After the conferences: an exchange between Jon Cruddas and Tim Montgomerie
I hope you are well and recovering from the Conference Circus. Whilst the commentariat decided this conference season was uneventful and forgettable, I thought it was compelling. In particular, the Conservative get together was fascinating.
Until now the central paradox facing the modern Tory party was obvious. On the one hand, Cameron carries it all pretty lightly; he enjoys, and is pretty good at the job. He purports to lead a modern, liberal, cosmopolitan government. He presides over a radical, reforming administration and faces an opposition recovering from its worst ever election defeat. The party should be united behind the leader.
Yet the hallmark of the modern Tory party is fragility. It is a dangerously brittle thing. Until this Conference after 13 long years of opposition, and barely two years into government, it appeared to be sinking. The recent reshuffle exposed its inner wiring – a medium-term modernisation strategy surrendered before the concerns of day-to-day party management. New right-wing factions are launched almost weekly. Hostility to the Liberal Democrats is simple transference; in private real venom is directed at the Tory leader.
That paradox seems to me to reflect the ongoing tensions between the one nation and economic liberal traditions within modern conservatism. Until the Conference it all seemed to be one way traffic; modernisation was finished as Cameron hit the right wing appeasement button and bowed down to the unreconstructed. They claim to be ‘Thatcherite’ but she drove a more complicated political project (as did Ronald Reagan).
Put simply, Margaret Thatcher knew she had to meld together the economic liberalism of the new right and the traditional, patriotic sentiment of both her party and the country. Her pragmatic brilliance built a coalition that contested the centre ground and bolted in parts of the working class.
In contrast, the project of the economic liberals is extreme and destructive, and indeed threatens the essential character of our nation. Identifying similar tensions across the republican right, David Brooks recently wrote that ‘economic conservatives have taken control. Traditional conservatism has gone into eclipse’. Here the best example was the recent book Britannia Unchained. It is because this faction is in the ascendancy that Cameron is actually failing; he remains captive to an economic reductionism that could well destroy conservatism – in the proper sense of valuing and conserving the nature and assorted institutions of the country.
It seems to me that for a long time now you have been alert to these dangers and called for a darker blue respray and renewed vigour on the part of your leadership based around a grittier and more regional working class voice to modern conservatism without losing the virtue of compassion. That seems to me to be a genuine Thatcherite response rather than the textbook extremism of the liberals.
However, it does mean that the early Cameroon, socially liberal, cosmopolitan project is dead. Although I can see the logic of all this in terms of party management – your economic liberals remind me of Militant in Labour in the 1980s – this is still fraught with danger for Cameron. The extremists will want more and more. He sounds more authentic as the one nation patrician; the sink or swim language sounds shrill and unnatural. It seems to me last week you helped Cameron establish a new holding pattern. But he is holding off the crazies at the expense of his initial project and it is still tense and brittle.
Thanks for starting off this conversation and I’m grateful to David Clark for suggesting it.
And yes I have just about recovered from Conference season! I really enjoyed being with you in Manchester. I’ve become so busy during Conservative Conferences that I can scarcely enjoy them. Being with you at Labour was fun as I could pick and choose the meetings and debates of most interest to me.
Two things struck me as I met and listened to your colleagues at meetings, in the main convention centre and in the bars. One was the extent to which you have become a party dominated by people from the political, union and public sectors. All fine backgrounds when proportionate but the numbers were so dominant I wonder if you find the lack of diversity troubling?
The second worry was the way that speaker after speaker, delegate after delegate seemed to suggest malice lay behind the deficit reduction programme or other Conservative policies. I found this quite disturbing. It doesn’t elevate debate to demonise your opponents and I don’t think it helps your party prosper if there is an inadequate attempt to understand its opponents. Moreover, I really don’t think it’s true. Most Tories – like most members of your party – have entered politics to advance important causes. The public might admire our common political sphere a little more if we weren’t always throwing mud at each other. I hope in our debate we can at least avoid that.
On that note I should begin by saying how much I admire you personally. Ed Miliband’s decision to appoint you as his policy chief was inspired. I admire your openness to new ideas and I particularly admire your sense that Labour has become too attached to the idea of the state as the only expression of collective solidarity and what Adam Smith called sympathy? As our conversation develops I hope we might explore where there might be common ground between us on promoting non-state bodies that knit people together.
Turning to the substance of your letter I share your concern that some in my party have learnt the wrong lessons from Margaret Thatcher. She was, as you wrote, more interesting and subtle than some of her current day disciples seem to remember. I don’t, however, remember many Labour people praising her “pragmatic brilliance” at the time! We both were clearly impressed by David Brooks’ recent OpEd on how American Republicans have allowed economic liberals to become too dominant within their party. I think that you and Stewart Wood are right to see dangers of something similar happening to British Toryism but I also think you both exaggerate the danger.
My impression of the new Tory intake is that they understand the importance of a social safety-net more than any other cohort. This is partly because many have had to fight hard to win their marginal seats. Some have fought two or three elections before winning the privilege of sitting opposite you. Their experience has led them to appreciate the importance of the NHS, the state pension and other key aspects of Britain’s safety-net. They really aren’t state minimalists. They want a smaller state but they understand the importance of our country’s social contract. Where they are Thatcherite is in their view of Europe, crime, the tax burden and national defence. They are not nearly as radical as you or Stewart suggest.
I’ve been underwhelmed by Cameronism for some time but I’m finally thinking that the PM’s team may be forging a post-Thatcherite conservatism that can resonate. Rather than based on a stand alone individualism the party is developing an idea of investment in every individual so that they have the skills and social capital to flourish. Michael Gove’s education reforms are at the centre of this. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare-to-work reforms, set in the context of control of blue collar immigration, are the second plank. The third plank is the weakest and concerns the idea of rebuilding the familial and relational structures around people that all evidence suggests is crucial to personal success. The Tories would almost certainly have done more on the family front if they weren’t in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. My strong belief is that an idea of the good society built around family, school and work gives conservatism a better pitch to voters than your party’s view of extended state dependence.
And let me end on this note. Stewart Wood correctly encourages Conservatives to remember we are the party of Disraeli, Macmillan, Hogg and Oakeshott as well as of Friedman and Hayek. Your party needs to remember its Methodist roots and the great tradition of local unions and friendly societies. I would argue that the big state can be as erosive of community bonds as untrammelled market forces. Your challenge to my party is a good one and I’ve offered my answer to it. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith in particular are building up individuals so they have the wherewithal to compete in the world. Where, I ask, is the recognition from your party that the state has often supplanted family and voluntary provision by careless and excessive intervention and provision? I know your blue Labour tradition is grappling with some of these questions but I have seen no tangible signs from your leadership that you recognise in substantial terms that bigger, healthier social institutions are (a) preferable to a big state and/or (b) might be promoted by public policy.
I look forward to your response,