The Corner

Response to Daniel Finkelstein

Daniel — Many thanks for your courteous response to my article. I am delighted to find myself discussing the Cameron “narrative” with one of its authors. Armed with this authority, you criticize four points in my critique (discussed below) but ignore other points of equal importance (also discussed below.)

First, you argue that I am in error in saying that the narrative “vastly exaggerates the Tory party’s collapse from 1997 to 2006.” To support this, you observe that its share of the vote was the lowest in any general election since 1832.

But I never denied that the Tories had suffered a series of severe defeats. In fact I wrote that the party was “justly unpopular” after the shambles of the Major administration and “needed time for the voters to forget.” My argument about the narrative’s exaggeration referred to the fact that the bedrock Tory vote had stood up well so that conservatism was not doomed.

Well, it had. The Tories polled 32 percent in a two-and-a-half-way contest, even though they were in dire electoral straits. That’s five percentage points higher than the Labour party got in the 1980s, when it was in similar straits, and only three percentage points less than the Labour party got in 2005, when it won. If that was the Tory bedrock vote and their rock-bottom performance, then they could certainly recover “when Blair was gone and Major finally forgotten.” And that’s what happened.

Second, you contest my claim that the narrative is solipsistic. That is, it depicts politics as revolving around the Tory party and ignores the fact that Britain was having a love affair with Tony Blair that ended in 2005. In that case, you ask, why didn’t the Tories do better in the 2005 election when Labour’s vote fell? It can only have been dislike of the Tories.

That concedes the 2001 election to my critique, but it’s a fair point.

It’s also a self-absorbed point. My reply is that several factors explain this. One of them — but only one — is certainly the performance of the Tory opposition between 2001 and 2005. It had two leadership contests, the acrimonious dismissal of at least one party chairman, a rather dirty campaign to bring down one leader, and constant internal battles to which the “modernizers” contributed at least as much vitriol as their opponents.

All these troubles kept alive the electorate’s memory of the Major government shambles longer than would otherwise be the case — and delayed any “natural” Tory recovery. But there was no Tory adherence to some mythic “traditionalist line” that deterred moderate voters because there was no consistent adherence to any line.

Far more important than these Tory failings, moreover, was the Iraq War. That accelerated the disenchantment of the voters with Blair but it did not move them in a right-wing direction. Rather the reverse. Middle Britain remained on the center-left but looked for other simpatico champions. It found them logically, if temporarily, in the Liberal Democrats who had opposed the war, and after the election, as the polls showed, in the prospect of the succession to Blair by Gordon Brown.

I have to say that ignoring the impact of the Iraq war strikes me as pretty solipsistic.

Third, you contest my account that the Tories after the 1997 and 2001 defeats adopted policies advocated by the modernizers and only switched to more traditional policies “too late to win the election but just in time to save the modernizers from blame for the defeat.”

As director of the party’s policy for much of that period, you distinctly remember “banging on” about immigration, tax, etc. I wish I had been there. It must have been a thrilling spectacle. I fear you bear the wounds still.

But here is a more detached account of the period 1997 to 2001 from Professor Dennis Kavanagh, author of the authoritative Nuffield Study of the 2001 election:

Hague began as a moderniser, a Conservative Blair. This “Mach 1″ Hague attended the Notting Hill Carnival, expressed support for multiculturalism and took a socially liberal approach. There was the “Listening to Britain” exercise. In September 1998, Hague gave senior colleagues copies of The Unfinished Revolution — a guide to the making of new Labour by one of the party’s senior strategists, Philip Gould — with the inscription “know thine enemy”. He apologised for the errors of the “old Conservatism”, notably membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. He rejected the euro, thereby uniting the Shadow Cabinet, and described Kenneth Clarke’s refusal to become deputy leader as “a second birthday present”.

He also accepted the “reaching out” strategy in an internal document, in November 1998, entitled “Kitchen Table Conservatives”. Its first sentence was damning: “The fundamental problem of the Conservative Party is that it doesn’t have a strategy – and hasn’t had one for four years.” Another sentence could have been written this week: “We have failed to get across what we will do about the public services.”

“Mark I” Hague was not to last. In the final two years of the last parliament, a second Hague and a different strategy was on display, both concerned with the “core vote”.

Except for the rejection of the Euro and the foolishly wounding remark about Kenneth Clarke, all this was the pure milk of “modernizing.” And it was followed, as I wrote, by a switch to more traditional policies when modernizing began to threaten the “core” vote without winning over other voters to any great extent. Q.E.D.

