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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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