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 

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear