Monday, 22 March 2010

Michael Gove changes his mind (again)

He thought Michael Ashcroft was destroying the credibility of the Tory claim to have changed - but then found he could defend the party's non-dom billionaire deputy chairman for his party.

He led the charge on union militancy last week - without mentioning his own experience on the picket line which turned up in the Sunday papers.

And Michael Gove also last week lavished praise on New Labour telling Andrew Sparrow that it was, "at its best, a recognition that the values of enterprise and aspiration could be fused with a commitment to social justice and fairness", so that he could take Cameronism back into 'heir to Blair' territory.

"We are the party most squarely in the centre ground".

That won't please right-wing commentators. If they are short of have time to put that anger into words, I doubt if their argument has rarely been more strongly expressed than this.

"No location is as undignified as being ‘in the centre’, somewhere the lowest common denominator and the highest public spending meet" ... an arid region where no principles can take root, no insitution can be sure of its foundation, no banner can be firmly placed. For that reason, it is a particularly shameless place for politicians to be ... The natural inhabitants of the centre are those politicians of easy virtue, prepared to massage public opinion but never challenge it"

That was Michael Gove, The Times, April 1999.

What had enraged Gove quite so much?

It was Tory deputy leader Peter Lilley's rather mild attempt in his 1999 Rab Butler lecture to argue in that the party would have to accept that "the free market has only a limited role in public services", which meant that the Conservatives would never be trusted on health or education if they seemed ideologically hostile to publicly funded services. (The Gove quotation appears in Tim Bale's excellent The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, and John Rentoul referenced it at the time of its publication).

The vitriolic Tory reaction to Lilley's 1999 speech led William Hague to abandon his early centrism. By that Autumn's party conference speech, Michael Gove was praising Hague for having "the guts" to stick to true Thatcherite principles.

So how far, if at all, would Gove claim to have changed his mind in any substantive way over the decade?

Gove's best defence - though it may be too candid, except to select audiences - would be to argue that the Cameron project is both Thatcherite and centrist, reconciling the two by arguing that the tactic and positioning of centrism will make a deeper radicalism possible in a way that it was not while the Tories were unelectable.

That is an argument which David Cameron has made - if quietly, and at different times and to different audiences.

David Cameron's approach to the 30th anniversary of 1979 was rather simpler than Lilley's had been to the 20th anniversary: to declare the Thatcher governments as providing an "awe-inspiring" example he would seek to emulate.

Perhaps the most striking and audacious thing about the progressive Conservative project is how far it seeks to maintain and embrace these contradictions.

This is part of what Tim Montgomerie calls "the politics of and". So that talking about poverty, the environment and international development gives the Tories permission to take forward their core agenda on cutting spending, the smaller state, immigration and crime.

This may well allow Michael Gove to be a centrist and a Thatcherite too.

But it may be an argument which may rely on the progressive Conservatism amounting to rather less than meets the eye.

1 comment:

International Commentarian Solidarity said...

This better not turn out to be reminiscent of George Bush's Compassionate conservatism, amounting to nothing more than warm words coupled with reganomic brutality.