About the 2001-2005 period, I have already written above. All that needs to be added is that the high-water mark of modernizing was reached in October 2002 when Theresa May, the Tory party chairman, told delegates to its annual conference that they were seen by people as the “nasty party” and would have to change. There the usual swing back to a “core” vote strategy by the 2005 election campaign. But if you were still banging on about immigration, Europe, crime, etc., then — though I think you had moved on — that was largely because the Tory strategy was to avoid challenging Labour on the central economic issues of public spending and taxation. It was the modernizers in the party leadership who dictated that lacuna, however. And it forced the party to give undue weight to other issues which, even though popular, were not sufficient to win a majority and which opened the party to the charge of obsessing about secondary issues.

That brings us to your fourth and final criticism: that I criticise the Cameron strategy as seeking the votes of the metropolitan middle classes, especially women, when they are the key to winning a Tory victory. Of course, no sensible political strategist writes off potential supporters. What I actually wrote was that the strategy aimed to appease the Tory party’s “liberal critics in cultural institutions, the media establishment, and the metropolitan middle class.”

Even in my gloomier moments I have never supposed that these liberal critics comprised the whole of the great British middle class, still less of middle-class women. They are a narrow (though disproportionately influential) social group within the larger middle class. They have different economic interests from other groups within that class — notably, the celebrated C2’s, small business owners, provincial and rural professional people, etc. Their social attitudes tend to be very liberal and so are difficult to reconcile with even the modernizers’ version of conservatism. And a strategy aimed mainly at winning their support is likely to compel the party to remain silent on a number of issues important to its natural supporters and marginal admirers in Middle England — everything in fact from multiculturalism to Jonathan Ross. Such a strategy is therefore likely to alienate other and maybe more numerous target Tories — some in the larger middle class and, increasingly, some blue-collar workers.

Reihan Salam and my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru sketch out a strategy whereby the Republicans might win over the American equivalents of these voters in the issue of National Review that contains my own article. With appropriate adjustments such a strategy should at least be part of the overall Tory approach at the next election. (It certainly needs extra appeal.)

I know from a previous passage of arms that you were skeptical of this idea in the past. But the signs of conservative working class voters drifting from Labour to the BNP — paralleling the 2005 drift of Labour voters to the Lib-Dems — suggests that we should revisit this question. Otherwise we risk creating inadvertently the division of the French Right between the respectable right and the National Front that Mitterrand encouraged deliberately to keep any sort of conservatism out of power. That would be bad for the Tories, of course, but it would be far worse for Britain.

To be sure, such an approach would be only part of any new Tory strategy. We need new thinking — and sometimes tougher (AKA nasty) thinking across the board. Fortunately for the Tories the financial crisis has created an atmosphere in which the hard decisions that Cameronism avoided (not unreasonably) when prosperity looked permanent and “niceness” was a risk-free option can be restored to the agenda. And though you depict me as devoted to an “ideologically rigid” Thatcherism in an aside, my main positive argument in a (largely critical) article was to endorse a reformism that would start with examining the problems rather than with consulting a doctrine. I simply didn’t think the Cameron project was such a program — though it’s still a long way to the next election — and I did and do think that the intellectual resources of the broad Tory tradition are from exhausted.

Well, that seems to be that, except, oh, Daniel, I was going to add some points you had unaccountably neglected to rebut.

Okay, let’s see — the mid-2007 opinion polls eighteen months into Cameron’s leadership showed the Tories becalmed in the mid-thirties, exactly where they had been when he was elected, and little or no sign of detoxification . . . voters only really paid attention to the Tories after Brown’s bottling on the election . . . that was when the Tories had shifted slightly rightwards, and their ratings rose to the upper forties and stayed there for the best part of a year. . . their disappointing performance in the polls since the financial crisis began in earnest is probably explained by the voters’ suspicion that they’re not quite serious enough for Armageddon . . . and . . .  but I seem to hear the cry: Sir, you have delighted us enough.

After the NR article and this longer-than-intended screed, I am happy to leave it at that. If you wish to respond further, Daniel, you are more than entitled to do so. I will grin and bear it.

Afterwards, I would like to continue the conversation over a dinner. For the moment, though, I am hanging up my quill.


Most Popular

Film & TV

It’s the Deep Breath before the Plunge

Warning. SPOILERS are ahead. If you don’t want to know anything about episode two of the final season of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Now. One of my favorite moments in Peter Jackson's outstanding adaptation of Lord of the Rings happened in the final movie, The Return of the King. On the eve of Mordor's ... Read More