Maggie's gift to Gordon

David Cameron tried to break with the Tory past by modelling himself on Tony Blair. But with Margare

History imposed on David Cameron the task of persuading the electorate that Conservatives are at home in 21st-century Britain. William Hague, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith were at one in supposing that, overlooked or derided by metropolitan opinion, there was a conservative British majority that viewed the society emerging around them with alarm and indignation. In fact, most voters felt at home in liberal Britain, and the Conservatives went on to three successive defeats. Breaking with his predecessors, Cameron decided that unless the Conservatives identified themselves with the nation that Britain has become they were finished as a party of government. By aligning himself with contemporary British values, he posed a challenge to Labour to which Gordon Brown must now respond.

The next general election will take place against the background of a period of profound social change that goes back to the crises of the Seventies. To a considerable extent, 21st-century Britain is an unintended consequence of Margaret Thatcher. It was Thatcher who, accentuating the impact of global forces that no one controls, dismantled the postwar settlement and created the market-driven society we live in today. She believed that by rejuvenating British capitalism she could revive the stolidly bourgeois Britain she had known in the Fifties; but that country was a product of Labour rule, and the upshot of reshaping public institutions on a market model was to create a society of a kind she had never imagined.

In an essay that had a powerful influence on the intellectual fringes of early Thatcherism, Friedrich Hayek distinguished between two rival versions of individualism - a "true", Burkean variety, rooted in tradition, that accepted the constraints of conventional morality and a "false", Romantic version in which personal choice and self-realisation trumped all other values. Hayek believed that a revitalised free market would bring with it a return to "true" individualism.

Instead, it was a version of Romantic individualism that triumphed. As the imperatives of market choice have spread into every area of social life, personal fulfilment and the satisfaction of desire have become the ruling values. Relationships of all kinds have become looser and social structures have become more negotiable and provisional. In many ways this has been a benign process. As a result we are more tolerant of the varieties of family and sexual life, and less pervasively racist, and although we are perceptibly more unequal we are less obsessed with class than in the past. But the country created by freeing up the market is in many respects the antithesis of the one Hayek and Thatcher aimed to restore. If ever there was such a thing as a conservative philosophy, its central values were social cohesion and cultural continuity in a settled form of common life. Yet when it is released from restraint the market works to unsettle established ways of living. So, far from reviving an older Britain, Thatcher wiped away its last traces.

Endemic discontent

However, if the freewheeling society we have today is Thatcher's creation, her latter-day followers refuse to recognise the fact. The diehards who make up much of the Conservatives' core support despise and reject the nation she un wittingly created. They believe that by ditching Thatcher's inheritance, Cameron has abandoned anything resembling conservatism; but it was Thatcher who destroyed the old social structures - and with them the possibility of a viable conservative project. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Conservative Party itself. The loosening up of hierarchies that occurred in society at large has been reflected in a parallel dissolution of the Tory culture of loyalty. Before Thatcher, Tory leaders could rely on an ethos that elevated loyalty above ideology. After Thatcher, disloyalty and infighting became defining Tory traits, and every party leader was placed permanently on probation. Mistrusted by his party, Cameron is seen as a traitor to conservative values. But the Thatcherites themselves - with their endemic discontent and doctrinal mentality - demonstrate how unreal these values have become. Early this month, the former deputy leader Michael Ancram urged Cameron to "unveil the party's soul" rather than "trashing" its Thatcherite past. If Cameron follows such advice, the Conservatives will be left stranded on the margins of power in a country they have ceased to comprehend.

Whatever his critics may say, Cameron had no alternative but to remodel his party. His strategy of repositioning his party on the liberal centre ground enabled it to become, once again, a contender for power. The trouble is that the model of modernisation he adopted was already obsolete. By the time Cameron adopted Blairite new Labour as his template, Blair had become a buffoonish figure - a would-be global messiah who engineered the worst British foreign policy disaster since Suez. A more experienced politician might have asked himself whether it was wise to pose as Blair's successor. Cameron might have unseated Blair in a general election run-off; but once Blair vanished from the scene, the Tory leader was left looking dated and redundant.

In the Commons, Cameron goaded Blair with the taunt, "You were the future once." Yet, by modelling himself on Blair, Cameron tied himself to the past. Unprepared for the national sigh of relief that greeted Blair's departure, he seems ill-prepared for the very different style of politics that has arrived with Gordon Brown.

Only a new breed of Conservatives, for whom Thatcher was a chapter in the history books rather than a living presence, could have consigned her to the memory hole with such brisk finality. In this, Cameron's limited political experience has been a source of strength, but passing most of his short political life in Blair's shadow has narrowed Cameron's vision. Blair's decade in power was a by-product of unrepeatable historical conditions. He was able to return Labour to power by accepting many of Thatcher's policies because she embodied the interests and values of a crucial part of the electorate that was ready to transfer its allegiance to him.

By the time Blair left office he represented no one, and the same is true of Cameron today. Like Blair, Cameron moves in a smart, moneyed set with tenuous links to the wider society. Aside from the fox-hunting fraternity - promised a free vote on repealing the ban - it is hard to think of any social group whose concerns Cameron has consistently championed. Even his commitment to green issues, which at one point seemed to be voicing widely felt anxieties, sounds contrived and unconvincing. There is no section of today's Britain where his voice resonates with any particular force.

