Magazine | March 9, 2009, Issue

Magical Mystery Tour

David Cameron and the need for nastiness

In a New York Times column on the forthcoming struggle for the shrunken soul of the GOP between “reformers” and “traditionalists,” David Brooks threw out the line that reformers “tend to be intrigued by the way David Cameron has modernized the British Conservative Party.”

This instantly became conventional wisdom. That was partly because it fit the ideological needs of GOP “reformers” very conveniently. But it must also be said that the ground had been well prepared for it. Michael Gerson of the Washington Post op-ed page had visited London in March 2008 as the guest of (jointly) Tim Montgomerie’s influential Tory website and the Centre for Social Justice, headed by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. Gerson returned critical of the Tories’ weakness on foreign policy and “life” issues, but his overall response was enthusiastic: He had seen “the reincarnation of compassionate conservatism” in Tory social policy, praise be, and he duly cited Cameron and Smith as the very models of a moderate conservatism that the GOP might imitate.

In August, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard visited London, also as a guest of Montgomerie’s website, and was given generous access to leading “Cameroons” such as shadow finance minister George Osborne and senior media guru Steve Hilton. Like Gerson, Barnes gave a balanced critique of the Cameron project: It was strong on social reform, timid on economics and foreign policy, and vague on much else. But he largely swallowed the Cameron “narrative” that underpins and justifies the project.

This narrative divides history into two periods: In the years BC (Before Cameron), the Tories had clung to a narrow and mean-minded traditionalism, repellent to hip, tolerant modern Britain, and campaigned solely on the “core issues” of Europe, immigration, and tax cuts. Accordingly they lost the watershed 1997 election to Blair’s New Labour and went on to lose the next two elections as well. In the years AD (After Dave), however, they have embraced “diversity,” social change, global warning, etc. Having thus “detoxified” or “decontaminated” the Tory brand image, they now look like winning the next election. Republicans, take note of this bold modernizing, etc., etc.

But is this conventional wisdom, well, true? Consider, first, its gloomy account of the period BC.

The narrative vastly exaggerates the Tory party’s collapse from 1997 to 2006. Admittedly, the party was justly unpopular after the disastrous (but moderate and Europhiliac) Major administration. It needed time for the voters to forget. Many leading Tories, whose only prior experience in politics was of Thatcherite dominance, did not understand this elementary electoral truth. They went hysterical, wailing that they were out of power forever, speculating that conservatism was impossible in modern society.

In fact the bedrock Tory vote stood up pretty well. The Tories hovered around 32 percent in the elections of 1997, 2001, and 2005 — which may sound terrible but is normal for the losing party in a two-and-a-half party system like Britain’s. Labour won the last election with only 36 percent of the popular vote — just three points ahead of the Tories. When Labour had its own losing streak in the 1980s, its share of the vote fell to 27 percent. So a Tory recovery when Blair was gone and Major finally forgotten was always a likely outcome.

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. No one was interested in the Tories or whatever policies they managed to send forth from their coven. Only when the voters became disillusioned with Blair did the Tories get their chance. Fortunately for Cameron, that was where he came in.

#page# 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. But certain standard phrases in the narrative, including “after a short flirtation with modernizing” and “they retreated to their comfort zone,” give the game away. 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. These ideological gestures, in addition to failing to win over targeted centrist voters, minimized bedrock Tory support. Facing imminent catastrophe at the polls, the Tory leaders then switched to more traditional policies — too late to win the election but just in time to save the modernizers from blame for the defeat.

The period BC ends with Cameron’s election as Tory leader in December 2005. It also coincides roughly with the final fading of the spell Blair had cast on Middle Britain. When Blair finally resigned in June 2007, he was well past his “sell by” date, so it might seem odd that Cameron decided to position himself as “the heir to Blair”; actually, some thought had gone into this positioning. Three entire thoughts, in fact: The first was that the British voters still wanted a Blair-like figure — i.e., a soft-centrist social democrat — even if they had soured on Blair personally. Prime Minister Gordon Brown was plainly not that heir. He was seen, half-accurately, as a sour, puritanical, old-fashioned socialist who had been feuding with Blair since 1997. In broad theory, a Tory “heir to Blair” might have been able to entice moderate voters (and even a few Blairite ministers) from Brown into the Tory camp. They therefore decided to steal some of Blair’s policies and most of his image.

