Bland cannot be the new Tory brand

An Op Ed style comment piece to coincide with the publication of  Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics, Or why old Tory stories matter to us all. *

David Cameron’s Tories seem very likely to deliver a pretty solid majority at next year’s general election. The diminishing band of Conservative party activists will presumably be quite pleased about that. Most conservative intellectuals – I am thinking of Simon Heffer, Peter Hitchens, Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) – seem not to be. They feel the country has gone to the dogs even more than is supposed by David Cameron’s “Broken Britain” mantra. The refusenik right wants to administer a dose of tough, traditional, nationalist, low-tax Toryism to put things back on track. They fear the reborn party has instead delivered a vaguely neo-Blairite mush.

The disaffected are right in one very important respect. David Cameron’s leadership has resolutely binned his party’s history. Of course, a lack of identity, ideals and message – or even of commitment – is not the worst thing for Tories. Samuel H Beer, the great American analyst of British politics (who died this spring, aged 97) once said the Tories were defined by a “will to power – and nothing more”. David Cameron could readily claim that he has taken a party of losers and turned them into winners. Why look too closely at the wiring? In short, in having no advertised principles, Mr Cameron may merely have pursued the oldest Conservative playbook going.

John Charmley, an academic historian of conservative thought, says that the commonest Tory trope is simply to fix Labour’s messes. As Matthew Engel has pointed out, “Britain usually turns to Labour with enthusiasm and the Tories with relief”. But the present generation of voters may feel Tories can’t claim to have seen the crisis coming, or to have formulated policies which would have made it less likely. Voters will now turn to the Tories with a hope rather than expectation of relief.

Worse, there are several ways in which the new vaccuity of the Tories represents a different and depressing kind of retreat from old Tory values and verities.

Worst of these is that the Tories have for most of their history been able to claim that they were practical people pursuing realistic goals for their country. They were not merely pragmatic. They were also sensible. The most alarming feature of the Cameroons is not only that too many of them look and seem like PRs (or smooth West End car or art dealers), but that they have done nothing to persuade us that they want to undo the damage done to British government – to the country’s polity – by New Labour’s spin merchants and apparatchiks. Robert Peel and William Pitt, Tory Prime Ministers who loved government, must be spinning in their graves.

The last four ex-Cabinet Secretaries have lined up to tell the House of Lords Constitution Committee about how bad things have become (though, as The Economist has pointed out) they were complicit in the process.  Lord Sainsbury – a New Labour figure – has identified the problem and put millions into a new Institute of Government, which is working with the Shadow Cabinet. But the commentariat – including Tory supporters – seem unpersuaded that the message is getting through. The word is that David Cameron is running the sort of clique and messaging which did so well for Tony Blair in the late 90s, and may well run the government of sofa, den and bunker which has been so dispiriting in recent years.

It is difficult to fault the Cameroons for having wanted to decontaminate the brand. They have indeed made it seem human and even personable. We can take it, I think, that the Cameroons’ flirtation with the feel-good, well-being and communitarian mantras of Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism is dog-whistle stuff for the metropolitan elite. Even so, the party seems to have veered dangerously left. I doubt it was right to accept that Mrs Thatcher had been monsterised by the country to the point that victory depended on little more than showing how un-Thatcherite the party had become. There is some evidence that young voters are a good deal more comfortable with right-wingery than their elders are. What’s more, whilst toughness may seem redundant in a boom, it is quite possible that voters could accept that Mrs Thatcher might be just the ticket for a bust.  Instead, Mr Cameron is still stressing that she’s no model for him.

The worst of the Cameroons is that they seem to accept that New Labour has rewritten history so successfully that everyone now believes, and cannot be shifted in their belief, that the Tory Party has only ever been Thatcherite. In fact, for most of the last century, and certainly since Stanley Baldwin, the party enjoyed political success by attending to the wet or “nice” voices within its ranks. What’s more, the work of several modern historians of conservative thought and politics shows us that these voices were not merely “triangulating” their views for electoral purposes. The late E H H Green described how Harold Macmillan’s The Middle Way – written in the 30s and presaging New Labour’s Third Way – was an intellectually coherent case for kindly state interference, and written in response to the First World War and the Great Depression. It could claim political roots in Disraeli’s One Nation arguments of the mid 19th Century.

The “nice” wing of the party was matched by the dry or “nasty” wing, and it too had 19th Century roots, as we see in Michael Bentley’s lovely writing on Lord Salisbury. The “nasty” wing had a profound intellectual revival in America and the UK in the thinking of men like Friedrich Hayek and (as Simon Heffer shows us) in the politics of Enoch Powell. It was to come to fruition in Thatcherism, but was adopted to a very remarkable degree by Tony Blair.

It is a crying shame that modern Tories seem to run scared from these very varied Tory stories. It is positively frightening if the party is merely being accurate in its assessment of an electorate which couldn’t stomach the rich seriousness of Tory themes. As John Charmley insists, “The Tories have done best when they blend their traditions”.  So maybe our modern problem is that voters can’t do subtlety. I prefer to insist that bland cannot be the new black and it cannot be the new brand. I cling to the hope that once they are in power, the Tories will risk showing their roots.

* Richard D North’s Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics: Or why old Tory stories matter to us all, to be published by Social Affairs Unit, £10, 15 October 2009

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Publication date

02 October 2009