Alex Massie

Open Source Toryism

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David Cameron's speech on "Rebuilding trust in politics" (good luck with that!) was the usual curate's egg: nice and appealling in theory but also vague and gimmicky. This part, for instance, was quite reassuring even if, like so much else, it has more than a hint og Googlism about it:

We are a new generation, come of age in the modern world of openness and accountability. And when we say we will take power from the political elite and give it to the man and woman in the street - it's not just because we believe it will help fix broken politics. It's what we believe, full stop.

We don't believe that an arrogant, all-controlling government sitting in London passing endless laws and regulations actually makes things better. In fact, on many occasions it makes things worse.

So we'd want to give more power and control to people even without these political scandals. We'd want to reduce the power of the executive and increase the power of Parliament even if politics hadn't fallen into disrepute. We'd want to take power from the centre and give it to local communities even if we didn't have MPs in the dock potentially accused of fiddling their expenses.

This is what we believe. It's not what Gordon Brown believes. He believes in state control; we believe in social responsibility. He represents the dying days of secrecy and suspicion; we are a new generation at ease with openness and trust. And with a massive turnover of Conservative MPs at the next election, the voice of this new generation will be even louder and stronger.

The "we are a new generation" stuff is mildly ridiculous coming from the man who wrote the last Tory manifesto, but never mind, this sort of Open Source Toryism has an obvious appeal. And yet, once again, when it comes to the detail, suddenly everything seems fuzzy and written on the back-of-a-fag-packet. Apart from anything else, you could be forgiven for questioning the Tory leader's faith in representative democracy. Consider this passage:

It’s absurd that a tiny percentage of the population craft legislation that will apply to one hundred per cent of the population. Instead of locking people out of this process, we need to invite them in. So we’ll create a right of initiative nationally, where any petition that collects one hundred thousand signatures will be eligible to be formally debated in the House of Commons. Any petition with a million signatures will allow members of the public to table a Bill that could end up being debated and voted on by MPs.

Well, notice how slippery this is: there's no actual promise that a petition supported by a million people will be debated, merely that it "could" be discussed in parliament. In other words, this will only happen if the government approves. Thus, as with open primaries (which are, in any case, actually caucuses in which the candidates are pre-approved) Cameron wants to sell you a reform that's much less sweeping than he would like you to think.

And, of course, the reason we have representative democracy is because people don't actually want to spend their lives thinking about politics. That's why we have representatives. I know that Steve Hilton and the Cameroons think anything that comes out of California is sunshine, but they might at least acknowlege that one of the reasons California is all kinds of messed up is because of the consequences of a series of ballot initiatives that have passed in recent years. There are other factors, of course, but ballot initiatives mandating spending increases while other prohibit tax rises are part of the problem. Does it have to be that way? No, but it can be.

Finally, Cameron had a populist swipe at lobbyists. Which is fine. No-one likes lobbyists. But Cameron's attitude towards lobbying is instructive, for it demonstrates the extent to which, despite his rhetoric, he remains a centraliser. The problem with lobbying is a "lack of transparency" and so he'll also slow down the revolving door, making it harder to ministers to move seamlessly into lobbying. Which is also fine but no more than tackling a symptom while ignoring the cause of the disease. Which is, silly, government. 

The more lobbying there is, the more that's because the government intervenes in and interferes with so much, so often. The growth of lobbying is merely a commentary on the growth of government. "Tackling" lobbyists mistakes the problem and, in so doing, not only contradicts the putative idea of Open Source Toryism but helps confound it, making one suspect that, alas, Tory rhetoric will not be followed by real action. Here again, it would be nice to be mistaken...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsgovernmenttories