The gospel according to Dave

The party knows what it wants – grammar schools, immigration controls, spending cuts. But does the l

I don't want this to sound too much like an undergraduate PPE essay, but the question of whether David Cameron is a Conservative requires one to define what one means by that term. The Tory party is a broad church, and the conservative movement in Britain is far wider than the party. Each of us in that movement (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I must stress I am not a member of the party) has his or her own definition of what conservatism is. By mine, Cameron is something else altogether.

In my own traffic with Conservatives, I detect common themes that they would wish to see elaborated in policy under Cameron, but which for the moment are not. They want the state to be cut back, and all that that entails. They are profoundly unimpressed by the European project and wish us to have less of a part in it or, in some cases, no part at all. They are strong supporters of grammar schools and strong opponents of the diluted university education they believe is being purveyed in institutions of higher learning today. They endorse private education, and would like to see a voucher system that made it more affordable to more people. They support strict controls on immigration. One of the few public spending programmes they would like to see expanded is that of prison-building. They believe the notion of man-made global warming is an anti-capitalist conspiracy. They support fox-hunting and feel that urban Britain has been greatly favoured over the rural since 1997. They support the National Health Service, but would like to see it fundamentally reformed. In their attitudes to welfare, they draw a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. They prefer married families to unmarried ones.

As far as mainstream Conservatives are concerned, none of those views is really exceptional, and certainly not extreme. Yet, as I look down that list, I am hard put to find any item on it with which I am convinced Cameron would unequivocally agree.

The party's economic policy, insofar as one can be properly defined, is a mess. Cameron now intervenes more and more to enunciate it, as he did recently when ruling out "swingeing cuts" in the first year of a Tory administration. What this says about his faith in George Osborne can only be a matter for conjecture. Big business, which is supposed to be the Tories' natural constituency, is telling him it will relocate abroad if the 50p tax rate is not reversed. Yet the Tories are afraid to do this in case it is represented by Labour (as it surely would be) as favouring the "rich". Never mind that the "rich" tend to spend their disposable income on products and services supplied by the "poor", many of whom will suffer a severe, and not just marginal, blow to their lifestyle when the higher rate comes into effect in April.

Cameron is also taking a Heathite attitude towards cuts. The NHS will not be cut, he says. His lieutenants say that the only health policy the Tories can afford, politically, is one that is identical to Labour's. This ignores the widespread belief among Conservatives that a public service costing more than £100bn a year must have scope for reform; and reform that provides a health service free at the point of use to all who need it, but more cheaply and efficiently. There is also bemusement among Tories that the only other budget that Cameron has guaranteed to protect is the one for international development. It is presumed that this is because he wishes to grandstand at some point about his party being compassionate to people in the third world, and therefore not "nasty".

Public relations

Many natural Tories have still not forgiven Cameron for his obtuse handling of the Lisbon Treaty question. His promise - or threat - to do something about the treaty even if it were ratified has turned out to be empty. He cannot unratify the treaty without our leaving the EU altogether. There is talk of his calling for an intergovernmental conference, and even of having a referendum to give him a mandate to call for one, but that is absurd. Cameron may have to tolerate erosions of sovereignty that are no fault of his, but rather of Gordon Brown's, yet the blame he will attract from Tories for allowing them to happen will be the fault of his having raised expectations unreasonably. Cameron seems out of step with his party on Europe, and not really to understand the issues - as his handling of Lisbon and of his party's realignment with various oddballs in the European Parliament would seem to confirm.

Yet nothing upsets mainstream Tories more than their leader's stand on grammar schools. This is a policy driven by focus groups taken among non-Tory voters, who say that grammar schools are not popular with them. They wouldn't be, would they? However, they are intensely popular with almost every Tory activist I have ever met, and with many other natural Tory voters. They are seen as offering a route out of poverty to young people with brains.

This is where Cameron's own background comes to grate with his party. If one has a father rich enough to send one to Eton, then grammar schools are neither here nor there. If they are the only way for some young people to get a truly superb education, it matters very much when a Conservative leader (who is also an OE) says he can't be arsed about them.

Cameron knows that he must throw the odd bone to his core vote. He has encouraged the retributive ethos against burglars that one finds in one's own home - though this was made easier for him by the fact that the case that prompted the debate involved the shocking treatment of an Asian householder: grandstanding about anything that might be seen to support ethnic minorities has become second nature. He seemed to be prepared to defend married families through the tax system, but that became subject to the usual economic confusion that so often besets the party. Cameron shifts easily on such issues because he has very few principles, other than his belief in himself as prime minister. If it is feasible one day to reward marriage through the tax system, he will do so. If it is not, he won't really care less. Such is the mindset of the former public relations man, whose elastic intellect can be placed on whatever side of whatever argument.

It is that intellectual (or is it moral?) weakness that is likely to be exposed in the dirty fighting of an election campaign. Natural Conservative voters want blood - Labour blood - and Mr Cameron must try to give it to them. Having little in his political wardrobe that passes for a principle, that may be simple to do at a superficial level. However, it makes him vulnerable to scrutiny and to being tested in a way that would provide few difficulties for a genuine conviction politician, but which could severely undermine an imitation. Not least for that reason, real Conservatives await the campaign with great interest.

Simon Heffer is associate editor of the Daily Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain