Digby Anderson calls it “a spell”: that is, a will to believe so powerful that it triumphs over strong contrary evidence. He was describing the incorrigible British belief that the National Health Service is “the envy of the world.” But his insight applies more persuasively to the current adulation in which David Cameron is held by most British Tories and much of the media.
His party-conference speech, platitudinous on paper, was acclaimed by the Tory faithful as giving them “hope.” His leadership campaign won a two-thirds majority with a strategy of not committing himself to specifics. His abandonment as leader not merely of long-standing Tory policies but (more significantly) of deeply rooted Tory ideas has evoked rapture at best, acquiescence at worst, from those who adhere to them. What has been remarkable about the occasional carping from “diehard” critics is that the carping has been so modest and the critics so few.
Some practical reasons underpin this spell. Voters are increasingly fed up with New Labour; the media want the story of a real political contest; and the Tories, desperate for power, are prepared to give their new leader considerable leeway on policy. Cameron’s own ability is also part of the explanation. He is plainly a gifted natural politician–charming, decisive, and energetic. And the whirlwind of activity he has ridden since his election–distancing himself from Thatcherism, appointing celebrities to policy commissions, reshaping policy on the hoof–has both bought him time and given the impression of freshness and novelty. The spell is partly of his own casting and partly of his audience’s desire to suspend disbelief.
Or, rather, spells. For Cameron is dazzling three groups of Tories in three different ways.
The activists are trying to convince themselves that Cameron is pulling off a brilliant trick. He is presenting orthodox Tory ideas in glittering centrist garb–or, if not quite that, adding new ideas to the existing corpus (what the blog www.conservativehome.com calls the “And strategy.”) For instance, asking Bob Geldof to help forge a world anti-poverty program may be a roundabout way of undermining the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
This is altogether too hopeful. To start with, it’s impractical. If Cameron abandoned the Tory policy of “nationalizing” the EU common fisheries policy because he did not want to deal with an EU refusal, he will certainly not mount a major challenge to the CAP. It’s also unpersuasive. As the philosophical innovations mount–abandoning choice and selection, embracing “redistribution,” endorsing global economic regulation–the case that Cameron is not changing the substance of Toryism becomes ever more implausible. Finally, it’s politically unimaginative. Even if Cameron secretly intended to govern like Mrs. Thatcher on entering office, he is at present creating the public expectations and atmosphere that would make such a course impossible. (It was hard enough for Mrs. Thatcher who had prepared the ground–with a little help from the trade unions.)
A smaller group of modernizers, perhaps including Cameron himself, is in the grip of a more subtle delusion. They see the new Tory leader deliberately dissing the party’s right-wing and traditionalist supporters in order to win over more simpatico Lib-Dem voters. And Cameron’s early overtures have paid off to the extent of causing chaos in the Lib-Dem party.
But there are obvious problems with this strategy–notably, that even today there are many more Tory voters than Lib-Dems. To complicate matters further, the modernizers seem to think that the nationalist and moral traditionalist voters they want to drive away are relatively few in number. Many indicators suggest otherwise: for instance, in countries with proportional representation like Germany, the economic liberal parties poll many fewer votes than the moral conservatives. Nor do the dissed Tories lack somewhere to go. They could stay at home, as about 12 percent of the electorate, including many pre-Major Tories, have done in the last three elections. Otherwise, the UK Independence party, the British National party–even the Labour party under the new flag-waving Gordon Brown–would all welcome them.
Perhaps the best criticism of this strategy came from a French Gaullist: “Cameron is trying to create the very division of the Right that has been the biggest obstacle to French conservatives since Mitterrand deliberately fostered the rise of the National Front.” Were he to succeed, the Tories might have to wait for a Gianfranco Fini to emerge from UKIP to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
That leaves only the party faithful–coupled, oddly enough, with significant branches of the media. Here the spell is more readily explicable. The Tories think they have elected Hugh Grant. In doing so, they believe, they have solved a nagging existential problem.
Until the mid-Eighties, the Tory faithful felt themselves to be the natural party of the British, especially the English, middle class. But since then they have drifted apart as the Tories became Thatcherized in their attempts to deal with genuine social problems–even as the middle class was changing its sensibility, political opinions and self-image–becoming, in a word, “Curtisland” after Richard Curtis of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually in which a multi-faith, multi-ethnic London middle class swears terribly but is otherwise awfully nice and holds excruciatingly nice political opinions.
This gradual divorce between the Tories and the middle class is a global as well as a local phenomenon, as parties across the English-speaking world change their class composition, with blue-collar workers moving right and others left. Cameron may well be driving out the very voters who gave John Howard and George W. Bush their margins of victory. But the Tories don’t know that, and they would like to be accepted in Curtisland once again. Hence their relief that the part of Hugh Grant will be played by David Cameron.
None of these spells, alas, has anything to do with the actual or potential problems facing Britain in the coming decade–the rising shares of national income taken by public spending and taxation, the decay of Britain’s social fabric, the threat of a nuclear Iran, the disaffection of significant Muslim minorities. To find out how the Tories will handle those, we are waiting for Geldof.
–John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, an editor-at-large of National Review, and a regular contributor to the National Post. He can be contacted through Benador Associates. This first appeared in the Financial Times and is reprinted with permission.