Welcome to my new blog.
I wrote and circulated this article before the Coalition was formed. Yet I do not apologise if you find it overtaken by events. The Conservative partnership in this government must not lead the Party into complacancy; nor must it allow it to forget the steps that must be taken to spread a Coservative message not only through its policies but also through the argument it presents to the electorate.
David Cameron demonstrated throughout the campaign and, indeed, since his election as leader of the Conservative Party that he understands a cardinal rule of democratic politics: that parties presenting a positive agenda, however dire the economic outlook, however outraged the public with their elected representatives, however threatened the country by events beyond its control, win elections; and that parties presenting an unrelentingly negative message lose the confidence of the electorate. Margaret Thatcher’s message in 1979 was one of hope: hope for council tenants who had never before been able to aspire to the prospect of home ownership, hope for a country sick of being governed by the TGWU and hope for a nation still a witness to socialist tyranny across the Iron Curtain. Clement Atlee gave hope to soldiers returning to a bankrupt nation, to the sick and to the poor. Tony Blair’s message was one of youth, one that spoke to a country tired of a government tired of governing and bereft of fresh ideas.
The same, of course, applies in reverse. Winston Churchill’s warnings of the need for a Gestapo in a socialist state (in 1945) fell flat and repulsed an electorate that loved him but saw him face a man of good will desirous only of fighting against Want, Idleness and Despair; William Hague warned shrilly of ‘five days to save the pound’ to a country fully aware of Blair’s commitment to a referendum; and Michael Howard asked if people were thinking what he was: they weren’t.
Gordon Brown’s campaign could not have fallen more squarely into the second camp, his grey demeanour the perfect face of a campaign of bitterness and hysteria thoroughly deserving of its comprehensive rejection. Cuts to taxation that would ‘take money out of the economy’, a phrase so lacking in economic logic it put paid to his reputation as a brilliant economic mind. The withdrawal of ‘Tax Credits’ (in reality benefits) from families earning over £50,000 said to threaten greater child poverty. The suggestion of cuts to front-line services made by a government fresh from wielding the axe on A&E services throughout rural England and whose plans for further cuts to junior doctors and nurses lost their secrecy as the election progressed. The crude return to another age of class based politics underlined by the unofficial campaigns and phrases referring only to Cameron’s background, not his message. The politics of desperation. Where was the optimism that this great nation could recover its confidence and dynamism? Where the spirit of a Blair who spoke so inspiringly of his confidence and faith in the British people? Where the ‘white heat of technology’, ‘the ‘property owning democracy’, the ‘we’ve never had it so good’? (Alright, that last was a joke.) Perhaps it was a reflection of his puritanical upbringing, his remarkable success in his Scottish homeland one of the more noteworthy features of this election, but such dour gloom was incapable of inspiring an electorate that never cries more for hope than when faced with despair.
So Cameron did well to stick to his message of optimism with dynamic resolution. Yes, there was negative campaigning (very effective at that: ‘I doubled the national debt: vote for me!’) but no speech from David Cameron could leave anyone in any doubt that this was a man who believed in harnessing the energy and spirit of the British people.
But what went wrong? Gordon Brown is likely to go down as the least successful Prime Minister since Alec Douglas-Home. His record is and must be linked inexorably to his 10 years as Chancellor in which his bastardisation of Keynsian economics – borrowing exponentially in an economic boom he helped create by requiring the Bank of England to ignore asset price inflation when fixing interest rates – was the cause of the economic crisis with which he had to deal as Prime Minister. His reputation for economic competence as Chancellor will forever be haunted by his bizarre claim to have ‘abolished boom and bust’, a boast that would have made even Francis Fukyama blush. His answer to everything was to throw money at a problem or a department without first ensuring the extra finance would have any effect on productivity: unsurprisingly, announcing huge increases in health spending before they took effect led to union pressure for vast pay rises that absorbed the preponderance of each spending splurge. He will be remembered for his aggressive campaigns as Chancellor – managed by his acolytes in the Parliamentary Party and elsewhere – to destroy any prospect of public sector reform proposed by the very government of which he was part.
This was a target whose every action could have inspired a Conservative response. Yet it did not. For the weakness in Cameron’s performance was caused not by his campaign, not by his reliance on Lord Ashcroft (whose financial backing far outweighed the embarrassment of his tax status), not by his Etonian roots, but by his failure to appreciate that a Conservative message is one that must be argued for and promoted from the very start of a Parliament in which a party seeks to govern a country ever more reliant on the State and ever more susceptible to a government message that only the public sector could deliver the services and benefits on which it had come to rely.
Cameron’s answer to this criticism is one to which I am sympathetic: that the Conservative Party had first to demonstrate that its interests were not solely in economic productivity, still less in the success only of the prosperous and able, but that it had a mission as much of improving the lot of the ordinary citizen as that of any social democratic party; and, also, that it was a party that understood and mirrored the modern age. He was right to excoriate bigots, promote a party that visibly reflected the multi-ethnic society Britain has become, apologise for homophobic legislation for which the Party was responsible and accept legislative reform normalising the rights of gay citizens. He was right to argue that what delinquent youths were missing was not merely discipline but love. He was right to promote Iain Duncan-Smith’s bold research into and campaigns about the means by which deprived communities might be empowered through taking control of their own communities, rather than relying on the State.
