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The Tories are destined to lose the ideological war

In his NS essay Andy Beckett argues that history is against David Cameron's brand of Conservatism

In the late 1970s, the last time the Conservatives approached an election expecting to eject Labour from office, one of their secret weapons was a dapper businessman named John Hoskyns. Hoskyns had set up one of Britain’s first computer firms, but he also had broader interests – in the problems of the British economy, and in whether cybernetics, the study of cause and effect in complex systems, could be used to help solve them.

Hoskyns was a free-marketeer but not party political (he also contacted Labour about his ideas), yet only Margaret Thatcher and a few of her lieutenants were receptive. Hoskyns made two vital contributions to their rise to power and subsequent behaviour in office. First, he produced huge flow charts of how the economy worked, as intricate and dramatic as the Pompidou Centre, which “proved” that the power of the unions was the root cause of Britain’s decline. Then Hoskyns co-wrote Stepping Stones, a policy document which set out a bold strategy for a Conservative government. Abandoning the consensual mindset of postwar Toryism, Stepping Stones urged tight curbs on the unions, big cuts in income tax, and the deregulation of the economy to create an “enterprise culture”.

Hoskyns met strong resistance from Tory moderates. For much of 1977 and 1978, with the re-election of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government looking increasingly possible, it seemed that Hoskyns’s notions might end up as a footnote for policy historians. But then came the Winter of Discontent and its chaotic demonstration of union power. The political leverage of Hoskyns’s ideas and the Conservatives’ electoral prospects were suddenly transformed.

During the first Thatcher administration, Hoskyns was one of her most important advisers, and long after he left government with a knighthood in 1982, the influence of his thinking could be discerned, from the crushing of the 1984-85 miners’ strike to the liberalisation of financial services in the City of London. Whether you find Hoskyns’s political career inspiring or repellent, it is hard to imagine such a figure in David Cameron’s Conservatives. Hoskyns had an intellectual adventurousness bordering on eccentricity; a deep impatience with the status quo; a large non-political hinterland; a lack of tribal Tory feelings. He was a much more exotic creature than the conventional right-wing intellectuals associated with the present Conservative opposition, from the shadow schools minister, Michael Gove, to the influential think tank Policy Exchange.

At the Conservative spring conference in Cheltenham last month, Cameron promised “a whole new, never-been-done-before approach to the way this country is run”, but many current Tory preoccupations are decades, if not centuries, old – a smaller state, the value of marriage, the shortcomings of “progressive” teaching, the dangers of debt. For all the fresh thinking the Conservatives claim to have done since he became leader, on crime and the environment, on poverty and personal morality, it is striking that, as the prospect of a general election approaches, so the traditional Tory themes have been reasserted. “We’re the party of strong borders, law and order and low taxes,” said Cameron in Cheltenham, “and we always will be.”

Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party in December 2005. Like Margaret That­cher in the run-up to the 1979 election, he has been been leader for nearly four years. Like her, he became leader when the Conservatives were at a low ebb, and ready – or as ready as they ever are – for new ideas. Like her, he faces a Labour government whose energies are ebbing and that seems increasingly overtaken by events. Again like her, he faces a country going through a volatile and troubled period. Yet, unlike her, he does not seem to have a project beyond the electoral one of publicly “decontaminating” his party.

In the 1970s, it is true, Thatcher sometimes appeared little bolder than Cameron does now. Opposition leaders with opinion poll leads tend to avoid unnecessary risks, and she often kept her plans for government “under wraps”, as her biographer John Campbell puts it. Between her confirmation as party leader in 1975 and becoming prime minister in 1979, she permitted the publication of only two guides to Conservative policies: a detail-free “fudge” (her word) in 1976, blandly titled The Right Approach, and an election manifesto three years later that did not even have a title and talked about transforming Britain mainly in generalities. Denis Healey said identifying actual policies in the manifesto was “like looking for a black cat in a dark coal cellar”.

Some historians have used Mrs Thatcher’s evasions and cautious phrases to suggest that she was a pragmatist rather than a genuine iconoclast. This however ignores the frequent speeches and interviews she also gave in the 1970s attacking the unions and the compromises of postwar Toryism, and extolling the virtues of individualism and the free market. It ignores her tone – fierce and impatient and new to British Conservatism, unlike Cameron’s easy Etonian confidence. And it ignores the close attention she paid to innovative thinkers such as Hoskyns and Alfred Sherman, co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies, and Ralph Harris, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs. These zealous men and their propagandising institutions were part of an international political movement, the free-market counter-revolution, which had been gaining momentum for half a century.

