In defence of Cameron's conservatism

The PM's modernisation project has been a political and a policy success.

Since the Budget, the Conservatives have suffered from a few bad headlines and a drop in the polls. Ukip have enjoyed a sudden surge in support. The disgruntled – who have loathed David Cameron’s centrism for years – have pounced: this proves, apparently, that the modernisation project has failed. Time to bin it.

Fortunately, as Oliver Letwin has said, senior ministers don’t believe in running government like a magazine. They “believe in running government like a government". Ignore occasional blips and unpopular patches, overall the Conservative modernisation project is in actual fact very successful, both politically and in regards to policy.

Cameron couldn’t even win a majority in 2010, they howl. Well, the party did gain more seats than at any election since 1931, and did receive a record swing of 5.1 per cent from Labour. Compare that to Thatcher in 1979, who received a swing from Labour of 5.3 per cent. The Conservatives must have been doing something right.

Even now, during a time of severe cuts to public spending, the Conservatives enjoy a relatively high poll rating. Cameron is popular and his party is more trusted than Labour on the economy.

As Professor Tim Bale shows, in a first-past-the-post system, the winning party is the one that hoovers up the most floater voters who sit in the middle of the political spectrum. Quite simply, the Conservative Party – as polling by Lord Ashcroft reveals – didn’t do enough – and still doesn’t do enough - to convince these centre-ground voters to secure a parliamentary majority. That’s the problem.

Still, there are complaints that Cameron is conceding too much ground to the Liberal Democrats and abandoning true Tory values by focusing on gay and green issues. But these are just part of a broad package, and are not incompatible with Tory sentiments on freedom and stewardship. Actually, the coalition government has a whole array of reforms that ought to be very pleasing to Tory activists: a reduction in public expenditure, the use of a veto in EU negotiations, welfare reform, the lowering of income and corporation tax, the dismantling of state control in education, greater control to front-line professionals in the NHS. The list goes on.

But still there is discontent, and threats of resignations to Ukip. And so it becomes clear what is at the heart of all this ill-feeling: doctrinaire libertarianism. Ukip is a party of libertarian purists – those who believe the state or multinational governments should basically have no role in telling institutions or individuals what to do.

Such pure libertarianism has some merits, but two key flaws. The first, and the most major, is that it refuses to acknowledge how culture and poverty in a system of entirely voluntary exchange restricts individual choice, and that the state can play a positive role in rectifying this to expand freedoms.

The second, and most relevant, is that it is rigid, ideological and extreme. These libertarians do not see society as an ecosystem of different – often conflicting - interests with the role of Government being to carefully balance them to achieve the optimum equilibrium between equity and efficiency. Rather, they believe everyone has their own interest which should they be able to pursue regardless of the externalities, except if it is criminal, and government should just get out of the way to allow them to do it.

The result then is that purist libertarians are never satisfied.  Never content until the UK pulls out of the EU altogether. Never happy until public services are entirely independent of state rules and control full stop. Never pleased until the government and the EU stops issuing directives that regulates individual behaviour, such as the smoking ban. No wonder they are perpetually dissatisfied with the Prime Minister.

Such a mind-set applies to their approach to politics, as with many other ideologues. They are not satisfied until conservatism – and their particular form of conservatism – triumphs in every decision and policy of government. Coalition, then, is abhorrent. Such tribalism, disappointingly, misses the fact that, as moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “each team is composed of good people who have something important to say”.

Ironically, if they join Ukip, their only way of gaining real influence in government would be through a coalition. Better, surely to stay inside the party – a coalition in itself – to have real, long-lasting effect. Indeed, as a Conservative who values different perspectives around a table, I’d like those libertarians to stay.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue.

Tories who have loathed Cameron’s centrism for years have pounced. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.