The Fortinbras Factor
David Cameron’s Conservatives are profiting from the demise of New Labour – but there is no ‘Tory revival’.
The Conservatives may well be heading for government. But there is still no sign of any ‘Tory revival’ in British politics. And nor will there be. Traditional right-wing Tory politics were exhausted even before New Labour came to power. Conservative leader David Cameron could not revive ‘Thatcherism’ if he wanted to – which he most certainly does not. Despite scaremongering on the left about the threatened return of ‘real’ Toryism, Cameron’s strategy looks less like a Thatcherite revival than a brand of – if you can imagine anything so featherweight – Blairism-lite.
After Conservative victories in the London mayoral contest, local elections and Crewe and Nantwich by-election, the polls now show David Cameron’s party well ahead of Gordon Brown’s stricken New Labour government. They now appear to be on course to win a general election by default.
Yet the Conservatives are not fighting for a distinctive Tory agenda. They are not fighting for anything. They are simply waiting for New Labour to implode completely, and hoping that if they don’t do anything much they won’t upset too many voters in the meantime.
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher had her ‘Falklands Factor’, the surge of flag-waving nationalism she used to militarise politics and crush the opposition. By contrast, Cameron is passively relying on what we might call the ‘Fortinbras Factor’. Fortinbras is the prince of Norway who circles the action in Shakepeare’s Hamlet, and moves in to take over only once the Danish royal family has destroyed itself. Cameron hopes to complete a similarly ‘bloodless’ coup after Brown’s courtiers have finished backstabbing and poisoning one another.
How would such a ‘triumph’ equate to the shift to the right that many are now predicting (either in hope or fear)? After Crewe, Cameron made headlines by announcing that the devastating defeat for the government marked ‘the end of New Labour’. But he was not dancing on the government’s grave, as Mrs Thatcher did when she boasted of having achieved her aim of ‘killing socialism’. Instead Cameron was signalling that his party intended to take over where New Labour had left off.
What he said in full about Crewe was that ‘for Labour, it was the end of being the party of aspiration, it was the end of being the party of opportunity: it was the end of New Labour’. It seemed Cameron was aiming to put himself at the head of a new New Labour-style coalition by signalling his commitment to such banal Blairisms as aspiration and opportunity. The only war he intends to wage is ‘love-bombing’ (as they apparently call it at Conservative HQ) non-traditional voters to persuade them that he won’t rock the boat.
None of this should come as much of a surprise to those who have watched Cameron’s trajectory over the past two-and-a-half years rather than indulging their own left- or right-wing daydreams. He won the Conservative leadership election as the blank slate candidate, who stood for nothing and on to whom people could project whatever views they liked. Much was made of his youth at the time, but in fact he was almost 40 and had achieved the remarkable distinction for a politician of his age of never having made a serious mark on any issue, rising without trace from the world of PR to lead the traditional party of the British establishment.
As I noted on spiked in December 2005: ‘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.‘ (See David Cameron and the demise of Conservatism, by Mick Hume) In the two years that followed, Cameron continued carefully distancing himself from the Tory totems of the past and embracing any passing fashionable movement from environmentalism to empathy or African poverty.
As a result, how many people could say what distinctive principles the Conservatives stand for today? The emptying-out of Conservative politics does not only make Cameron look pale in comparison to the true blue of an old Tory like Thatcher. It even makes Blair’s New Labour, the masters of dumping the political baggage of the past and ‘travelling light’, look like ideological heavyweights by comparison.
Look at Blair’s standing when he reached the point where Cameron is today. Poll-watchers are now excitedly pointing out that Cameron is getting closer to establishing the sort of lead that Blair enjoyed before the New Labour landslide of 1997. Now, we all know that New Labour won that election as a result of deep public resentment with the old Tory regime rather than a positive endorsement of its policy proposals. Indeed, in our age of negative politics, it seems that most elections are lost by governments more than they are won by opposition parties.