The second thought was that prosperity was here to stay. If that was so, then Brown’s high-spending, high-tax, and tight-regulation economic and fiscal policies were here to stay as well. Accordingly, the Tories could only damage themselves by proposing either tax cuts or spending controls. Labour ministers would ask the question: Which schools, hospitals, and roads will you axe, then? To which the Tories would have no good answer. To avoid this embarrassment, they announced that, if elected, they would maintain the tax and spending policies of the despised Brown until 2011!

The third and last thought was that the Tories needed a cultural makeover. According to their own party chairman, Theresa May, they were seen as the “nasty party” — greedy, corrupt, mean-spirited; hostile to gays, immigrants, and Europe; and uncaring about the poor. One much-cited poll showed that when a policy with strong majority support, for instance immigration, was revealed to be a Tory policy, it immediately lost that support. “It’s not our policies,” wailed the Tory modernizers, “it’s us.” They meant, of course, “It’s them,” the Tory rank and file whom they despised and whose supposed reactionary opinions they blamed for their election defeats. But changing a party’s base is even harder than changing its cultural image. Neither can be accomplished directly, as the crow flies. So the Cameroons decided to change the party by changing its policies — the very solution that the research had discredited and that perversely directed the Tories to shed popular policies tainted solely by association with them.

Each of these thoughts in isolation was highly questionable. Taken together, though, they pointed to a sort of agenda. 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. It involved adopting some New Labour policies, not challenging others, striking “green” attitudes on global warming, distancing the party from Lady Thatcher, confining tough-minded conservative policies to secondary and low-intensity issues, imposing silence on “hot button” conservative topics such as Europe and immigration, and so on. What all this did not involve was any positive new vision of conservatism. No general conservative outlook seemed to underpin it, and no distinctly conservative policies seemed to proceed naturally from it. Insofar as there was a theory holding it together, it was Theresa May’s desire to move from “nastiness” to “niceness.” But as Kenneth Minogue observes mordantly in a forthcoming edition of Standpoint magazine: “Niceness presents itself as benevolence, but is often merely an evasion of hard decisions that the realities of human nature require.”

#page# By the same token, nastiness is merely a hostile description of one of the Tory party’s greatest strengths — its tough-minded willingness to deal seriously with real problems, even at the cost of seeming harsh. Even its enemies had respected this enduring element in Toryism. Now it was to be buried — and replaced by a strategy that was largely negative, otherwise directionless, and hostage to the passing sentimental moods of the voters.

Still, the new Toryism got off to a good start. Cameron, a natural politician gifted with charm, intelligence, force of will, and old-fashioned “toff” manners — a sort of Hugh Grant in Three Elections and a Funeral — threw himself into selling this mixture with zest. His ideological guru, Steve Hilton, arranged photo ops to dramatize the new approach. Cameron was seen cycling to work and sledging to the North Pole to show the Tory party’s new commitment to environmental issues. His magical mystery tour was well and truly launched.

The first few years AD cover the period from December 2005 to Blair’s departure in June 2007. This period is regarded as a success by the modernizers and their media claque because it allegedly “detoxified the brand.” In fact, the Tories were still stuck in the mid-30s in the opinion polls in June 2007, lagging behind an increasingly unpopular Labour government. The “detox” was pure speculation, but the discontent of the Tory faithful was real. It had to be assuaged by quiet assurances that, after the detox stage, the Cameroon leadership would unveil real conservative policies. Or, as one Tory wag put it, “Trust us, we’re lying.”

The second AD stage, from June to October 2007, saw an ad campaign, “Not Flash, Just Gordon,” launched by New Labour to greet its sober new leader. In a whirligig of calculated activity Brown recruited marginal Tories into his “big tent,” praised “Britishness,” invited Lady Thatcher to Downing Street for tea, and generally wrong-footed the Cameroons. By late September he was 11 points ahead in the opinion polls. He leaked the story that he might call an election. If he had done so, he would undoubtedly have won. But the threat of an election persuaded the unhappy Tories to rally to Cameron at their annual conference. Cameron himself changed course and offered them a popular cut in inheritance taxation. The conference was a success. The polls began to turn — and Brown turned tail. Worse, he denied he had ever intended calling an election at all, thus undermining one of his few assets — a reputation for personal honesty.