Cameron’s modest update of British Conservatism, by contrast, was only half a dozen years in the making. After the general election defeat in 2001, he and a few other Tory modernisers, such as Oliver Letwin, George Osborne and Steve Hilton, belatedly accepted that the party’s attitudes to gender, sexuality and race, and its increasingly sour public face, were out of touch with the country Britain was becoming. Haltingly at first, then with increasing speed and slickness, an apparently new Conservative Party came into being, keen on civil liberties and diversity in its parliamentary candidates, reaching out to new electoral demographics (“Vote blue, go green”), younger and less prickly in its leadership.

Yet the transformation was only ever partial: the party’s scepticism about the state and its faith in deregulated capitalism were left untouched. “The City of London . . . is a deeply innovative, impressive place,” Cameron told the journalist Dylan Jones in April 2008, months after Northern Rock had been nationalised. “The vast majority of [the City’s activities] are extremely healthy for the world’s financial systems. My father was a fourth- or fifth-generation stockbroker, so maybe this is inculcated from an early age, but I do believe it.”

The near-collapse of the global financial system since then has drawn less reverent words from the Conservatives about the behaviour of bankers; but there has been no overhaul of the party’s economic thinking of the sort achieved under Thatcher during the 1970s. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, until the financial crisis a highly effective Commons and media performer, needling Gordon Brown and reliably finding Labour’s weak spots, now tends to lapse into awkward silence when asked how he would handle the economic downturn.

With Osborne blunted, the Conservatives’ over-reliance on Cameron has become obvious. The prominence of William Hague in the shadow cabinet and the recall to it of Kenneth Clarke do not suggest a party that is overflowing with fresh talent. The heavy general election defeats of 1997, 2001 and 2005 probably dissuaded a generation of future Tory stars from entering politics. In the 1990s Cameron himself almost gave up politics in favour of a job in public relations. On becoming leader in 1975, Thatcher found a similarly shrunken party. The Conservatives had lost four of the previous five general elections. Many MPs and other senior figures were still loyal to her immediate predecessor, Edward Heath.

Yet there was also a loose group of clever, ambitious Tory politicians – Geoffrey Howe, Norman Tebbit, Keith Joseph – who favoured a change of party direction and had close connections with the free-market think tanks. Thatcher used this parliamentary and intellectual network, and the less fusty sections of the right-wing press such as the Sun, to wage an effective guerrilla war, first within the party against the Heathites and then against the wider 1970s Establishment.

Except in his leadership campaign, where he started as an outsider with barely a dozen MPs as supporters, Cameron has never had to resort to guerrilla warfare. Many Conservatives do not like his more liberal positions, but the strong chance he offers of a return to power, as with Tony Blair and Labour in the 1990s, has made most of his party critics suppress their doubts. Cameron dominates his party, even more than Thatcher in her pomp as prime minister in the mid-1980s, when there were still Heathites and other dissidents around hoping for and discreetly working towards her downfall. Some of Cameron’s assuredness in public, one of his greatest political assets, stems from this dominance. Only the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, looks like a potential rival, and he is probably too isolated in the party and too erratic – defending illegal immigrants one minute, bankers’ salaries the next – to present a real threat.

The downside to Cameron’s dominance is a tendency to drift. In 2007, after the first 18 months of his leadership had gone so well – with popular new policies, transformed poll ratings, and a whiff of Labour panic hanging over Blair’s replacement by Brown as party leader – Cameron and his advisers increasingly spoke and acted as if their victory in the next general election was inevitable. That summer, they seemed taken by surprise when Brown enjoyed the usual honeymoon with the public of a new prime minister. It was not until the autumn, with talk of a mutiny at the coming Conservative conference and with the Spectator running a cover cartoon of Cameron with his head in a noose, that his leadership regained its urgency.

