The Tories have changed – but not for the better
Forget the left’s fantasies about the return of Thatcherism. New Conservatives or New Labour, they are all accountants now.
At a time when politics in the UK (and come to think of it the rest of the world) often seems to make little sense, it can be comforting to try to fit events into the familiar patterns of the past. Hence many have been quick to see this week’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester as a re-run of the 1980s. Just look, they say – demands for public spending cuts, focus on the problem of welfare benefits, divisions over Britain’s relationship with Europe? It’s the Thatcher years all over again!
One left-leaning columnist’s attack on the Conservative conference was headlined ‘The Tories’ retro party’. Meanwhile The Times (London) led with a survey that claimed many people still think the Tories have not really changed at all.
It is always dangerous to judge political developments too much on surface appearances. And it is worse to try to see only what you want to see. There is a strong element of wishful thinking in the efforts of critics to brand David Cameron’s party as ‘the same old Tories’, thus seeking shelter in the past by presenting the discredited New Labour government as the anti-Thatcherite alternative.
It might be true to say that the Tories have not ‘changed’, but only because that verb underestimates what has happened to them. The Conservatives have not simply altered their appearance or changed their suit, but have transmogrified into an entirely different beast. Indeed it would be truer to say that as the traditional party of the Empire, the Establishment and anti-Communism, which dominated political life for a century and exercised a powerful hold on British society from top to bottom, the Tory Party no longer exists.
This week in Manchester there are two Conservative parties on display, each a pale shadow of the powerful ruling-class machine of the past and neither with very deep roots in wider society.
Up on the platform there are the New Conservatives – basically Cameron and his leadership clique, a small number of bland machine operators whose main concern often seems to be to distance themselves from the Tory Party of the past. Nobody is too sure what they stand for, but they have established an image as what we might call the No-Nots – the Not-Norman-Tebbit party.
Down on the conference floor, meanwhile, sit the rotting remains of the old Conservative Party. Increasingly elderly and female-dominated (due to the genetics of ageing rather than the politics of feminism), these people are as isolated and alienated from the mores of modern Britain as any Islamic youth. They represent largely unwanted baggage to Cameron and Co, who would prefer to run for election as a personality with a PR campaign attached (the leader himself being a PR man by profession and instinct).
In practice neither of these Conservative groupings bears much relation to the Tory Party of the past. Look, for example, at the plans to cut public spending, which many see as a clear parallel with the Thatcherite policies of the 1980s. Yet the political motivation is quite different.
The Thatcher government was on a self-styled ideological crusade to ‘roll back the state’ and free the markets – a crusade, by the way, far more effective in rhetoric than in reality, since even then British capitalism could not survive without massive state support. The Cameron leadership, by contrast, would not know an ideological crusade if one bit its well-tailored backside. They are simply looking at the UK’s massive state spending deficit of £175 billion with the eye of accountants, and deciding more in sorrow than in anger that the sums do not add up.
Where the Thatcherite ideologues talked bluntly about mass unemployment as ‘a price worth paying’ to cut public spending and sort out the trade unions, Cameron has tried to stress that ‘We want to do this in a way that avoids job losses’. Where Thatcher openly declared the aim of her policies to be waging war on a section of society and ‘killing socialism’, Cameron’s Conservatives appear to have borrowed their saccharin slogan – ‘We’re all in this together’ – from a song in Disney’s High School Musical. And where the Tories of 20 years ago nailed their colours to the mast of the good ship ‘Popular Capitalism’, today’s Conservative leadership eschew the c-word and are even prepared to have a go at the bankers, the most unpopular face of capitalism.
The ascendancy of the anti-ideological accountant mentality in both New Labour and the New Conservatives has changed politics fundamentally – if not destroyed it altogether. Despite the desperate attempts of all sides to pretend that there is a ‘clear choice’ between the parties, there is little more to choose between them than between the loans and savings deals offered by the big banks. Whether the issue is freezing public sector pay or getting claimants off incapacity benefit, the differences are only ones of degrees and dates. It is no surprise to find that Cameron’s plans for welfare reform have been drafted with the help of a former top New Labour adviser.
They are all accountants now. The Tories have lost their base and their bearings as badly as Labour. If the old cynics’ cry that they are ‘all the same’ seems closer to the truth than ever before, it is basically because they share the common ground of standing for nothing of principle. Each has a hole where its heart and soul should be.
Some might reasonably ask how much it matters what the Conservatives’ political motivation might be, if they are going to implement cuts anyway. But it matters because it means there is unlikely to be any meaningful political debate about the future of our economy and society, beyond quibbles over percentage points. The absence of a clear political purpose also raises questions about whether Cameron and Co will have the nerve or the authority to force through their plans at all.
This also explains the remarkable fact that, despite the widespread revulsion with the discredited New Labour government, the Conservatives are not yet entirely assured of a convincing victory in next year’s General Election. Cameron the posh PR executive and his shadow cabinet of accountants have no means of galvanising political support even on the scale of Tony Blair, never mind Margaret Thatcher in her pomp. The New Conservatives are holding their conference in the New Labour capital of Manchester as a symbol of their reaching out beyond traditional Tory heartlands. But they still do not have an elected councillor in the city.
Despite these problems, the poll that showed many don’t believe the Tories have changed also confirmed that the deep unpopularity of the government remains their one overriding asset. It also revealed that, despite misgivings about his being such a toff, Cameron remains more popular than his party. In other words, if he is doing well it is only because he is not really seen as a Tory.
Behind the lazy comparisons the truth is that the Conservatives have changed beyond recognition and traditional Toryism is dead. But that does not mean that they have changed for the better. It means they are now another bunch of second-rate accountants trying to manage our lives like a ledger of debts. It means that there will be even less meaningful debate about the future of society than there was in the past, beyond differing definitions of austerity. As Brendan O’Neill has argued elsewhere on spiked, Cameron’s plans for parliamentary reform reveal his instincts are at least as anti-democratic and anti-political as New Labour’s – and he plans to appoint even more unelected peers to push them through (see The Tories and the tyranny of anti-politics).
For decades, many of my old friends on the left have been driven by a passionate anti-Toryism that echoes Nye Bevan’s famous description of them as ‘lower than vermin’. It is not too difficult to see why they find it hard to accept that things have changed, why they find comfort in trying to re-run the anti-Thatcherite battles of the Eighties rather than grapple with the less clear-cut political blancmange of today. But the truth is that the old Tories, like Labour’s old state socialists, are gone and they ain’t coming back.
To oppose the New Conservatives’ plans will require some new political arguments – starting with an acceptance that New Labour is no alternative. It is no doubt true that in many ways Cameron will be worse than Blair and Brown have been. But then, so would Brown.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume pointed out that the demise of New Labour did not amount to a Tory revival. Back in 2005, he argued that David Cameron was a non-Tory leading the Tory party. Rob Lyons reckoned Cameron’s Tories are the heirs to Blairism. Brendan O’Neill attacked the Tories’ ‘clean politics’ agenda. And after the Tories’ victory at the Crewe by-election last year, he called for positive politics. Neil Davenport criticised the affection for dopey Dave. Elsewhere Rob Lyons debunked six myths about the NHS. Or read more at spiked issue British Politics.