The third period AD, from October 2007 to the onset of the financial crash one year later, is the most significant period of all. This was the first time since 1997 that the voters and the media were seriously interested in what the Tories might do in office. Coincidentally, it was also the period when Gerson, Barnes, and other American observers visited Britain to observe Project Cameron. As they reported, it was marked by vagueness and evasiveness on foreign policy but by a distinct move to the right on health, education, and other social matters. Cameron made Britain’s “broken society” a major issue, and schools spokesman Michael Gove proposed what amounted to voucherless vouchers in education. This modest courage was rewarded with a steady Tory share in the high 40s in opinion polls through the summer of 2008. Even so, on the central issue of the economy Cameron and shadow finance minister Osborne continued their pledge to stick with Brown’s budget and spending policies into late fall. At which point the financial roof fell in.

That should have pushed Brown into oblivion. The regulatory system he himself introduced in 1997 had presided over a financial crisis of epic proportions. Yet, jetting around the world to financial summits and producing “plans” out of thin air, Brown began to recover. His poll numbers rose to the mid-30s. If he had asked the voters in November for a mandate to solve the financial crisis, he might just have eked out a victory.

#page# But his courage failed a second time. Insofar as anything can be predicted with confidence in politics, Brown has already lost the next election, maybe by a landslide. But has Cameron won it? After all the repositioning, detoxification, and photo ops, Tory poll ratings have now slipped back into the 40–44 percent range. If that were translated into votes, it would produce a Tory majority of about 70 seats in the next election. Opposition parties typically win fewer votes in general elections than in midterm polls or special elections. To win the next election on Tory merits, Cameron needs the steady high-40s share in polls he enjoyed last year. And recent polls show small gains at Labour’s expense, not for the Tories but for third, fourth, and even fifth parties.

Even so, and barring miracles, Cameron will be the next prime minister — handed victory by the sheer scale of Brown’s failure rather than as a result of confidence in the opposition. Why is there no enthusiasm for the Tories? Why have they actually lost their polling gains of last year? There are many possible answers, but the one that knits them all together is that the voters sense something not quite serious about the Cameron Tories. They share responsibility for the crisis because, like Labour, they assumed prosperity would continue forever. They went so far as to adopt Brown’s budgetary policies essentially as an exercise in political positioning and conflict avoidance. Even where they differed from Labour, as on Europe and immigration, they cannot benefit from the failures of government policy because they decided to downplay controversial issues. They avoided deciding matters that divided them internally, in particular foreign policy, so that open rows are now breaking out between Cameron’s senior colleagues over Iraq and Gaza. And across the spectrum they selected policies on the basis of their popularity with media liberals rather than because they would solve or ameliorate problems.

In short, they abandoned a broadly coherent post-Thatcherite conservatism without having any clear idea of what might replace it. They are today ideologically and psychologically directionless. They hesitate and wobble indecisively even on so clear an issue of principle as free speech in the Geert Wilders controversy. They need something to believe in — so they flounder after silly ideological novelties, as in their recent flirtation with an interventionist “Red Toryism.”

All these things mattered much less last year. When prosperity looked permanent, the voters could risk a flutter on the Tories. But they are electoral weaknesses now that any new government will have to cope with a long and dangerous crisis. A healthy touch of pragmatic “nastiness” is required today to restore the British people’s confidence in the Tories. Cameron is no doubt capable of this personally, but he has forsworn it ideologically. He must reverse that if he is not to fail — not in the election campaign but, worse, in power.

And what should reform-minded Republicans conclude from the Cameron experiment? My own advice would be as follows: Don’t waste time thinking of being a reformer. Instead, think long and hard about how to solve the problems facing America. If you are conservatives, then your reforms will be conservative ones. They may be wrong; they may fail. At least, however, you won’t face the Tories’ current nightmare of staring into the prospect of failure because you copied other people’s mistakes.


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