Sunday 15 November 2009

Why David Cameron believes he is a Thatcherite

Richard Reeves of Demos in yesterday's Telegraph:

Labour's response has been to accuse Cameron of advocating "Thatcherism or 19th-century liberalism". Wrong on both counts. Mrs Thatcher was more likely to join the National Union of Mineworkers than to say, as Cameron did, that "strong and concerted government action" was needed to "remake society"

But it seems that David Cameron disagrees with Richard Reeves about that.

Cameron thinks that Margaret Thatcher was right on the role of government and agreed with him on the strong society, arguing in 2007 that "It was Margaret Thatcher who said: 'Never call me laissez-faire. Government must be strong to do those things which only government can do.' That's what I think too."

So Cameron wrote in The Telegraph that:

Those who ask whether I am a Conservative need to know that the foundation stones of the alternative government that we're building are the ideas that should unite us all: the ideas that encouraged me as a young man to join the Conservative Party and work for Margaret Thatcher.

Those ideas are profound and enduring: freedom under the law, personal responsibility, sound money, strong defence and national sovereignty.

It was Mrs Thatcher who launched the Scarman inquiry in 1981 in an attempt to understand the alienation of young black men. And it was Mrs Thatcher who launched modern environmental politics with her Royal Society speech in 1988.

The reduction of Thatcherism into a sort of laissez-faire libertarianism does not do justice to her record. She was animated by a vision of the good society – a vision obscured by decades of economic dirigisme and cultural relativism. The task she set herself was to restore not only personal liberty in economic matters, but also a sense of duty, respect and moral obligation in social matters.

I, too, am animated by a vision of the good society. What I call social responsibility – responsibility to family and community, nation and planet – is as central to my politics as economic liberalism. Indeed, I believe the two are closely related.

Here is Margaret Thatcher herself, in the Keith Joseph Memorial lecture of 1996

To set the record straight — once again — I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the State rather than other people.

Conservatives do not take an extreme atomistic view of society.

We need no lectures now, or at any other time, about the importance of custom, convention, tradition, belief, national institutions or what the ancient Romans would describe as "piety ". Nor do we dispute that the bonds of society need ultimately to be guaranteed by the State.

It is Marxists, not Conservatives, who imagined — or at least pretended to imagine — that the State would wither away.

No. What marks out our Conservative vision is the insight that the State — government — only underpins the conditions for a prosperous and fulfilling life. It does not generate them.

Cameronism on Thatcher has always been a masterclass in political ambiguity. I discussed this in my ippr essay In Maggie's Shadow which argued that the 30th anniversary of the 1979 election suggested:

That British politics remains in Maggie’s shadow can best be seen in how both the Conservative and Labour parties remain, in
crucial respects, unable to publicly articulate their full, frank and honest accounts of the Thatcher legacy. Until they can do so,
any governing project that seeks to give birth to a post-Thatcherite politics is likely to remain stillborn.

But the Cameron political strategy does not seem to be a very complicated one.

While there have been different more and less 'progressive' phases of his leadership, each of them has involved the following strands:

(1) Write pieces and make speeches to centrist and left-leaning audiences which can be briefed as distancing Cameron from Thatcher.

But do not include direct criticisms of Margaret Thatcher or her government's record in them. Try to avoid offering saying anything at all about Thatcher or the 1980s.

(2) Write pieces and make speeches to Conservative and right-wing audiences, which argue that you have been misunderstood when people say you are ditching Thatcherism, and point out that your ideas are precisely those which Margaret Thatcher held.

Do directly praise Margaret Thatcher in these pieces, and argue that your government will take inspiration from her in dealing with current issues.

Occasionally, this can be tricky.

For example, if you find yourself setting out to The Guardian an argument that poverty and inequality matter deeply to Conservatives, but can not be addressed by the big state, then you might want to try offering a grand historical sweep which goes from the 19th century to 1968, and then jumps straight from 1997 to now, as if you had a Rip Van Winkle moment in the Thatcher years and have nothing at all to say about them, as Ed Miliband noted yesterday.

You will also want to draw on pre-Thatcherite traditions of "progressive Conservatism" - and to adopt the point made by your critics such as the Fabian-sceptic Phil Collins that, if progressive Conservatives knew their history, they would now that this often involved advocating a greater role of the state.

But you will want to do so without repudiating Thatcherism. The roadblock to this is the "rupture" argument of Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher that progressive Conservatives in acqueiscing to a greater role of the state were betraying conservatism and were "not conservative at all".

So David Willetts has explained in a Prospect essay on The Meaning of Margaret that he used to think that Margaret Thatcher was right about this but, in retrospect, he thinks this was a mistake which did a good deal of damage to the Conservative tradition. So Willetts now finds a great deal of continuity between Thatcherism and the consensus Conservatism with which she thought she was offering a fundamental break.

Like Thatcher, David Cameron thinks it is important to undermine the idea of 'big government'; but the example of Thatcherism also shows that it is much more difficult to reduce the size and scope of government in reality, which is why neither Thatcher nor Reagan did so. So Cameron's High Toryism is less doctrinaire than an "unreconstructed" Thatcherism. But it is striking how much care he has taken to avoid breaking substantively with Thatcherism, even as he seeks a language to acknowledge its unintended consequences and unresolved contradictions between a conservative society and the creative destruction of the market.

All of this could be criticised as simply a cynical attempt to say different things to different audiences.

There may well be some political opportunism involved.

But a less cynical interpretation could note that Cameron's left-facing and right-facing positions are not incompatible - if his idea has always been to rehabilitate the core insights of Thatcherism in gentler language for different times, rather than to break from it.

The claim that Cameronism is not Thatcherite surely depends on him offering what has been entirely missing: an account of why he thinks inequality and poverty rose in the 1980s; how far he regards that as regrettable, or a price worth paying at the time for other goals; and what evidence he has for arguing that a less state and more social responsibility approach would have very different results when it comes to inequality this time around.

But if David Cameron argues that he takes inspiration from Thatcherism, and is making the same arguments that Thatcher did, why should we disbelieve him?

The simplest reason would be that he believes what he says about the state and society. The only other plausible explanation would be that he feels he has to say it, because his party remains strongly Thatcherite, and would kick up over any criticism of their heroine, even from a popular leader with a large opinion poll lead.

If David Cameron might be acquitted of the charge of entirely unrooted opportunism, it may well be because he remains a Thatcherite.

Whether or not to shout that from the rooftops may depend on who you are talking to.


_______ said...

Labour sets out a vision for a National Care Service and rebuilding the link between earnings and state pensions, yet many people at Demos seem to think The Tories 'free schools' makes them more progressive than Labour.

I think they've forgotten the importance of redistributing wealth in building a progressive society.

Apparently attacking big government and advocating community philanthropy over public funding is more progressive these days...

Anonymous said...

This conflict within Cameronism is undoubtedly one that will be a key issue in the next few years. In 1997 when Blair won he had triumphed over the left of the party and they had reluctantly accepted that. Cameron has not had it out with his party yet. The conflict between the centrists elements of his party and the more Thatcherite members will continue to roll on and Cameron, unlike Blair, is trying to be all men to all people.