Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence


8:08 pm - April 19th 2010

by Sunder Katwala    


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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 The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron. Among the most vituperative voices was Michael Gove, later to become a leading moderniser.

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.

Progressive futures?

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.

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This essay appears in the Fabian Review election special

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments


A simple slogan to highlight where we really are: Vote Cameron and get Osborne

Where are the meeja folks when we need them? I’ve not read an interview of George Osborne for several weeks. How come? Surely he isn’t hiding, is he?

2. Golden Gordon

The Tory party is a number of parties (neo conservatives, libertarians, christian conservatives, paleoconservatives) linked by only one COMMON FACTOR, a hate for the left.
Once the FPTP system is replaced the party will implode, perhaps UKIP and Graylings comments are the first cracks.
Come to think of it you could say the same about the Labour party

Nobody with a brain believes Cameron and his green wash bullshit.

He is a far right tory. Always has been, and if he wins he will dump all the happy clappy stuff and head far to the right. He is the GW Bush of British politics. He is just running a warmed up version of Compassionate conservatism.

And if, and it is a big if I am wrong and he does try to govern from his new play book the tory party will hold a leadership challenge and he will be out on his toff ear.

I’ve long thought the biggest obstacle to Tory modernisation was the manner of Thatcher’s demise.

Although Kinnock had a hard time laying the foundations for the changes in the Labour Party that Blair would finally push through, the one thing he had going for him when fighting his internal battles was the outcome of the 1983 election. If all else failed in his fights with the hard left, Kinnock could point to the fact that their preferred agenda had been but the country and decisively rejected.

That’s a line of argument that Tory modernisers have never had to play with.

Although Thatcherite policies have gone down to a crushing defeat (2001) and proved so unpopular that the Tories felt it necessary to assassinate a leader (IDS) the fact that Thatcher was undone by her ownparty rather than rejected by the electorate has allowed the Tory right to blame the party’s failures since 1997 on it not being Thatcherite enough.

“as Tim Bale details in his excellent new book The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron”

It’s not that good. It seems to promise explanations of why the Tories screwed up so badly for so long, but it basically just provides a descriptive account of what happened, one thing after another — which I found a bit of a let-down. Still – fun to be reminded of some of the details along the way.

Is Sally real?
Or a parody?
Just wondering.
Great site by the way.

@4 Unity: “I’ve long thought the biggest obstacle to Tory modernisation was the manner of Thatcher’s demise.”

I don’t agree with your diagnosis.

Mrs Thatcher was disowned by her cabinet in 1990 for several reasons. She came to be regarded as an electoral liability: long standing policies (managing the economy) were going seriously wrong (resurgence of inflation) and had become incoherent – Britain had joined the ERM contrary to the (correct) advice of Alan Walters, her personal economic adviser.

John Major, her successor, was (widely) seen as a nice man and he wasn’t an unacceptable, rabid Europhile like Heseltine. By the 1992 election, tax revenues as a percentage of Britain’s GDP were the same as when Mrs Thatcher had been elected PM in May 1979.

William Hague’s problem in 2001 – apart from the fact that he wasn’t Blair – was because his stance was entirely negative. He was against the Euro, higher taxes and bogus asylum seekers but he had no positive vision of a Conservative future to put to the electorate.

IDS, his successor, got there because he was a Maastricht rebel and rabid Eurosceptic. His increasingly obvious problem was that he simply wasn’t up to the job of opposition party leader. Michael Howard stepped in as a temporary measure to bolster the Conservative Party’s credibility in the run-up to the 2005 election. But his dog whistle electoral strategy was patronising and demeaned the electorate.

Between the 1997 and 2005 elections, Blair lost 4 million votes and at least half the membership of the Labour Party. Turnout at the elections of 2001 and 2005 was, respectively, the lowest and second lowest since 1918. That is hardly a ringing endorsement of Blair’s leadership and the Third Way.

Funniest moment of the election so far was Toby Young outing David (Neo con) Aaronovitch
on news night review.

