Only national insecurity will swing it for the Conservatives
Ten years ago this autumn I started to write a history of Conservative government in the 1990s. Guilty Men was designedly satirical and cynical — qualities which seem Tory to many. Some readers liked the jokes. Others, burdened by conviction, thought it too laconic by half — especially since I had been a Cabinet adviser (to John Redwood). Nonetheless the book had a reasonably serious aim: it wished to demythologise much of the stuff Tories believed about themselves and Britain.
Conservatives, I thought, had embraced a myth of their own invincibility. This was not just a question of their personal conceit. They had also become economic determinists: Britain in their view was a naturally Conservative-voting, free-trading country and the economic revolution of the 1980s had deepened that national condition. I thought this view was myopic: three administrations mattered most in determining the country’s 20th-century domestic history, those that took office in 1906, 1945 and 1979. The Liberal and Labour victories had set Britain on a path of high-welfare expenditure and governmental intervention in social policy. Tory privatisation made 1979 significant but buying shares at knock-down prices did not turn the electorate into ruggedly competitive individualists.
Leftist outrage and Tory smuggery were equally misplaced: the Thatcher governments were traditionally British in their high levels of public expenditure — especially so in welfare provision.The premier’s capitalist rhetoric concealed that truth. But her bold noise was believed and hated. Tories made a further big mistake. Their huge majorities in 1983 and 1987 were the result of a Left which was first divided (between Labour and the SDP) and then implausible (under Kinnock). But Conservatives governed as if they were loved for their own sake. Victory against the odds in 1992 deepened this collective delusion.
The Britain I described was a semi-Atlanticist, semi-European state. Its economy was neo-capitalist but lacked American levels of energy. Socially it was conforming to European levels of public expenditure. The European Union moreover did not so much ‘divide’ the Conservatives as disable their central nervous system. They could neither accept the fact of a lost sovereignty nor conceive of how it might be regained. Tories were therefore out for the count.
How does all this look in September 2007? The Tory leadership has opted for ‘social responsibility’ as the key to power and ‘feral’ has now joined the lexicon of British political cliché. Youths, thereby denominated, roam the streets and crowd the headlines. The Tory leadership meanwhile has been afflicted by its own dislocation: both the grammar schools debacle and the errors made about hospital closures showed confused aims and administrative incompetence at the top. The driven intensity of New Labour never allowed itself to make such mistakes in 1994-97. Facing one of the great dead-beat governments of all time, it still thought it might lose.
In a new climate of enforced seriousness, Tory ‘modernisation’ has become last season’s taste, a theme quite worn out and with nowhere to go since there are only so many ways of discarding ties. Help, though, is at hand since Britain, it seems, is now a ‘broken society’ and Tories were born to set it straight. Mr Cameron’s Tories started their campaign by telling us that contemporary Britain was to be loved in all its cool modernity out there on the street. But the streets which have acquired new relevance for the Tory leadership are the ones littered with evidence of social breakdown.
Being responsible was once quite simple for Tories. It meant ‘Law and Order’, stiffer sentences and, ideally, the frisson of boot camps. Campaigning on social deprivation was for the Left, but now the Right moves into similar territory — one in which poor housing, frivolous schooling and family breakdown produce a Britain peopled by uneducated degenerates and the derelict unemployed. New Labour, too, has had its stab at this diffuse discontent. Remember the ‘Respect agenda’ which came and went? Cabinet committees opined on respect but now seem mere tributes to Mr Blair’s morbid love of admiration. Thirteen years before, though, the Tories launched ‘Back to Basics’ with broadly similar disciplinary aims. Short of a Philip Glass opera, nothing recurs to deadening effect quite like the rhythmic impulses of British politicians seeking votes in social fracture.
The question of how seriously all this is to be taken depends on the answer to another question. Is British political history at the moment a matter of long and deep cycles or of oscillating pendulums? Are there long-term social and economic changes so profound that they determine the overall electoral pattern over a generation? Or is the reassuring rhythm still in place with one governing party fated to replace the other?
Broken-backed Britain is real enough but has to degenerate yet further before it becomes politically useful to the Tories. In particular, the middle classes need to experience some frightening evidence of the impact of globalised markets on their levels of security and employment prospects. Globalisation so far has given them a higher standard of living, wider choices and lower costs. Ten years from now it may not look so benign a force, because at its centre lies financial services: the heartland of the Thatcher ‘economic revolution’ but one which will come under increasing strain.
At the lower to middling end of IT personnel there are jobs which will disappear as technology advances — just as the artisans and semi-skilled trades vanished in the late 20th century. Incapacity benefit — Britain’s hidden unemployment queue of the ‘economically inactive’ — has been stuck at 2.7 million under both parties in government for over 10 years. Many of those who lose their jobs will swell those numbers. It’s at this point that the Conservative case about a broken society will begin to bite as the public mind starts to make the connection between failing schools, public order, unemployment and rising taxation to pay for a welfare state which is both fiscally and morally bankrupt.
Policies, I suppose, will help the opposition’s case. But it’s a rationalist myth to think that nuggets of ideas can guide you into government. Tories in particular don’t have ideas — they have intuitions and those instincts are what matter when times turn tough. Political parties have to talk about the common good and the national interest, but they get elected because they encourage certain interest groups to iden-tify with them. New Labour’s client system has been the public sector and the fact that this grouping now contains so many of the professional middle classes explains the party’s successful transformation into a bourgeois force. The Tory crisis developed by stages from the late 1980s onwards because it lost the allegiance of its own interest groups — the manufacturers it wrecked and the home owners whose interest rates soared. Contempt got rid of Tory government in 1997. It is only the politics of fear and insecurity which has a chance of recreating a Conservative electoral coalition that can win again.
Hywel Williams is a contributing editor of The Spectator.