In 2008, the same pattern was repeated: a long period with Cameron smoothly in the ascendant, followed by a shock, this time the sudden worsening of the financial crisis, and then weeks of sagging polls and a sense that he had lost the political initiative. Thatcher, too, had times when she stopped looking like prime minister-in-waiting. Most opposition leaders do (although Blair didn’t). Between the IMF crisis of 1976 and the spring of 1978, the Tory lead over Labour in Gallup polls steadily eroded, dropping from 20 per cent to 1 per cent, thanks to an improving economy, Thatcher’s perceived shrillness and “Uncle Jim” Callaghan’s growing rapport with the public. By the autumn, Labour was ahead. “So a difficult year approached its end,” writes Thatcher with surprising candour in her memoirs. “We . . . seemed all too willing to behave like a permanent opposition . . . a failing on which the government readily capitalised.”

The Winter of Discontent that followed was in some ways a huge stroke of luck for the Conservatives. “Saved by the unions”, as Hoskyns puts it in his memoirs. But Thatcher was able to exploit the situation because, since becoming leader, she had carefully positioned herself as the representative of Britons who had had enough of the unions. In fact, her whole public persona – her neatness, her work ethic, her reverence for her father and her market-town upbringing – appealed to people who disliked the looser Britain that had come into being since the 1950s.

Has Cameron made an equally deep connection with the public? In his early months as leader, his unstuffy manner, his modern cultural tastes and his relative liberalism on social issues certainly struck a chord with some people who were not usually Tory voters. Even at the Guardian, to whose website Cameron had cannily contributed a column in his days as an am­bitious new MP, I encountered colleagues who felt that he was, to use Thatcher’s phrase, “one of us”. At the same time, his patrician ease and origins – the first such background for a Tory leader in almost half a century – quietly excited more traditional Conservatives.

These elements of his appeal have not disappeared, but their novelty and potency have diminished. Barack Obama, not Cameron, is the exciting new figure in western politics now. And in the tougher economic world Britain has had to face since 2007, Cameron’s smoothness may even be counterproductive. With his time in PR, and his wealth and charm, he may turn out to be the last big politician of the British boom years, not the first big politician of the lean ones.

For now at least, aggression does not suit him. His usually relaxed voice tightens hammily, and his outrage at “Labour’s debt crisis” sounds confected, not least because his party rarely objected at the time to the government’s increases in public spending. When Thatcher attacked the way Britain was run in the 1970s you knew she meant it. “There’s a worldwide revolt against big government,” she said at her final election rally in May 1979. “An era is drawing to a close . . . At first . . . people said [to me], ‘Ooh, you’ve moved away from the centre!’ But . . . the heresies of one period [become] the orthodoxies of the next.”

Cameron and his inner circle lack the bloody-mindedness of Thatcher and her lieutenants such as Tebbit and Sherman. It makes the Cameroons much more pleasant to be around. Even journalists from left-leaning papers get a relatively friendly welcome. And even in hard times pleasantness should not be discounted as a political weapon. Thatcher’s ability to alienate and enrage almost certainly reduced her margin of victory at the 1979 election, where she received one of the lowest shares of the vote of any winning British prime minister since the war; it remained a weakness until her downfall 11 years later, hastened by the anti-Maggie fury of the poll tax riot.

Cameron does not inspire hatred. This pro­bably explains why his standing in the polls is better than hers as opposition leader at the same stage in the electoral cycle. In the spring of 2009, he looks a safer bet to become prime minister than she did in the spring of 1978.

But unlike Thatcher, Cameron, if he makes it into Downing Street, will not look out on an economic and political landscape hospitable to his sort of Conservatism. She had Ronald Reagan on his way to becoming president and an anti-tax revolt spreading across the United States; Prime Minister Cameron will probably have to supervise nationalised banks, defend high rates of income tax and impose further layers of regulation on the City of London.

If and when Cameron does stand up for his beliefs in a small state and the free market, it will be a lonely business. As the right-wing Tory blogger Tim Montgomerie concedes, the Conservatives, in their opposition to governments borrowing their way out of the recession, “are pretty isolated in the world. Every big nation now is much closer to the Brown position than the Cameron position.”

Talking to Montgomerie and other prominent Conservatives these days, you sense an anxiety: they think they will win the electoral battle but fear they have already lost the ideological war.

Gaining office in such circumstances does not doom a government. Many successful Conservative prime ministers, from Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s to Harold Macmillan in the 1950s and 1960s, learned to live with things done by their Labour predecessors. But it is Thatcher the Des­troyer whose anniversaries we remember.

Andy Beckett’s book “When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies” has just been published by Faber & Faber (£20)