David Cameron and the demise of Conservatism

We now have a non-Tory leading the Conservative Party, to go with our non-Labourite leader of the Labour Party.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Most commentators have been getting overexcited about the prospects of a Conservative Party revival under new leader David Cameron. Unlike many on the left, we at spiked would not mind too much if there was a Tory revival. It might at least help to inject some energy into the corpse of UK political life. Anything would be preferable to the current state of stasis under New Labour as we sit quietly awaiting Gordon Brown’s succession.

But the Cameron thing is not a revival of Conservatism. Early indications are that the arrival of this apparently young, dynamic leader may well boost his party’s standing in the polls. But in political terms, his accession marks the final demise of anything that might be recognised as a Tory Party. The political emptying-out of Conservatism, a process that has been proceeding in faltering fashion for some time, is now set to accelerate towards a conclusion.

Many comparisons have been made between Cameron and prime minister Tony Blair. Here is one that seems to have escaped the notice of most commentators. We now effectively have a non-Tory leading the Conservative Party, to go with our non-Labourite leader of the Labour Party.

We have noted before on spiked that Cameron won the Tory leadership contest as the blank slate candidate (see David Cameron: A blank slate, by Josie Appleton). Despite all the guff about his youth, he is on the cusp of 40, and has achieved the quite remarkable distinction for a politician of his age of never having made his mark on any issue.

Since being confirmed as Conservative leader this month, Cameron has energetically set about showing the public what he is not – ie, that he is not a racist or homophobe, or a free marketeer, or a rugged individualist, or an opponent of many New Labour reforms. That he is not Margaret Thatcher (‘There is such a thing as society’) or any of the other four Tory leaders who have come after her. In short, in any terms that could be recognisable from the past decades of Tory politics, he is not a Conservative.

It is striking that Cameron’s team appear to be searching not for a future-oriented political project, so much as for a totem of Toryism past that they can
knock down and trample on. Everybody says they want to find the equivalent of Labour’s old Clause Four supporting the redistribution of wealth – the left’s sacred object which Blair smashed as a symbolic act of distancing New Labour from the party’s past. All Cameron’s Tories have been able to come up with so far is a timid suggestion to get some more women MPs.

One common reaction to the immediate changes that Cameron has wrought is to try to dismiss it all as window-dressing or the Emperor’s new clothes. After Cameron’s praise-winning performance at his first prime minister’s question time last week, New Labour chairman Ian McCartney sent out a highly defensive email circular, headed ‘New gloss, same old Tories’, which asserted that ‘The Tories may have changed their leader yet again but the fundamental divide between the parties remains the same’.

This looks like the confused reaction from the Tories when Blair and Brown first took over the Labour Party. They tried to insist that New Labour was just Old Labour in drag, running the ‘demon eyes’ campaign to expose the supposedly ‘real’ Blair behind the toothy smile. The result was to make the Conservatives look out of touch and ridiculous, and they were beaten out of sight at the 1997 general election. In the same way, many on the left hoped and prayed that once Blair and Brown were in power, they would throw off the new Labour disguise and emerge as a true socialist government. Despite that bitter disappointment, some still delude themselves that Brown will suddenly revert to his Real Labour roots once in office.

New Labour soon demonstrated that it was not just old Labour minus the cloth cap. It was an entirely different political formation. The same will prove true of Cameron’s new Conservatives. They may find it tricky to carry off the transformation successfully in a Tory Party that has been sustained by its sense of tradition. But there is no going back to ‘real’ Tory politics even if they wanted to (which they do not). Those were finally exposed as outdated and redundant in this year’s general election, where even half-hearted attempts to play ‘the Tory card’ on immigration or taxation proved too much for most to stomach. By contrast, the speed with which Cameron moved to set up a new commission on the environment, headed by trendy Green millionaire Zac Goldsmith, was a clear statement of his conformist attitude to the new political terrain mapped out under Blair.

The Tory Party is now attempting to empty itself out of its political baggage in a way that makes the ‘travelling light’ approach of New Labour almost look heavyweight by comparison. There is much speculation about what this might mean for politics. While Cameron has had an easy start, it remains true that the Conservatives are a very long way behind where New Labour already was when Blair became leader, and that the ‘Cameron factor’ has had a less positive impact on public attitudes than the Blair factor did a decade ago. On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of decay about the government.

But we do not have to wait until the next general election to judge the impact of Cameron’s meteoric rise. It already seems clear that his accession is set further to deaden public debate in the here and now. The sort of ‘exciting’ agenda that the new Tories are likely to pursue can be guessed at from the statement by one of Cameron’s close advisors that there are no big issues left, and that politics is now all about managing things. Those first ‘After you, Claude’ exchanges between Blair and Cameron in parliament look like a sign of what is to come. Nor is it likely to change for the better if Gordon Brown finally becomes Labour prime minister. Under the baleful influence of that Scottish Presbyterian bank manager, things look set to become duller still.

For some years now, many of us have complained about politics being turned into a ‘beauty contest’, meaning a competition to show which leader has the most attractive character and temperament rather than policies. Now, however, it seems that politics is in danger of being reduced to a real beauty contest, as the media speculate endlessly about whether ‘good-looking’ Dave can win the women’s vote away from ‘grim-looking’ Gordon.

Cameron gave an early declaration of what we should expect when he said he wanted an end to ‘Punch and Judy’ politics of traditional parliamentary debate. Understandably, some have objected that what we really need is more Punch and Judy politics, more ferocious debate about big issues rather than bland consensus. At spiked we are always in favour of sharper debate and political punch-ups. But we should not waste our time indulging in nostalgia about the political battles of the past, or wishing for a return of traditional Left-Right politics. Remember, it is the exhaustion of both those traditions that has brought us to the current impasse.

There will have to be new dividing lines drawn in British politics before we can engage in a meaningful debate about the future. Frank Furedi has previously proposed on spiked that the most important line to draw will be between those who believe in the ability of humanity to shape its own destiny, and those who have abandoned any such Enlightenment thinking. Such a divide would surely put Blair, Brown and Cameron all on the same side – the wrong one – today.

Just a footnote about Mr Punch. Obviously a wife-and-baby-beater is nobody’s idea of a modern role model. But one thing we might recall about the original Mr Punch was his determination not to have outsiders, be it policeman or crocodile, interfere in his affairs. Punch and Judy politics for today? Perhaps that’s the way to do it.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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