In the early Cameronian period, which now feels prehistoric, the only news was good news. It shows how the recession has turned everything topsy-turvy that this week the Tories have actually been aiming for ‘bad’ headlines. They have succeeded: cut invalidity benefit (weekend press), make people retire later (Tuesday), the ‘new age of austerity’ (Wednesday). This inversion also means that a boring speech is considered a good one. On Tuesday, George Osborne came on to the platform here. ‘Platform’ was the right word, because the set, a photograph of suburban houses from first-storey level, made it look as if George was waving goodbye to his family from an elevated railway before jumping on to the 8.14 from Esher. His delivery was almost unvarying and his message uncompromisingly tough. The only comfort he offered was the solidarity of the commuter when services are delayed: ‘We’re all in this together.’ No one could have enjoyed the speech, and yet the minders were ecstatic.
They were probably right. It would have been terrible if anyone had sensed that Mr Osborne was having fun. He even dressed like an undertaker. But it does surprise me that more attention has not been paid to his proposal for a pay freeze. This will take place in 2011, he announced, and apply to all public-sector workers except the lowest-paid and ‘frontline’ military. The idea is to combine toughness on the deficit with fairness. But there are good reasons why, for nearly 30 years now, governments have avoided having a pay policy. One is that the same for all is not, in fact, fair. Some workers’ pay at the point of freeze will have fallen behind; others’ will have gained. In a freeze, all are trapped, and the struggle to sort this out after the freeze has thawed is clamorous and bitter. The other reason is that a government pay policy unites all its victims, giving them a common grievance as voters. It empowers their trade union leaders, who can at last establish solidarity, and build themselves up as interlocutors with whom government will have to deal. Pay then ceases to be related to work done and becomes political. Mr Osborne himself said that he ‘could not think’ of abolishing the 50 per cent top tax rate — though he argues the rate is a bad thing — while asking people to accept a freeze. He risks turning the government into a moral arbiter about pay, instead of a rational employer. Back to the Seventies?
Since, however, we are now in this world of ‘fairness’ and all the resentment it produces, one is maliciously pleased that the people in quangos who earn more than the Prime Minister will now have their pay personally adjudicated by the Chancellor. This will keep Mr Osborne busy: there are more than a dozen such people in the BBC alone. The regulators also get amazing amounts. The other day, I was taken to a street in North Oxford to be shown a famous local attraction — the house belonging to Hector Sants, the chief executive of the Financial Services Authority. There it stands, large and scrubbed and modern-opulent, patioed and extended, smoked windows, security gates — by far the grandest building in Oxford’s grandest area, a monument to the wealth of the public service.
A quarter of a century ago, the Conservative party conference was blown up. Several people were killed and others, including Margaret, the wife of Norman Tebbit, were maimed for life by the IRA bomb that exploded in the Grand Hotel. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, narrowly escaped injury. Gordon Brown marked the anniversary by flying to Belfast this week to see Peter Robinson, the First Minister, and Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister. The latter was one of the leaders of the IRA at the time of the Brighton bomb. The two men are rowing with one another about the devolution of justice and policing powers to Northern Ireland, and trying to get more money out of Whitehall. Most people seem to see the legitimising of people like McGuinness as a good thing, a taming of the wild men. There is an element of that. But the counter-case is that, even after terrorists almost succeeded in blowing up the entire Cabinet, the British political elites did not punish such evil, but rewarded it. It is widely believed that the Northern Ireland peace process is the one unassailable part of Tony Blair’s legacy, but it is actually unstable, because it gives power to killers who have never repented, and has weakened all those decent politicians who never killed. The example set is literally explosive. My advice to al-Qa’eda would be to bomb a party conference. Within a decade, you would gain a share in the government of Britain.
Remembrance of the Brighton bomb helps to mark in the mind how much the Tory conference has changed. In some ways, I am nostalgic for the old one. Before bombs, the lack of security meant that members of the public could just wander in and chat to famous people: high security is a great enemy of democracy. And the old Tory conference was fascinatingly tribal. It always reminded London-based journalists that British Conservatism is — or was — a provincial, strangely unpolitical movement. I liked its unfashionable, late-middle-aged, patriotic, part-churchy, part-golf-clubby feel, its respectability and its atavism. I even enjoyed the conventions of speeches at that time — the servile praise heaped on the heads of simpering ministers, the bad jokes about political opponents (‘Last week in Blackpool, the so-called brothers…’), the bombast and the dullness. ‘It’s all stage-managed’, we knowingly complained. Yes, but all that management somehow set the stage for a few moments of great drama. It was intensely atmospheric, and now it isn’t. But though the changes have made the whole thing duller, they have also made it better. It was extraordinary in the past how hard it was for anyone to discuss anything worth discussing in an honest way. There was a feeling — arising perhaps from the conference’s origin as the gathering of the voluntary party rather than of actual politicians — that it was bad manners to look into policy. And there was an allergy to thinking about how government actually works. Now it is much better understood that the implementation of policy (‘delivery’) makes virtually all the difference. People come to discuss these matters in an attractively open, informed, non-party-minded way .
I chaired a fringe meeting on such a theme — how to manage the transition of government from one party to the other. No one present thought for a second that this transition would not take place next year. What on earth happens if they are wrong?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 10, 2009