Toby Young ……“You told me you were voting tory David”

My, my how the big fat lump has fallen. He has now done the march of Hitchin’s from liberal to far right wing loon. But then if you take the Murdoch shilling you have to sing the Murdoch song, don’t you David?

9. Sunder Katwala

I asked David Aaronovitch about that on Saturday. Not voting Tory:

says “Pass my house and you will see the Vote Labour poster in the window”.

To which Toby young replied when I tweeted that “I reckon his daughter put that up”

10. Alisdair Cameron

Um, regardless of which way he will vote, which in truth will be (rightly) shrouded by the privacy of the voting booth, is having the backing of David Aaronovitch something you’d want..?

An excellent essay Sunder, and a few thoughts.

1. The right is confident of prevailing over time.

I think it’s important to the left to recognise this. The right is far more disciplined and organised than it has ever been. Especially under the auspices of ConHome – where TM recognises the need to let a thousand flowers bloom while making sure Conservatism becomes a ‘movement’ outside the party.

My worry is that the left doesn’t recognise this and we’ve become far too complacent. If the right becomes truly resurgent (as it will do) then the impact could be worse than the 80s.

2. For many, Cameronism was primarily an electoral project.

Yup, and I think there are lots of parallels here for lefties/Labourites, since New Labour became less an ideological project and more an electoral project, and ditched some very unpopular policies.

3. I’m not entirely convinced we should want the Tories to ‘modernise’, or encourage them to. Why? In fact I’d prefer it if there was more distance between the Tories and Labour and Libdems. I want real choice dammit, and all this ‘tacking to the centre’ stuff is incredibly bad on the ideological folks like me. And Peter Hitchens, though I don’t want to be in the same category as him.

The point is – the Guardian et al are almost encouraging Cameron to modernise. No please! Let them suck up the Delingpoles and the Hitchens and the Tebbits of the world. And let the Labour party become more left so people can have real choice between the parties.

@11 Sunny

“The point is – the Guardian et al are almost encouraging Cameron to modernise. No please! Let them suck up the Delingpoles and the Hitchens and the Tebbits of the world. And let the Labour party become more left so people can have real choice between the parties.”

I know writing the obituary of the 2 party system may be premature (tho’ I’m as keen to dance on it’s grave as anyone), but isn’t the logic of your position in a “reformed” parliament that what we might end up with is at least four or five groupings? A truly left wing party (Old Labour), a Social Democratic party, a Liberal/Centre party, a One-Nation Tory party, and a home for Thatcherites and UKIP die-hards on the right?


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence – http://bit.ly/bSXcmN

  2. Tim Ireland

    RT @pickledpolitics: 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  3. Luke Bosman

    'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft /via @pickledpolitics

  4. Brian Duggan

    RT @pickledpolitics: 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  5. Tom Griffin

    RT @pickledpolitics: 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  6. John West

    RT @pickledpolitics: 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  7. marco cosimi

    RT @pickledpolitics: 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  8. Sunder Katwala

    My Fabian Review essay > RT @libcon Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence – http://bit.ly/bSXcmN

  9. Rob

    Well worth a read RT @Nextleft My Fabian Review essay Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence – http://bit.ly/bSXcmN

  10. sunny hundal

    'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  11. Left Outside

    RT @pickledpolitics 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft < v good

  12. Sarah Ditum

    'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft (via @pickledpolitics)

  13. Martin Burns

    RT @pickledpolitics: 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  14. Lee

    RT @pickledpolitics: 'Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence' http://bit.ly/bSXcmN – good essay by @nextleft

  15. Fabienne

    RT @nextleft: My Fabian Review essay > RT @libcon Why Cameron couldn’t modernize his party: the electric fence – http://bit.ly/bSXcmN

  16. Jonn Elledge

    Simply excellent Sunder Katwala piece @libcon on Cameron's failure to reform the Tory party http://bit.ly/bSIc7w

  17. Sunder Katwala

    @xtophercook u see this http://bit.ly/9ivyZM 2nd half really quest for reasons to hope for prospects of willettsism on right





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