Few put a political argument better than Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome, and his latest column in the Times is no exception. Policies portrayed as priorities of the Tory right, he said, are also shared by the majority of the public. Some 70 per cent of Britons want a referendum on Europe and 80 per cent support a tougher approach to crime. He reprised Sir Keith Joseph’s argument about the ‘common ground’ which politicians ought to share with the public. You really can be Eurosceptic and cherish the NHS. It’s possible to favour less immigration and a more generous state pension.
Montgomerie’s thesis is that a wise Conservative party would pick-and-mix its policy proposals, and that just because some of these would be described as right-wing or even extreme does not mean they would represent minority points of view. I realise he eschews the language of ‘right-/left-’ wing but the key positions he recommends are described as right-wing. It’s his implicit complaint that ‘centre’ implies (without quite asserting) the place on the political spectrum where the bulk of voters are located. But are they? Tim suggests that on many issues (he mentions crime and punishment, and what he calls a ‘patriotic’ resistance to the demands of the European Union) the ‘centre’ of the spectrum is rather empty, and the ‘common ground’ is elsewhere.
Tim’s case, though freshly stated, is really the time-honoured argument of the Tory right. He varies it elegantly by suggesting that some left-wing policies, too, could be thrown into the mix, but is less specific about these than about policies generally called right-wing. The ‘left-wing’ positions he does allude to are higher state pensions and ‘cherishing’ the NHS. The problem with these is that they tend to increase the size and cost of the state, and individuals’ reliance upon it. I’m not sure that you can just throw such measures into the mix — even if you could afford to — without getting into a philosophical tangle about what, as a Conservative, you believe; and Tim has on occasion been stern about what he sees as David Cameron’s swinging political compass.
So I’ll leave my jury out on the ‘left-wing’ policies that the new Tory eclecticism he recommends might select; and turn to the more familiar strand in his argument: which is (though he would never put it so vulgarly) that ordinary voters are jolly robust, not to say unforgiving, on lots of issues; and the Conservative party should stop bleating about moderation, and make more of a pitch for their support.
There’s a fallacy here in what you might call the mathematical logic, and to demonstrate it I shall for the sake of argument concede what I don’t in fact believe: that a clear majority of the British people are somewhat to the right of centre. (My own view is the bulk of my countrymen are astringently right-wing on almost everything except the only thing — as they very well know — that matters: whether the government should be giving them more of other people’s money; and on this their Toryism suddenly deserts them. But set my view aside.) Suppose it’s true that (say) half the electorate are right of centre; a quarter are left of centre; and a quarter are more or less in the centre. What does this teach a party that, careless of which policies are actually wise, seeks a policy portfolio that will maximise the party’s support?
The lesson for a left-of-centre party like Labour is that it must make a pitch for the (postulated) minority in the centre. And the lesson for a right-of-centre party like the Conservatives? The precise mirror-image of the lesson for Labour. It too must pitch for the centre, taking care not to pitch so far to the left as to shed votes (to Ukip, for instance) on the right, but taking equal care not to alienate the centre, whose support alone can swing things their way.
In short, even if (as Tim may think) the fellow at the right-hand end of the seesaw is heavier than the fellow at the left-hand end, and heavier than the fellow standing on its fulcrum in the centre, it’s that fellow in the centre whose support is critical if we are to tip things the right’s way.
Here ends the mathematical part of my argument, which now leaps in a rather mystical direction and risks descending into psychobabble. It’s very, very common among human beings to sympathise with a harsh or ungenerous message, while finding it hard to like the individual who promotes that message. More than anything, this has for decades been the Tories’ electoral problem — the old ‘nasty party’ problem. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult, to be a rigorous yet kindly-seeming Tory.
It is this that David Cameron has so brilliantly understood. The more rigorous and uncompromising in questions of economics and state spending you have to be, the more psychologically important it becomes to be generous, warm and tolerant in everything else. People (the people Tim has in mind) may not agree about ring-fencing overseas aid; they may not agree about ‘gay marriage’; they may have no wish at all to hug a hoodie or a husky; they may think the NHS profligate; but they do — and polls show they do — like the ‘moderate’ Mr Cameron better than the more right-wing party whose right-wingery the same polls show they actually share. This is the psychological case for aiming off towards the left when pitching the party’s message.
And one more thing, because Tim may rightly protest that I haven’t mentioned Europe. People like, admire and commend swagger right up until the point when the platoon sets off for battle and they’re invited to enlist. ‘To war, boys! We’re on our own!’ the Europhobes may declare; to which the British voters may respond, ‘Yes you are, aren’t you!’ Be careful what you wish for, ConservativeHome.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012