George Osborne and Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories are taking the morality war to the enemy

Cameron, Duncan Smith, Gove and Osborne are sincere in their desire for social emancipation. They must now find the words to express it. 

Now that the Great Recession is over, the Cameroons are returning to their radical roots. George Osborne recently spoke in favour of full employment. Just about every senior Tory is keen to address social mobility. A strategy is emerging. The Tories are determined to take the morality war to the enemy.

The modern economy has eroded Labour’s moral capital. The Marxists claimed that the rich drew their wealth from the surplus value created by manual labour. The Labour movement certainly drew much of its political capital from manual labour. If you examine Labour propaganda at least until the fifties, a lot of it is based on the injustice of workers toiling to support the idle rich. Those days are over. Bertie Wooster was abolished by the Second World War and post-war taxation.

British politics would look different if Alan Johnson were leading the Labour Party. He could still get a song out of the old tunes. But you cannot proclaim the glory of manual labour and the moral superiority of the proletariat from the coalfields of Hampstead or the steelworks of Kentish Town.

So why has the Tories’ moral deficiency appeared so insuperable? To some extent, it was Margaret Thatcher’s fault. That might seem paradoxical. In health, education and welfare, she did nothing to dismantle the architecture of a social democratic state. Those programmes were allowed to share in the proceeds of growth. She was accused of "cuts", yet there never were any cuts. Even so, the charge was not wholly unfair. Her political body language signalled a desire for cuts. She gave the continuous impression that Thatcher’s Britain was for the striving, the sharp-elbowed and the successful; no one else need apply.

Mrs Thatcher was often cloth-eared when it came to language, otherwise she would never have said that there was no such thing as society. Her injudicious comment drew attention to one of Thatcherism’s intellectual weaknesses: it had no theory of the state. Although Tories have never believed that the state should merely be anarchy plus the constable, the Lady came perilously close to validating that caricature, and to giving the impression that for her, the state was defence, the police and an unprivatisable residuum. Equally, she did nothing to reform either state education or welfare, which drifted along in a pre-Thatcherite sleepy hollow.

False impressions and linguistic slips did not matter as long as Labour was led by Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock. But when the party came up with a leader who was salonfähig in the living-rooms of middle England, the cuts legacy was toxic. Labour claimed that the Tories could not be trusted with the services on which ordinary families depend. Only Labour would defend them - without putting up taxes. It was a formidable platform.

During the Blair years, the Tory party often consulted focus groups and always depressed itself. Asked to draw a Labour politician, the groupers would come up with a slim chap in a dark blue suit talking into a mobile: very modern-looking. A Tory would be depicted as fat, in green wellies and tweeds, very unmodern-looking. So the Cameroons decided to tackle all this. As they had no intention of cutting the NHS, as David Cameron had spent night after night in Great Ormond Street hospital at his child’s bedside, they would proclaim their support for the NHS and for all public services. It helped that Mr Cameron and his team believed in social generosity and were determined to remove the obstacles to social mobility.

It also helped that the right spokesmen were in place. There is no more passionate believer in using education to bring opportunity to the poorest households than Michael Gove. At moments, in his intense desire to tear down the barriers to social mobility, Mr Gove can sound like a leftie.

In the Fifties, reviewing Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, Roy Jenkins wrote that to him, socialism meant the relief of distress and poverty plus the removal of class barriers. The Cameroons would reply that they too are interested in those goals, which they can accomplish far more easily, because they do not have to deal with other socialist baggage, or the belief that the answers to social questions always involve a larger state.

The "big society" was an unfortunate phrase; it sounds sinister and Orwellian. If only the Great Society had still been available. But Cameronian conservatism is about social empowerment. This is most apparent in health and education. In the long run, it will also be true in welfare. That might seem a strange claim. How do you empower people by reducing their entitlements? There is a simple answer. Over the past few decades, the welfare state has increasingly lost its way. We have created an ill-fare state, in the form of a welfare aristocracy: families who believe that they have a hereditary entitlement to unemployment benefit. The greatest argument against promiscuous welfare is not the waste of money. It is the waste of people.

The Cameroons will have to deal with the charge of hypocrisy: that they are rich men who are pretending to be interested in the less well-off merely in order to defend their own interests. That should not be hard for them, for two reasons. First, most voters do not share Ed Miliband’s inherited enthusiasm for class warfare. Second, it is not true. Messrs Cameron, Duncan Smith, Gove and Osborne are sincere in their desire for social emancipation. They must now find the words to express it. 

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.