Not saying sorry is the hardest thing to do

Why does David Cameron spend so much time apologising for old Tory policies, from the poll tax in Scotland to bashing the ANC?

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

In recent months, Conservative Party leader David Cameron has gained a reputation as the politest man in Westminster.

Last week, for instance, he apologised to the people of Scotland over the then Conservative government’s imposition of the poll tax in the late Eighties. The local tax was implemented there a year before anywhere else in the UK. As the Conservatives were about as popular in Scotland as Gary Glitter is at a children’s party, they could afford to test out unpopular policies north of the border. After all, no matter what the Conservatives did or didn’t do, not many bothered to vote for them anyway (a trend that has now caught on in England, too).

However, blushing boy Cameron now talks about the Tories’ pragmatic decision to try out the poll tax in Scotland as if it were the equivalent of introducing slavery in Aberdeen. ‘The imposition of the poll tax was the most egregious [in a series of blunders]’, he said. ‘The decision to treat Scotland as a laboratory for experimentation in new methods of local government finance was clumsy and unjust.’ As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a Scottish poll tax survivors’ group seeking compensation for this once unfair council bill – is there?

Cameron also apologised for the ‘embarrassing’ English ‘insensitivity’ on matters ranging from the acceptability of Scottish banknotes to ‘the inevitable aggressive Glaswegian drunk’ in TV programmes (1). Wasn’t it BBC Scotland that first popularised the Glaswegian-drunk-stereotype, Rab C Nesbitt?

Cameron displayed another alarming flight of fantasy when he promised to take on ‘sour little Englanders’ who wanted to ‘get rid of Scotland’. I was unaware that there is an English fundamentalist movement ready to inflict a jihad along Hadrian’s Wall. Still, not to worry – Cameron reassures nervous Scots that he’ll ‘fight them all the way’, presumably on his eco-friendly bicycle. If one thing’s likely to inflame Caledonian resentment, it’s the idea they need protecting from the English by someone like Cameron. ‘If I become the prime minister of the United Kingdom’, said Cameron, ‘I’ll never, ever take Scotland for granted.’ With the Conservative Party running at 12 per cent in the opinion polls for next May’s Holyrood elections, clearly the feeling isn’t mutual (2).

This isn’t the first time – and it probably won’t be the last time – that Cameron has said ‘sorry’ for one of his predecessor’s policies. Back in August he was bouncing around South Africa, ‘amazed’ at the cordiality of black Africans and popping in for a chat-cum-photo-shoot with Nelson Mandela. Aside from emulating such titans of international statesmanship as David Beckham and the Spice Girls, Cameron was hoping to put some distance between himself and Thatcher’s labelling of Mandela and his African National Congress as ‘terrorists’. He also stated that his party was ‘wrong’ not to impose sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa.

Not surprisingly Cameron was attacked by some of those former Tory ministers who sat in Thatcher’s government and devised these earlier policies. Lord Tebbit said of Cameron’s intervention on former Conservative policy on South Africa: ‘Because of his age, Mr Cameron is looking at these events as part of history. Others of us who lived through them and had input into the discussions at the time see things very differently….’

For Cameron, berating the excesses of Margaret Thatcher’s reign in Downing Street is easier than having to devise new and innovative policies. He has yet to pen any substantial party documents or articles to suggest he has a vision for twenty-first-century Britain. Even his self-flagellation is hardly original. Britain’s political class has been distancing itself from Empire and elitism for the best part of a decade. Cameron’s contribution has simply been to do it with more puppy-dog enthusiasm than, say, William Hague donning a baseball cap for the Notting Hill carnival.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s scatter-shot approach is only a reflection of the Conservative Party’s isolation. For much of the previous century, this political organisation had deep roots throughout British society. It might have been the establishment’s party, but it also commanded support from all sections of the British people. This is why Conservative clubs and associations were as commonplace in terraced-house areas of Britain as were Labour and trade union clubs. Such organic roots in society meant it was sensitive to new developments and could adapt accordingly. Even Thatcher’s more openly confrontational style against her political opponents belied a nuanced pragmatism behind the scenes.

To be consistently successful as an electoral machine also required a deeper understanding of politics and ideology than was apparent on the left. The Conservatives’ trump card was always to define their sectional interests as ‘common sense’ and ‘above’ politics. For a party that practically defined British politics, it was hardly surprising that they became the biggest casualty of post-politics, of the end of the left-right era and the demise of the old ideologies. Cameron instinctively understands that it is his party’s political conviction – rather than a deficiency in compassion or ‘niceness’ – that still makes the Tories problematic for some today. Thus his solution is to become the political equivalent of that guy who publicly ‘apologised’ for his ancestor’s role in the slave trade.

The trouble with this line of debasement is that while it’s easy to pander to essentialism, it is impossible to appease it. Far from rejuvenating Tory fortunes, raking over Thatcher’s political ashes will only highlight guilt-by-association. If Cameron is so keen on re-appraising past Conservative leaders, a cursory glance at Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum ‘never explain, never apologise’ is surely needed.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer in London.

(1) Guardian, 16 September 2006

(2) Guardian, 16 September 2006

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