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: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder