when telling right-wing audiences that he finds the Thatcher record “awe inspiring”, that he is “basically a Lawsonian” on flatter taxes, and that “those who ask whether I am a Conservative need to know that the foundation stones of the alternative government that we’re building are the ideas that encouraged me as a young man to join the Conservative Party and work for Margaret Thatcher”, as he wrote in the Telegraph.
The Conservatives have long expected to win the election. So defeat would be an enormous, traumatic shock, and present an existential choice: whether to deepen Cameron’s modernisation or abandon it. That also remains an unresolved choice, to be played out more gradually, were the party elected to government.
The right is confident of prevailing over time. For many, Cameronism was primarily an electoral project. This is what is known as the “politics of and” theory, particularly promoted by Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome: that expressing concern for poverty, green issues and development gets ‘permission’ to promote a Tory agenda of lower tax, immigration and Euroscepticism: the politics of controlled immigration AND international development.
The key argument is that broadening the message should not entail compromise on core Tory goals like lower taxes and a smaller state, and that a Tory manifesto of 2015 should demonstrate the party’s confidence that it can move rightwards more openly.
There is evidence that the face of the Conservative Party is changing but that its views are not. David Cameron emphasizes his welcome achievement in selecting more non-white and female candidates.
But candidates’ views are largely to the right of the leadership, or the manifesto on which Cameron wrote for Michael Howard in 2005. ConservativeHome convincingly declares the next generation to be “modern Thatcherites” based on detailed candidate surveys. Another ComRes/New Statesman candidates poll found 72 per cent believe fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership to be a priority in office; 91 per cent favour an immigration cap, while only 28 per cent believe government should legislate to make people greener.
But there might be three ‘progressive’ barriers to the triumph of the right.
Firstly, public opinion on key issues. The leadership, shaped by the defeats of 2001 and 2005, is less confident than its activists in the popularity of eternal Tory verities, particularly in fearing that lower taxes are not popular if public services are cut. Indeed, pressure to cut spending will only demonstrate how difficult it is to win public support for doing so; a Tory government telling activists that some tax rises are necessary is more likely than it plotting a long-term fall in the size of the state.
Secondly, the reality of governing. The right presses on key totemic public issues – the traditional trio of Europe, tax cuts and immigration, increasingly joined by climate skepticism. But governments have to govern across the range of policy.
Beyond the overall pressure towards sharp spending restraint, the overall direction of policy will more often be continuity than change, initially at least. With the exception of schools reform, the Conservatives have developed relatively little policy beyond symbolic manifesto pledges: wanting more health visitors substitutes for any coherent health policy.
Thirdly, the evident insufficiency of a laissez faire ideology to address policy objectives the party says it accepts. The principle “less state and more market” offers little coherent purchase on how to meet legally binding climate emission targets, fund long-term social care, or improve public services while aiming to reduce health and educational inequalities.
For a progressive Conservativism to go deeper than symbolism, the central test is whether and how progressive ambitions do anything to constrain or change the decisions the party would make if in office.
The initial published draft of Cameron’s Built to Last statement of party principles said that “The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich”. The reference to the rich was dropped before party members voted on it, with a reference to the limits of the state added. Still, testing every budget on whether its distributional impact is pro-poor, or regressive would be a central “good faith” test of whether ProgCon rhetoric makes any difference.
Similarly, though Michael Gove once talked of challenging the “sharp elbowed middle class parents” in school admissions, though many expect the Tory backbenchers to see that off. A willingness to join that fight properly would merit backing from Labour and Lib Dem voices.
The test of meaningful green credentials should be whether these change the balance as to whether market interventions, previously dismissed as ‘distortions’, can ever be justified on sustainability grounds. Could the party pursue its climate commitments without proving allergic to close EU cooperation in pursuit of a fair global deal?
There will be issues – on the real threat of climate change, or the need for British engagement in the EU – where the progressive faultline may fall within the Conservative Party. “The politics of and” suggests a Progressive Conservatism combination of true blue principles while ‘engaging’ with progressive non-party campaigners, from Friends of the Earth to the Child Poverty Action Group, mostly in a spirit of respectful disagreement.
Progressive campaigners outside the party may have good reason to fear that any allies within it are isolated and outnumbered. There are reasons to worry that the Conservatives haven’t changed very much; it would still be a good idea if they did.
This essay appears in the Fabian Review election special
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