The Corner

Debating Across a Pond

Daniel Finkelstein from the London Times responds to John O’Sullivan’s NR piece on David Cameron:

Dear John O’Sullivan,

I have just being enjoying your article for the National Review on the subject of David Cameron and the changes he has made to the Conservative Party.

Your aim was to warn your fellow Republicans against making similar changes. I am sure your piece will be influential. I therefore hope you understand if I subject a number of your more contentious points to some scrutiny.

You argue that the “Cameron narrative” – the idea that change was necessary and that moderating and modernising has helped boost the party – is wrong in three ways. Let’s go through them.

First, it:

vastly exaggerates the Tory party’s collapse from 1997 to 2006.

Well, let’s see. In the 1997 General Election, the Conservative Party achieved its worst result since the election immediately following the Great Reform Bill of 1832. I would say that was a bad result, wouldn’t you? It scored this low share of the vote in every poll between 1994 and 2005.

In the election of 2001 and 2005 the Conservatives hardly improved on their terrible vote share in 1997.

So I am afraid the idea that the party’s poor position has been exaggerated is simply ridiculous.

Second, you argue that:

The narrative is solipsistic. It assumes that politics revolves around the Tory party. From 1997 to 2005, however, Britain was having a passionate love affair with Tony Blair.

Only about two paragraphs earlier, when needing the figures to make a different point, you told readers, correctly, that Labour only scored 36 per cent in the 2005 election. This doesn’t sound like a passionate love affair to me. It sounds like Labour was falling in popularity and the votes weren’t coming to the Tory Party.

As you have been overseas for a while, you may not have had the opportunity to benefit from some of the poll findings of the last fifteen years. Perhaps you will allow me to update you.

Both quantitative and qualitative polls were eloquent. They said that people fell out of love with Labour and Mr Blair fairly early on in his term. But they distrusted and disliked the Tories. Tory recovery was impossible unless the party changed.

So the narrative is not solipsistic, it is simply well informed about British public opinion.

Third you argue that:

The narrative subtly distorts what the Tory policy was throughout the period. The incautious reader might imagine that the Tories stuck to right-wing “traditionalist” policies after 1997…….

In reality, after each defeat the Tory leadership, far from banging on about taxes and immigration, adopted the modernizers’ progressive but vague agenda of diversity, inclusiveness, etc.

It was interesting to read what you had to say. And the novelty of this argument entertained me. Because as the party’s director of policy for the large part of the period you write about it hadn’t occurred to me that this is what we were doing.

There was I thinking that we absolutely did bang on about immigration and tax and advanced a “Common Sense Revolution” (I could have sworn I wrote it) rather than adopting the modernisers tone. And then I read in the National Review that I was mistaken. Ah well.

Having made, I believe, three serious errors in your account of the Cameron narrative, you proceed to attack the thrust of his policy in the following way:

Cameronism was an ad hoc reshaping of post-Thatcherite conservatism in order to appease its liberal critics in cultural institutions, the media establishment, and the metropolitan middle class.

Here, finally, is a good point. I think David Cameron has reshaped his agenda to appease the metropolitan middle class.

Who, John, do you think produces Tory victories? Who makes up the Tory core vote when it governs? I’d say it was the metropolitan middle class. Particularly metropolitan middle class women.

So here’s a narrative, John.

These people changed, and the Tories didn’t. The Tories needed to change if they were to win these people back. The Tories did start to change, and they have won some of those people back. This is a major reason why they will win the next General Election.

And it’s true John, that in the process the Conservative Party has become less self-certain and that sometimes they aren’t quite sure where to go on some issues. It’s also true that they’ve done the maths and realised that if they ever want to win again they have to be less ideologically rigid.

This definitely means pleasing you less, John. But this is an essential compromise.

And until that basic, very difficult fact is swallowed – that such compromise is necessary – the Republicans, like the Tories, can’t win.

Yours ever