Being a reply to Matthew D’Ancona, Paul Goodman, and Tory centrists from a member of their target demographic.
As a moderate Labour type in economic policy and a metropolitan liberal in social matters, I should be the sort of person who is intrigued by David Cameron’s conservatism, and might even find it politically appealing, if only in the way that a committed vegetarian might find a bacon sandwich attractive. You’d never go the whole hog, but it’s a bit worrying that you’d even consider doing so.1
Yet I’m not, not in the slightest, and as an outsider, this gives me a certain perspective on the agonised sobs of the Tory Centrists, exemplified this weekend by Matthew D’Ancona and Paul Goodman, both writing in the Telegraph.2
Both analyse the Tory problem acutely, but I think miss the big stumbling block. Goodman is concerned with the Demographics of conservative weakness. As ever, he’s right, but it’s looking through the telescope the wrong way round. Get the politics right, and the demographics usually follows.3
In contrast, D’Ancona writes that the Tory problem is an ontological one. His analysis of the Tory problem is that Tory policies are unpopular, mostly because they come from Tories. So the solution is in some way to be Not-Tory. This is what led to the visual, sheen-based exercise of early Tory modernism. D’Ancona think that this process has stalled. mostly because of the financial crisis.
I disagree. The problem was not that Tory modernism was stalled, but that it was completed, and was insufficient to the demands of the age. In this, the Tory right, and Labour left, are correct.
D’Ancona says of the Financial Crisis
“It has restored to respectability the myth that politics is really a branch of economics; the myth that confuses the complex, multi-faceted voter – who contains multitudes – with that predictable two-dimensional creature, homo economicus. The risk is one of “ideological creep”: when an entirely practical mission to improve the lot of Britons in 2012 and beyond starts to acquire a doctrinal veneer, and to look like the work of Tory Jacobites, ideological restorationists determined to continue the “unfinished revolution” of the 1980s.”
This inadvertently delineates his own problem. What if the current economic situation means that D’Ancona’s “myth” is basically correct, and that the “entirely practical mission” does not “acquire a doctrinal veneer” from malign love of revolution or restoration, but because a lack of growth, a need for savings, the whole staggering slow failure of the current economy, makes economically doctrinal decisions important and needed and vital?
Cameron’s 2005-07 Modern Conservatism was not a stalled project, but one that relied, much as late Blair reformism and Brown’s distributionism did, on a tide of economic growth to provide funds, which could then be provided to either cushion the impact of public service reform, support the living standards of favoured groups, or offer tax cuts. These funds could be relied on to allow the politician to project themselves as reformer, friend of the working family or modern, compassionate conservative.
When that flow of painless funds stopped, the Tory modernising project suddenly found it had to answer questions it was rather ill-equipped to deal with, precisely because it had been based on the assumption that the solutions that conservatism offered mattered rather less than projecting that said solutions were motivated by love of ones fellow man, not bitter self-interest.
That ontological obsession simply doesn’t work now.
One might be interested in the motivating angels of the Prime Ministerial nature in good times, but when he’s increasing your taxes, or cutting your benefits, whether a Conservative is a good-hearted, generous man or not is no longer an interesting question, but a tedious irrelevancy, and quite possibly a personal insult.
In such a situation, what you do matters a great deal more than who you seem to be.
Unfortunately for the Conservatives, they decided that who they were mattered more than what they did.
Since the Tory modernisation project had never engaged with whether what Tories did was a good thing or not4 but instead on what Tories seemed to be, then as soon as the Financial Crisis posed an important question, their answers came back as D’Ancona’s unreconstructed Eighties-ism.
It is rather as if Labour, confronted by the early nineties recession, had immediately started talking about the need for wage councils, and prices and incomes policy.
So here’s the problem for the Tories.
It doesn’t matter any more whether you’re modern, or whatever.
What matters is what you do, and unfortunately what you’re doing is broadly wrong, and regressive, and where it’s right and constructive5 you’re a bit ashamed and embarrassed of it for ideological reasons, and until you sort out what you think about all this big ideological stuff the rest of it is for the birds, really, because no-one cares about what sort of people you are any more, because we simply don’t have time for that sort of self-indulgent crap.
- Thinking about it more neutrally, as a degree educated, professional, mortgage holding man in the 30-45 age group in one of the top income deciles, I am the Tory target demographic, or one of them. So the fact that I should be interested in progressive Conservatism may not be because I’m such a special moderate snowflake, but is instead a product of the simple relationship political views and education, income, residence and demographically expected life-experience. This is obviously less satisfying for me than a more Ptolemaic political model.
It’s easy for people in politics and the media to think like this. We’re all thoughtful commentators with complex, nuanced views, while the punters are short-handed stereotypes, or at best, Mosiac codes. Though the first thing everyone does when encountering Mosaic, or similar software, is check their own postcode to see what it says about them, which results are usually disturbingly accurate, in a sort of astrologically general way [↩]
- Why the Telegraphs might want to end 2012 with a large raspberry to the Prime Minister is interesting in itself, and is probably even now the subject of intrigued discussions among certain Conservatives [↩]
- It’s like me trying to persuade the Labour party that it needs to be moderate because of what Dartford thinks. We’ve all got our own stories about Dartford, or Thurrock, or Worcester, or Stockton. In politics, everyone has an Aunt in a marginal seat. [↩]
- Subject being perhaps to painful, or difficult, or controversial, which feel a lot of sympathy with and am not saying to be snide, but rather sympathetically, because when I say similar things about “what Labour does wrong” I’m usually called needlessly controversial and striking some sort of electoral pose [↩]
- for example in encouraging a more long-term economy, greater regional development, better skills policy [↩]