Cameron's patrician background plainly had a role in his most serious error to date. His in souciant dismissal of an institution that was for generations a hugely important part of British education showed how slender is his acquaintance with the choices most people have to face. Unlike most Tory voters, Cameron has always been able to take for granted the option of educating his children privately. Like a junior colonial officer in the declining years of empire, he seems hardly to comprehend the lives of those he has set out to govern. His stumble over grammar schools was more than a minor slip. It disclosed an amateurish quality in his entire operation, and exposed the vulnerability of a political project that lacks any solid base of social support.

Provincial majority

There is a great opportunity here for Gordon Brown. Linked by overlapping social ties and a common proximity to the London media, Blair and Cameron are alike in their detachment from Britain's provincial majority. This is not the disaffected, reactionary rump invoked by latter-day Thatcherites. It is broadly liberal in outlook, but it demands from government some of the qualities that used to be claimed by Conservatives, such as common sense, competence and a cool head in times of crisis. It has no time for Blairite rants about incessant change, nor for the unending stream of ephemeral initiatives that embodied the Blair regime in practice. By distancing himself so sharply from this style of government, Brown has wounded Cameron at his weakest point.

The shift in the public philosophy of the Conservatives that Cameron initiated seems to have started as a psephological gambit, which recognised that the party could not return to power on the back of its core supporters alone and aimed to capture Liberal Democrat votes in about a hundred key seats. As an electoral strategy it has had mixed results, with Lib Dem voters switching to Labour as well as to Cameron's Conservatives. At the same time, large issues have been left unresolved. At present there are at least two tendencies vying for control among the Con servatives. There are neoliberals such as John Redwood, who urge further large-scale market deregulation and hugely reduced government - a programme whose effect would be to impose another revolutionary shake-up on society, and which for that reason has no prospect of being implemented by any government in the fore seeable future.

In contrast there are the neoconservatives, who accept that governments are bound to continue to play a significant role in social welfare and regulating the economy. What these tendencies have in common is that neither can claim to be distinctively conservative - the neoliberals owe more to Hayek (who always denied being a conservative) than they do to Burke, while neoconservatism originated on the American far left. Both are progressive ideologies, which differ from those that prevail on the centre left chiefly by being less realistic and more dogmatic.

The practical problem for Cameron is that neither of these tendencies allows the Conser vatives to make the vital break with the past. If the neoliberal tendency represents a reversion to Thatcherism at its most rigidly doctrinal, the neoconservative wing of the party - to which, in most respects, Cameron himself belongs - offers little more than a continuation of Blairism. These difficulties have been compounded by his most recent turn in which - while talking of the need to repair Britain's " broken society" - he has increasingly reverted to stock right-wing themes such as crime and immigration.

Many commentators have accused Cameron of inconsistency, but his larger error is that of moving back to the reactionary territory that lost his predecessors the past three elections. However dressed up in fashionable jargon, talk of the broken society cannot help harking back to a nation whose passing the majority of Britons do not regret. No doubt concern with crime is widespread, as are doubts about current levels of immigration. But these worries do not add up to anything like a wide sense of social collapse, and most of Britain's voters like the country in which they live. By putting a rejection of that country at the heart of his campaign, Cam eron has fallen into the trap that has snared every Conservative leader since Thatcher. He has failed to reconcile his party to the society she created, while alienating the voters he needs to attract by implicitly condemning the way many of them have chosen to live.

At present, both the parliamentary party and the party organisation are racked by internecine conflicts, and Cameron himself is looking ever more like an opportunist with no settled beliefs. By itself, intellectual incoherence has rarely been a serious obstacle to securing power. When combined with an ill-conceived political strategy, the result can be disastrous. Only months ago Cameron seemed poised to overtake Labour. There is still a chance he could deny it an overall majority in the general election, but with the Tory leader's switch to the self-defeating politics of reaction and Gordon Brown's assured performance as Prime Minister, the initiative has moved back to Labour. Brown's "steady as she goes" brand of government is an ambiguous phenomenon, for though it involves a sharp break with Blair's style, it is premised on continuing with much of the policy framework that was in place when Blair was in power - which itself continued much of Thatcher's. In an irony neatly captured by the tea at No 10, Cameron has been left struggling to manage the party Thatcher nearly destroyed, while Brown is using the Thatcher inheritance to entrench Labour as the party of government. If Brown can convince voters that he has viable new policies - particularly in the areas of energy and the environment - there is every chance Cameron will follow Blair into history's memory hole.

Much now depends on events. Enough has transpired to plant a large question mark over Cameron's project. He aimed to fashion a new centre-right party, but the result has been a continuation of drift and division. A setback in the next general election could turn these divisions into a civil war not unlike the one that engulfed the party when Thatcher was toppled. The difference is that, after Cameron's attempt to impose a Blair-style makeover on the party, it could end up like a failed state - a rabble of rival factions, each claiming to embody true conservatism at a time when such a thing is no longer imaginable.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The upshot of the next general election could be meltdown in the Conservative Party and a long period of unchallenged power for Gordon Brown.

John Gray's latest book is "Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia" (Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, £18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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