David Frum graciously plays the role of referee in this year's Massie vs O'Sullivan discussion and delivers what is, I think, a fair judgement. He grants that O'Sullivan is right to warn about the danger that the Cameron Project might seem inauthentic or cynical and that, as David puts it, "the extremity of the crisis" Britain faces has made some of Cameron's ideas and, more still, his style seem out of touch at times.
Nevertheless, he concludes:
A conservatism that fuses economic rationality with a concern for social cohesion is for Britain more than an electoral proposition. It is the kind of conservatism a riven and troubled society requires. Like John O’Sullivan, I feel my due share of nostalgia for the crusading conservatism of the Thatcher years. Margaret Thatcher saved her country from ossification into socialized stagnation, and she deserves for that achievement all the credit history will lavish on her. But in addition to that ongoing concern, Britain struggles today with many other troubles. Does Cameron have the answer? Maybe no. At least he has the questions, and that’s a start.
"Cameron is offering a more detailed and specific vision of what conservative reform might mean than almost any English-speaking politician since the Reagan-Thatcher era."
[T]here may simply not be time to implement the kind of ambitious, long-term transformation he has in mind. Britain’s debt burden is worse even than that of the United States, and the fiscal crunch is looming. The window for big ideas may be closing, on both sides of the Atlantic and for right and left alike. In this election season, Cameron has tried to advance an idealistic politics of conservative reform. But he may find himself governing amid the grim politics of a permanent fiscal crisis.
One reason why I was not able to take Cameron that seriously for a very long time was my assumption that his re-branding efforts would involve nothing more than co-opting New Labour themes, and over the last few years I have found plenty of things to criticize about Cameron, but what is so surprising about the “Big Society” manifesto is how unlike the centralizing “reform” or “compassionate” conservatism it is. Where Bush was constantly inserting the federal government into the work of charitable institutions, schools and local communities where it had not been before, Cameron is proposing that social institutions take over for an intrusive state. Maybe it will never happen, and maybe the society Cameron wants to entrust with these responsibilities has atrophied so much on account of dependence on state institutions that it will not be up to the task, but as far as the concentration of power is concerned it is nothing like the modernized Toryism I was expecting.
Of course there have also been problems in selling the message and finding the right way of summarising the Tories' vision of a Toquevillian future but there's been another problem too: the Conservatives have been caught between their rhetoric of "Broken Britain" and their promise of a brighter, optimistic future. The more thoroughly Britain is broken the more unlikely, even impossible, that future seems. If the Tories are right about Labour's record then their plans seem too airy-fairy, too intellectual, too unlikely to survive contact with brutal reality and useless Britain; if they're wrong then they seem unecessarily apocalyptic.
So will it work? Who knows? But it seems to me that it's a gamble that's well-worth taking, not only because there aren't any better alternatives but also because Cameron and his proposals are much more interesting and potentially rewarding than the stale and orthodox conservatism peddled and professed by some of his critics. In that sense, Cameron's relative reluctance to fall back on cheap and easy slogans is itself a small reassurance...