Thursday 7 January 2010

No such thing as Cameronism, says Spectator

"Will the real David Cameron stand up?" is one of the election year questions we will be debating at the Fabian new year conference on Saturday week, the 16th. Leading Conservative MPs Douglas Carswell and Nadine Dorries will join Polly Toynbee and myself to see if between us we can make some sense of what makes the Tory leader tick, as we follow up the illuminating Fabian fringe event in Brighton as Tim Montgomerie, Fraser Nelson and Phillip Blond set out who the new are Conservatives.


And the Spectator has a punchy, must read issue in which it searches for the big idea of Cameronism - but comes up empty.

In an excellent piece, political editor James Forsyth sets out why this is a pointless quest. Cameronism is about being too pragmatic to be strongly committed to any particular set of beliefs or principles.

Cameron does, though, come from a political tradition grounded in English history. He is a Tory pragmatist. He knows that nothing can be achieved without power and is relaxed about ideological inconsistencies. Take his differing approach to public services. On education, his party is offering a radical, supply-side revolution. But on health, the Tories boast of their acceptance of the status quo.

When he needs to, Cameron can do ideas. During the Tory leadership campaign he delivered the most neoconservative speech ever given by a British politician: it directly compared jihadism to Nazism and the present to the 1930s. But less than 18 months later, he was giving another speech explaining why he was not a neoconservative after all. The difference? In the Tory leadership contest, there were votes to be won in flirting with neoconservatism. But Cameron does not believe in it — it is far too doctrinaire for his tastes — so when that imperative went, Cameron happily discarded it.

(This is a broadly similar perspective to my take on Cameronism as a High Tory court politics, which deliberately embraces contradictions in order to elude definition).

Forsyth is rather warmer towards this pick and mix political pragmatism than is a rather scathing David Selbourne, the prominent conservative thinker whose Principles of Duty influenced the early communitarianism of mid-90s Blairism.

Selbourne argues that "there has, historically, been no Toryism as meaningless as this", and that the Cameron project has left the party in deep and dangerous intellectual disarray.

Instead, the crass Tory prospectus has over the last couple of years offered to ‘repair the broken society’ while simultaneously ‘leaving people to live their own lives’. Never mind the contradiction. Make poverty history and create a more egalitarian society, just like Labour aimed (and failed) to do? No problem. ‘Strong public infrastructure’ and improved NHS, together with cuts in public spending? Of course. ‘Free business from over-regulation’ but also ‘stand up to big business’? That’s us. Wear a red tie one day and a blue one the next? On the ‘centre ground’, why not?

Selbourne nominates so many contenders for Next Left's new Steve Hilton Progressive Gobbledegook Award, and so is hereby awarded honorary membership of our Popular Front against Gobbledegook.

Peter Oborne might well be expected to agree with Selbourne. After all, Oborne argued powerfully for the Mail last Autumn that what he called the "contradictory tripe" of "progressive Conservatism" would lead Cameron to fail by trying to be all things to all people. So that piece advising him to follow Margaret Thatcher's example and make his enemies early.

But Cameron's charm must have grown on Oborne, who is so much more charitable in this week's Spectator. He now goes as far as to suggest that the compromises and lack of clarity of Cameronism reflect a broad coalition-building approach the best of the party's anti-Thatcherite paternalist One Nation tradition.

Cameron’s own political philosophy predates Thatcher and, for that matter, Heath. It can be traced back to a purer school of Conservatism which was first articulated by Burke, reached its apotheosis with Disraeli and Baldwin, and appeared to have died out when Macmillan left office in 1963. This kind of Conservatism sees itself as above class or faction and profoundly believes that it acts only in the national interest.

The flattering sounding Disraeli comparison can be read in different ways. Above all, Disraeli was a political opportunist, never more so than in his largely accidental franchise extension of 1867. And there is a cogent case for regarding his claim to found a modern 'progressive' tradition as largely a myth, a case argued by the Westminster wisdom blog last month.

If that's the state of Cameronism today, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson sets out on the Coffee House blog why his magazine will be offering critical support for the Tory leader, challenging him to stand for something rather than nothing from his right. Nelson's Spectator will be among plenty of voices from the right engaging in this war for Cameron's ear. If the right are confident of emerging dominant, that is partly because it remains to be seen whether any progressive Tory forces will be mobilised to contest them.

1 comment:

Silent Hunter said...

And are we going to get a balance piece about why the Labour Ex Speaker Martin, brought in an expenses loophole which allows MP's to sneak money back into the coffers without being named and shamed?

Labour; corrupt in every way!