A final nail has been bashed into the coffin of Compassionate Conservatism this week and the left should weep, not cheer.
Those receiving benefits, desperate burglars, Europeans, teaching unions, pregnant women and more are now in the sites of a vindictive Britannia that is being unchained before our eyes. In sorrow not anger we should morn the passing of what could have been – a decisive shift in British politics with the rebirth of a caring Tory Party that has turned into a fading dawn. Why and how can this be the case?
The real job of politics is to shift the centre of gravity in your direction for the longest possible period of time. To do this means not just changing your party but your opponents so that when you lose, and you will, nothing really changes. Thatcher realized this when claimed her ultimate triumph was not changing the Tory party but changing Labour. Blimey did she succeed.
The possibility of a one-nation, compassionate Conservatism taking root under Cameron’s early leadership was a distinct and tantalizing possibility. Going green, hugging hoodies and the whole big society opened up space that was to the left of the arid spot New Labour finally landed on. A strong connection could have been made to the Disraeli and Macmillan strain of Conservatism that had been lost under the Thatcherite storm. After all, it was a Tory minister that founded our post war system of secondary education, it was a Tory government that built more council houses than any Labour government and under the Tories the NHS used to be safe. Of course it was a paternalistic politics born of an old class system – but a system that recognized obligation, duty, respect and tolerance. Cameron appeared to be of this ilk and not of the dry, utilitarian brand of market fundamentalists that took hold of the party after 1975.
That compassionate Conservatism failed to re-root itself is of course Cameron’s fault. He didn’t do the work politically or organizationally to dig in. Or perhaps he never really meant it? The crash didn’t help either – giving Osborne an easy target with which to attack the state and to have a very lop-sided view of being “all in it together”. But the forces outside of the Tory ranks acting against the back-sliding to compassionless Conservatism where too weak to act as an effective countervailing force. Labour, the unions and wider civil society simply haven’t been up to the job. Too little of the New Labour legacy has survived because it was hardly ever based on principled argument and popular support and was therefore incapable of defining a lasting moral consensus once Labour was turfed out. Devolution stands but little else.
I come from a working class family. I didn’t really know any Tories until I was an adult. It confounded my youthful prejudices to find out they could be kind and caring. But such traits find little echo in their party today. Cameron promised but failed to deliver. What happens to these people now – who speaks for them? And what about Ferdinand Mount, Ken Clarke, Peter Oborne and the Red Tory Philip Blond? These people have been adding a richness to the political debate and policy that no longer has a home. Where do they go and what has the country lost?
Some in Labour’s ranks will cheer. The lines become clearer for them, a simple world of black and white, good and bad. The worse the Tories get the better Labour looks. Such a view is fatal. It either opens up the threat of Labour marching to the right again to eat up the space being vacated by the return of the great moving right show, or it polarises politics and the whole adversarial system that has done such damage to Britain. Can those who are cheering be so sure the centre of gravity, because of these preference shaping right wing Tories, won’t shift even further right?
The point at which our country was at its most equal was an era in the 1950s called Butskellism, named after the consensus between the hugely influential and decent Tory RA Butler and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. Compassionate Conservatism is not an oxymoron but it’s taken another big hit. We should hope it recovers. The NHS being safe in the Tories hands is a good thing. It means poor people don’t suffer unnecessarily. The left has to understand its victory comes is when it converts the Tories again to a humane form of politics.
PS The debacle of the West Coast Mainline franchise is yet another example of free market failure being turned into an attack on the state. In echoes of the banking crisis, that was the result of too little not too much state intervention, the right argue that civil service ‘failure’ merely shows how daft it would be to let the state ever run the railways again. You have to admire their brass neck. The reality is that in our warped world we have private sector consultants paid £650k a year to shaft civil servants paid just £65k in the battle of who wins the franchise contract war. I wonder? The former are incentivized to make as much profit as possible while later are incentivized by what’s in the public interest. The sooner the railways are run by and for the public the better. Where is Labour’s brass neck?
Neal Lawson’s column appears weekly on The Staggers.