Compare: Cameron & Blair and 1997 & 2010

Here we go again. We are headed for an epoch-making election with an opposition leader who has a horror of authenticity. We don’t need atavastic politics, but it is a big danger that we have political stars whose charisma depends on being bland and controlling. Mr Cameron could do far better.

Wind back to the New Year of 1997, and marvel at how familiar things seem. Blair then and Cameron now are youngish and family men. They come from good public schools and Oxford University. They have reframed their parties. They face exhausted governing parties. They are indefinably but definitely modern (not least in being religious).  Their successes are personal and they are in some sense transformational individuals.

Bland is the new brand
The biggest similarity between them is that they are uncertain as to whether or how to be or at least seem authentic. They are uncertain what of their country’s, their own or their parties’ histories can be played into the electoral theatre. So whilst they are both determinedly open and attractive, they seem bland and opaque.

David Cameron is presumably, like Blair, a deft and tough politician, and he has certainly done wonders in rebranding his party. But he is squandering some big opportunities as he follows much of the Blair recipe. David Cameron has not noticed – or not dared respond to – the modern hunger for authenticity, and for the resonances of tradition. Only amongst a chattering elite is our sterling warts-and-all history feared rather than admired. Cameron would win points for boldness in declaring pride in these things.  

We look back on Blair’s premiership and see that it was only as he transmuted into a war-leader that we seemed to see the bedrock of his person. Now, we are bound to wonder if there will be as large a gap between perception and reality in Cameron as we found to have been the case for most of Blair’s years in power.

Blair loved Mrs T, Cameron is frightened of her
There are important differences between their politics. Blair knew success would come in emulating and even celebrating large bits of Conservative attitude and policy, including the person and ethos of Mrs Thatcher. Cameron knows – or thinks he knows – that success depends on distancing himself from the Conservative, and especially from the Thatcher, record.

Matthew Engel (a mild but sharp commentator) wrote in the Financial Times, “Britain usually turns to Labour with enthusiasm and the Conservatives with relief”. The difference flows in part from an asymmetry in the problems Labour and Conservative face. Labour has always been the party which put good intentions in front of efficacy. The Tories get elected because their being tough, practical and moderate promises to mend the damage done by Labour’s ardour. Still, educated floating voters don’t ever quite forgive themselves for voting Conservative. Indeed, in 1992, polls didn’t forecast John Major’s re-election, presumably because many people didn’t ‘fess up to their intention to vote for him.

Keynes, Beveridge, Macmillan, Major, Baldwin, Disraeli: what’s next?
David Cameron is properly ambitious he must want his country to come out of the closet as real, full-time Tories. He seems – correctly – to believe that if only the Conservatives got their own thinking and policy into the right place, the party could be much more generally and consistently appreciated. He needs Conservatism to be seen to have a handle on virtue.

Previous Tory success has flowed from Conservatives accepting that goodness was identified with socialism and corporatism. Baldwin, Macmillan, Heath and Major all campaigned and governed as though Labour’s thinking were givens. Beveridge and Keynes were all a politician needed to quote, and neither had to be properly understood. Thatcher, of course, dissented and changed national attitudes – economic and social – rightwards in a way which was permanent but electorally toxic.

Blair riffed these richly complex Tory themes with genius. His Third Way amounted to a reconciliation of Macmillan and Thatcher. The market could deliver huge benefits – including in delivery of social policy – but the state had a large role.

Cameron’s mantra “There is society it just isn’t the same as the state” aimed to bounce Thatcher’s, “There’s no such thing as society”. But it also outflanked Macmillan’s Middle Way from the 1930s and Blair’s Third Way from the 1990s. Mr Cameron perhaps really does believe that Philip Blond’s breathless Red Toryism is a brilliant formulation of these ideas. But as we saw in Mr Cameron’s “Big Society” speech in November, it has the difficulty that it pretends that there is a great sea of communitarianism, activism and localism just longing to pour tough love into the social gaps left by a retreating state. As Daniel Johnson has pointed out in Standpoint, George W Bush tried that approach to Compassionate Conservatism and it was at best a mixed blessing.

A new reforming Toryism, true to tradition
To be true Conservatives, but in a modern context, the Tories need to demonstrate that compassion can be balanced with a state which does as little as possible, but cleverly. They want the state to retreat but in a way which is non-threatening to a country which is wedded to the idea not merely of social safety nets but also universal provision of welfare. I think the solution will lie in, first, detaching the state from the ownership of the infrastructure of welfare (the schools, pension funds and so on) whilst later, and second, shifting toward a state which funds individuals (and increasingly, only poor individuals) to access the services they need. That can be done in a quite gradual way, and builds on work done by Thatcher, Major, Blair and even Brown. 

David Cameron could build a vision of a multi-generational Conservative approach which sees a thread uniting the country from at least the Great Depression of the 30s, but before that too, in which people of goodwill of every wing of all the main parties have laboured to reconcile enterprise, economics and compassion. He could articulate what the general public do generally believe. This is that the Tories are right to point out that the old left has ideas and policies which damage society, not least by failing economically and creating welfare dependency. The Tories have always posited – and can now – that they are working on a better approach.

David Cameron should be much more ambitious about stating just how limited the state’s role should eventually be, but much less misty-eyed about how much volunteer idealism can replace it or how quickly changes can be made. He could stress that the state cannot retreat until and unless workable structures (private firms, professional Third Sector bodies, public trusts and all the rest) are proven to work.

Gradualism would be at the heart of this approach. That would sit well with another theme which is available to David Cameron and which he seems very reluctant to deploy. He could play to the belief that the Conservatives have, historically, been good at government. Sure, Mrs Thatcher rather dented that, as she denigrated both her ministers and their ministries (pace her delight in Yes, Minister and the good jokes about Cabinet vegetables in Spitting Image). Cameron could renounce presidentialism, but also the Blairite taste for spin, message control and sofa government. That seems to be the message which Lord Sainsbury’s Institute For Government is trying to din into the Tories.  Mr Cameron could show that Westminster and Whitehall have such good traditions that the best response to 2009’s horrors is to remind the country that they are worth reforming. The effort might even give some meaning to the Cameronian theme of “Post-bureaucratic Government”.
If he got on with this work David Cameron could be seen to stand for something and it would have the merit of being both traditional and forward-looking. Tony Blair would look on in envy.

* The author’s new book, Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics: Or why old Tory stories matter to us all (2009) and his Mr Blair’s Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world (2006)) were published by the Social Affairs Unit.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Publication date

24 December 2009