George Osborne and Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.