Even so, by the time he was being looked upon as the next prime minister, Blair had at least established an identifiable public image. He had defeated the Labour left by removing their beloved Clause 4 from the party constitution (the fantasy one about redistributing wealth to workers by hand or brain), and established the ‘brand’ of New Labour. Blair had also made speeches with themes that caught the media’s imagination: for example, he outlined his three priorities for government as ‘education, education, education’ in 1996, while he coined the phrase ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ back in 1992, shortly after becoming shadow home secretary.
These things, it can fairly be said, were sound bites more than sound political principles, typical of Blair’s PR politics. But the point here is that Cameron does not even have sound bites to fall back on. He has still left no impression on public debate at all. His attempts to popularise awkward formulations such as ‘Progressive ends. Conservative means’ have not exactly caught fire, while few can have been inspired by the new Conservative slogan, ‘Living within our means’, a sentiment that almost makes Gordon Brown sound daring. So worried has the Conservative leadership become about alienating its fragile, paper-thin support that it has even been backtracking quietly from some of the fashionable issues it recently adopted. Thus we have not heard much about Cameron’s domestic windmill, glacier-hugging or other green stunts since it became clear that eco-austerity measures were not exactly popular with hard-pressed consumers.
Perhaps Cameron’s best hope of passing himself off as the candidate of serious political change lies with his opponents on the old left. Bereft of real hope but searching for something to cling to, their delusions in Brown finally exposed, some on the left are relying on drumming up fear of the Tory bogeyman to galvanise the rump of Labour support. Their claim that ‘the real Tories’ are hiding behind Cameron’s smarmy smile echo the Tories’ own misjudged attempt to cast Blair and Co as socialists in disguise in their disastrous ‘demon eyes’ posters during the 1997 General Election.
We saw the left’s own practice-run for these tactics during the recent election for the London mayor, when they tried to depict Boris Johnson as some sort of Thatcherite semi-Nazi who would destroy all the good work of Ken Livingstone’s regime. Many Londoners who did not quite see the Ken years that way were unimpressed; some may even have voted for Boris because of the shrill, hectoring temper of the campaign to stop him. And what real difference has the ‘Boris revolution’ made to London in the past month? None, apart from changing the colour of the administration’s stickers all over the city, and banning booze on the tube – a tokenistic, kneejerk gesture of an illiberal stunt which, as Brendan O’Neill discusses elsewhere on spiked, could have come straight out of the Livingstone/New Labour book of government (see Boris and the ‘politics of misbehaviour’, by Brendan O’Neill). It is the same old managerialism under a new corporate logo.
Labour’s pathetic ‘anti-toff’ campaign in the Crewe by-election has been widely derided, but a similar tone runs through much Labour Party propaganda today, as they warn that Britain risks being taken over by the posh ‘Bullingdon Club’ elitists such as Cameron and Johnson. Leaving aside the awkward fact that most New Labour leaders also went to public schools and Oxbridge universities, this toff-bashing reveals a lot about both sides. It confirms that the Conservatives have so little in the way of distinctive politics that the only handle Labour can get on them is their background. On the other hand, Labour’s lowlife personalised campaigning reveals that they have no political alternative to offer, either.
It all seems a long way from the class-baiting clashes between Tory prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home and grammar school-educated Labour leader Harold Wilson before the 1964 election. When Wilson declared that the Conservative leader could not be in touch with the people because he was ‘the 14th Earl of Home’ (and Home rather feebly and aristocratically responded that the Labour leader was probably also ‘the 14th Mr Wilson’), it caught the mood of the age and signalled the 1960s collapse of the old Establishment’s authority. By contrast, today’s jibes about ‘Tory toffs’ are just so much playground name-calling.
No, there is no revival of Toryism. But unlike many others on the left, I would not be too worried if there was. At least it might inject some life into the deadening state of political ‘debate’. I am not now and have never been a toff or a Tory supporter. But almost anything would surely be better than the current contest between the corpse of New Labour and the cardboard cut-out of the Conservatives.
Mick hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Frank Furedi said the Crewe by-election was a Farce War, not Class War. Mick Hume attacked the cheapening of democracy and argued that you can’t revive the corpse of the Labour Party. Neil Davenport criticised the affection for dopey Dave. And Brendan O’Neill called for positive politics. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.