Peter Hoskin

Do the Tories need an “-ism”?

Do the Tories need an "-ism"?
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So what overarching theory do Cameron & Co. believe in now?  Is it Phillip Blond's "Red Toryism"?  Are they still invigorated by "libertarian paternalism"?  Or have they struck on something else?  This week's Bagehot column in the Economist gives us a useful overview of all the -isms the Tories have gone through recently, before landing on a conclusion that the policy wonks in CCHQ may not like:

"The Tories should stop worrying about whether their view of the world works in theory, and concentrate more on generating ideas that will work in practice. They can live without an ideology; what they urgently require is balls."

Bagehot's take is certainly attractive.  Like him, I'm sceptical about the real-world worth of some of the -isms mentioned above, and it would be nice if the Tories put as much thought into their health policy as they did into their abstract theorising.  

But I would differ in the case of George Osborne's recent "progressive conservatism" speech - which Bagehot lumps with the other -isms, but which I suggested at the time was a "significant moment for Project Cameron".  Why so?  Well, precisely because it seemed to unite theory and practice in a manner which is utterly suited to the current policy debate.  This wasn't high-minded waffle about Nothing In Particular; but, rather, a crucially simple message we should have heard years ago: cutting spending needn't mean worse public services, and reforms like Michael Gove's Swedish schools agenda can actually deliver "more for less" (if only in the medium term).  Given how crucial this argument will be during the forthcoming election campaign, we can hardly blame the Tories for making it now, or even for giving it a neat label.  

In a way, I guess my thoughts about "progressive conservatism" actually chime with Bagehot's central thesis: that practicable ideas should take precedence over ideology.  Here the Tories had some policy ideas* before they started pushing the "progressive" label.  If you do things the other way round, then you tend to come up with nothing at all.

* Although I still think they could fill out their reform agenda a lot more. Osborne leaned heavily on Gove's work in his speech.