When Lady Thatcher collapsed and was taken to a hospital in London on Wednesday evening, it seemed the most eloquent comment possible on the election of David Cameron as her successor as leader of the British Conservative party. It is now established that her collapse was not deliberate. She merely fainted (and not in direct response to Cameron’s election).
But a total collapse and even a prolonged coma on her part would not have an unreasonable response to Cameron’s first comments as Tory leader. He stated that he thought there was such a thing as society. That is not in itself a revolutionary or vicious remark. But it was intended to be heard as a repudiation of Thatcherism–what other intention could lie behind it?–because there is an absurd but widespread belief that 20 years ago Mrs. Thatcher, then prime minister, denied the existence of society.
In fact, as any fair reading of her remarks showed, she was arguing that society was not an abstract entity but consisted of you and me who, therefore, had duties to other people that we could not slough off onto abstract entities. Trading on the false interpretation of her words, however, Cameron presented himself as, er, as a kinder, gentler Tory leader, exactly as the first President Bush had presented himself as a kinder, gentler Ronald Reagan. (Remember the first President Bush? No? Well, that’s understandable.)
Many Conservatives and even conservatives chafed at this. But they did so quietly because the Tories have collectively decided to celebrate the triumph of Cameron, the great majority sincerely, and they did not want to rain on his parade.
But their reaction mattered less than that of the media who liked the idea that the Conservative party had finally got over Mrs. Thatcher. Words like “youth,” “hope,” and “change” were flung about like confetti in the reports, columns and editorials.
Among the younger political reporters in particular there was a lip-smacking anticipation of a general election battle of styles between the youthful, inexperienced and charismatic Cameron and the older, battle-hardened, and dour Gordon Brown, the Finance Minister who is universally expected to succeed Tony Blair as prime minister, perhaps as early as next year.
For the New Labor government suddenly looks vulnerable. Blair is no longer popular. The economy is running into difficulties. Taxes will have to be raised. Indeed, on the very eve of Cameron’s election, Gordon Brown had to damage his own reputation by announcing a cut of exactly half in the likely rate of Britain’s economic growth next year. It is now forecast to be a mere 1.75 percent–almost down to Euroland levels.
What makes the likely Brown-Cameron contest so fascinating is the mysterious character of Cameron. He has been in the House of Commons for only four years and he has never held government office. The Tory conference speech that propelled him from outsider to front-runner, though delivered with panache, was composed largely of optimistic clichés. Cameron campaigned in this vein, refusing to offer substantive policies on the grounds that a general election was four years away. And he has cleverly mixed his ideological messages in the course of the campaign.
Britain’s main opposition party has consequently taken a giant leap into the dark by electing him leader. It shows a thoughtless daring of Gorbachevian proportions.
Still, there are three signals pointing to the kind of politics Cameron is likely to favor.
First, he was a member of the small inside team that wrote the manifesto that ran a 2004 Tory election campaign that was widely damned for its timidity–especially over taxation and public spending. Its one bold (and popular) policy–better control of immigration–he distanced himself from in the course of campaign when it came under criticism. And he has since run against the recent Tory past as if he had been an innocent bystander. Not a good sign.
Second, Cameron is an old-fashioned Tory “toff” who went to the exclusive private school, Eton, and who is a member of London’s most traditional gentleman’s club, Whites. He has described his own background as “hideously privileged.” And his parliamentary support was stuffed with members of the Tory establishment–the current equivalent of the Tory “wets” whom Mrs. Thatcher vanquished in the 1980s.
It may be counterintuitive, but establishment toffs tend to be guilty about their own pleasant existence (remember “hideously privileged”). They generally favor high public spending, redistribution, and generous public services. Thus, Cameron warmly praises Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” He also supports Bush, with qualifications, over Iraq. But he seems less in tune with Bush’s bold tax cuts. And he has yet to notice that the president’s compassionate conservatism has produced the kind of overspending for which the Tories denounce Gordon Brown. Not a better sign.
Third, Cameron was briefly a p.r. man for a television company–his only “real job” outside politics–and he is distinctly media-savvy. He offered himself to the Tories as a new kind of “modernizing” leader, in tune with multicultural Britain and the younger generation. They bought it. More interestingly, so did media people who prefer Cameron’s relaxed style to Brown’s more traditional politics.
Thus, Rachel Sylvester, a political columnist in the London Daily Telegraph, contrasted the two men on Monday to Cameron’s distinct advantage:
Mr Brown dislikes the new celebrity style of politics, what he calls “all that touchy-feely stuff”; he has never posed for a photograph with his son, John, since he took him home from hospital when he was only hours old. He thinks Parliament should be treated with more respect and he wants his party to rediscover an understanding of the past.
Mr. Cameron . . . wants a new style of politics, more consensual, less Punch and Judy. He prefers the “can do” optimism of The West Wing to the British cynicism of Yes, Prime Minister. [It]t was natural to him to create the perfect photo opportunity after his conference speech by patting his pregnant wife’s stomach . . . He is planning some dramatic demonstrations of his modernity in the next few weeks.
The signs here are more uncertain. If Sylvester’s contrast has serious policy implications, it implies a cultural surrender by Cameron to the social prejudices of the media and London’s “chattering classes.” At the very time when ordinary voters are worried about such threats as the London bombings and rising yobbishness, Cameron would then be saying that he will not challenge multiculturalism, uncontrolled immigration, laxness on crime, or the welfare policies that facilitate family break-up. That would win more headlines than votes.
If it is purely a matter of style, Cameron may be little better off. Most British voters are neither toffs nor metropolitan media operators. They value the solid virtues represented by Brown’s personality if not by his policies And as both men become better known, they will be judged by commonsense standards rather than by clever photo opportunities.
Cameron’s current popularity is therefore a “bubble” one. He is popular for being popular. It is possible that he might also be solid, brave, decent, politically shrewd, and even conservative. Or not. We just don’t know.
But his first words don’t encourage us to “hope”–unless, of course, we are very, very “youthful.”
– This piece is reprinted with the gracious permission ofThe Australian.