This last sentence illustrates the power and optimism of the Conservative message. Conservatism is often said, by those who misunderstand it, to be a negative philosophy, one that believes that only self interest can better society through the power of the market to deliver wealth to all; as opposed to optimistic socialism that relies upon the good-will of the citizen to work just as hard for the common good as for himself and his family. I believe the reverse is true. A Conservative believes that, by harnessing the freedom of the individual to pursue his dreams, a society will develop where those free men and women recognise – in the little platoons so beloved of Burke – their responsibility for those less fortunate than themselves. The first schools were founded by Abbeys whose moral imperative came from a Power higher than that of the king. The estate villages and towns such as Bourneville and New Lanark were developed by landowners and industrialists who recognised that well housed, clothed and educated workers produce better results and make for a happier, more contented communities. The incredible civic buildings of our great provincial cities were funded by citizens whose pride was not merely in themselves but in the communities that made them. Yet it is not merely the wealthy whose energy is unlocked by their freedom. Friendly societies and reading groups developed through the community involvement of ordinary working people in the 19th century. Trade unions did not merely fight for decent conditions for their members, they provided education, insurance and the means by which people might better themselves. And, more recently, neighbourhood watch schemes enhance those communities’ control over their own security.
Socialism, on the other hand, is not positive at all. It relies upon the State to enforce uniformity and equality by removing freedoms (both social and economic), fearing the inevitably disordered, human consequences of freedom. It does not trust people to run their own lives. It patronises communities with its arrogant belief in the superiority of the bureaucrat or the ‘public servant’. It houses families in inhuman tower blocks devoid of the organic community spirit they replaced – the worst answer to the necessary clearances of the slums. And it penalises those who dare aspire to success for themselves, their families and their communities. Its effect – taken across the whole of the post-War years – has been to dull the sense not merely of community but of responsibility across whole swathes of Britain.
This is a message that I believe Cameron understands instinctively. His problem, I believe, is that he underestimated the difficulty in persuading a sceptical public intoxicated by its reliance on the State of the benefits of economic liberation. Do not forget that Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and economic reforms – now largely accepted even on the centre left – were developed and espoused with passion and continuous force by Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell long before she came to power. These two, in particular, were the prophets of a rejection of the lazy acceptance of the quasi-socialist post-war settlement by the Conservative Party. Their experience demonstrates that a conservative message – especially its economically liberal component – is something that must be expounded with constant argument and explanation; and that a society reliant upon the State must be made to understand the need for freedom by a message that demonstrates the advantages of such a message to all. Margaret Thatcher understood this. Her sale of council houses (then a gigantic proportion of the housing stock) was a master-stroke.
What Cameron needed to do was two-fold. Firstly, to teach the public the positive tenor of the Conservative message: its belief in society; its belief in the ability of individuals, families and communities better to run their own lives than agents of the State; and its belief that those wholly reliant upon the state would lose any sense of dignity or responsibility. This he did brilliantly.
Where he fell short was in linking this message to one of economic liberalism – its logical bedfellow. If charities, businesses or local communities can run their own schools, there is no need for Local Education Authorities (a group of state departments whose discredited educational theories have left a education system devoid of competitive sport, practical science or exams that has failed boys, a generation less literate than ever before in the modern age thanks to the decline in phonics and a generation ignorant of the narrative of British history). That means a spending cut that does not affect front-line services. Hospitals do not need to be managed by staff who number more than doctors, nurses and paramedics combined. Local authorities can shed ‘three veg officers’ and other vestiges of the Nanny State. More spending cuts. And people able to work but who refuse jobs they are offered should lose their right to benefits unless, perhaps, they engage in community service equal to the benefits they receive.
Thus might the public have come to understand that providing quality public services requires neither that the State manages them nor that spending on a particular area need necessarily be increased. As I said above, the last government was – quite outrageously – responsible for genuine cuts in hospital A&E provision whilst presiding over a huge mushrooming of managerial positions in the NHS. This is a moral outrage and should – and could – have been presented as such.
To have embarked upon this strategy of persuasion from the very start of his leadership would have allowed Cameron and Osborne to prepare the public for a message that they were able to understand and accept through being prepared for it; one whose internal coherence and logic they might come to appreciate: that the country’s public sector was increasing, is increasing and ought to be diminished; that to do so would not threaten public services; and that, without such spending cuts, the country risked bankruptcy. Had such a message been prepared and expounded with conviction and vigour from 2005, the public would have understood instinctively, by 2008, that economic disaster could only be averted by immediate and far reaching spending cuts. As it was, George Osborne’s call to ‘share the proceeds of growth’ destroyed any credibility he might have had in making that argument; and the Party’s failure adequately to promote a message of economic liberalism alongside its effective apologia for communitarian conservatism cost it an overall majority.