I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.
Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.
What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.
An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).
Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.
The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.
So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?
If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.
But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?
The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.
On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.
This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.
The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.
To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.
Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.
Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).
Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.
There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.
This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.
Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”