The Jon Cruddas and Tim Montgomerie exchange: Part II
Thanks for your generous response.
I agree that it is possible to enjoy your opponent’s conferences rather more than your own; not least as you have more time to listen and learn. I went to the Conservative Conference last year and felt I understood more about the texture of the Party than from simple observation around Westminster.
This year I visited the Lib Dems in Brighton and now appreciate better the identity crisis that consumes them. I don’t say this in a pejorative way. Rather, my sense is of a fundamental fault line at work within all the Parties and not just between them. On the one hand are the economically liberal traditions and on the other the one nation, more socially liberal and communitarian movements. For the Lib Dems this tension is particularly acute as the Orange Book faction dominates within a Centre-Right coalition. It is also a tension within the other two main parties which I will return to in a minute.
You also make a point about a shrinking Labour Party conference constituency; its lack of diversity. I take your point but make two comments. First, having recently experienced possibly the worst defeat in our history, it is understandable that we re-unite with parts of our base. More important, however, it speaks volumes about the declining relevance of the traditional Party Conference; its remoteness from society in general and the need for a major overhaul. They are corporate bubbles existing behind security wire ever more distant from the country at large.
Finally, I take the point about malice. It afflicts a lot of political debate and poisons the well. I have friends from all political parties and I respect the rigour of many different political philosophies. Actually my interest in this discussion is precisely because I fear for certain long standing political traditions – namely a recognisable One Nation Toryism and that of Social Liberalism. Personally, I think the country needs these traditions to be healthy and ascendant and not in decline. Personally, there is no malice, rather a sense of loss; I speak as someone who welcomed Cameron’s initial strategy.
Return to the 114 page tract ‘Britannia Unchained’. On the one hand I respect how radical it is; its energy, vitality and rigour. I stand in awe at the number of policy options it has pitched in and the sheer confidence of the participants. It is anchored ideologically and has real traction in your party. But what concerns me is its absolutism. For the authors it is a binary world where everything is forward or back, progress or decline, good or bad, indeed of sink or swim,. The writers do not appear to see the world as a complex place. This is very dangerous for both Party and Country. You suggest this project is not as radical as Stewart Wood and I believe. Well we shall. This is where we start to disagree.
Last week David Cameron made a very successful speech. His early social liberalism was unpacked and he embedded himself within a discernible, nuanced Thatcherite tradition. In the short term a very effective gear change. You welcome this and I know why – it gives the Tory Party a darker blue feel. I also think it might be the best way for him to survive and effectively manage his Party.
However, I am not convinced he can carry it off in the country; Cameron is just not a ‘White Van Conservative’. Halfron or Hopkins could push this, no way Osborne and Cameron. The dystopian language of sink or swim does not suit the patrician; Thatcher could carry that off, I doubt he can. It is not a unifying ‘Cameroon’ language; it is built on division. The sneering at ‘intellectuals’ and a general coarsening of language will appear inauthentic. It lacks warmth and compassion; precisely the currency with which Cameron rode into town.
The real problem is that Thatcherism was effective because it bolted in a working class constituency materially – especially in terms of housing. Cameron’s new project will seek to bolt in a working class constituency culturally – especially around welfare and race – whilst living standards shrink dramatically. His Thatcherism is not materially anchored.
And here is the difference. You point out some tensions around Labour – and I accept this. But here is the rub. In contrast to the other two parties, Labour is moving away from rather than toward its cold economic liberal traditions and back toward its often exiled patriotic traditions build around cooperation, social obligation and duty. Many of the pioneering traditions that built the party but tended to be defeated in the subsequent internal battles are being quietly reintroduced. And so is the unifying, warmer patriotic language.
I accept this is a long march. It reflects a move away from simple Whitehall lever pulling. It is a work in progress. Last week we framed that work for the next couple of years. There is a long way to go. But we are heading in the right direction; I fear you are moving off piste.
Thanks Jon for your reply.
We can definitely agree on how party conferences are of declining relevance – “corporate bubbles existing behind security wire” to use your expression. While you are right they are still, in my opinion, useful gatherings and ConHome is making efforts to provide a space at conference where issues of interest to grassroot members – rather than to the lobbyists of the Allied Institute of Widget Manufacturers – can be discussed. Conferences need to be reformed, rather than abolished. Let’s agree that I won’t pass final judgment on your party by reflecting on the extent to which public sector interests dominate your Conference and you won’t do something similar from your experience of the Coalition parties’ Conferences.
In order to avoid our dialogue losing focus I suggest we narrow down our exchange to two topics: the Conservative and Labour views of the state. I suggest both of our parties have a problem with in their attitude to the state but while mine is moving in the correct direction I have doubts that yours is even beginning to wrestle with its challenge.
Before I do that, however, I think I need to correct two implications of your last note. First you don’t put David Cameron’s “sink-or-swim” phrase in context. He was not referring to some kind of Social Darwinian survival of the individual fittest but to the place of Britain in the world. We do the things that are necessary to compete in the world (re-skill our labour force, control our debt burden, simplify our tax system etc) or we will sink. The great economic challenge of our time isn’t the debt crisis or the €urozone’s internal contradictions (as formidable as they are) but the footloose international nature of capital and labour. Cameron’s warning in his Birmingham speech was absolutely on-the-money. Only if the British economy as a whole swims in the global race will we be able to afford to ensure that no individual Briton sinks because we can’t, as an economy, compete for orders or afford our pension obligations. Second I think you are unfair to the Britannia Unchained book and its four Tory authors. It is fundamentally a book about swimming, not sinking in the global marketplace but it is not a book of crude economic liberalism. One-fifth of its pages are dedicated to the revival of state education. In the section on the central importance of industrial innovation there is admiration of the Israeli technology sector and explicit recognition of the role that state guarantees and state-supported education played in that sector’s growth. It is not an anti-state book.
So, down to business and my two suggested core topics: my party’s view of the state and yours.
The Conservative Party must be a conservative rather than a libertarian party. We must be a party of small, focused but strong government. Some of my fellow Tories sometimes give the impression of hating the state and that is silly and politically counter-productive. Margaret Thatcher spent huge amounts of taxpayers’ money on important public causes. So, too, did John Major and so now is David Cameron. The cuts that your party vilifies will actually only take us back to the size of state that Britain had in 2004, under Messrs Blair and Brown. These are cuts of necessity that will mean we live within our means. They do not amount to a fundamental rolling back of the frontiers of the state. What Tories lack and need is a theory of the state that can counter the suggestion of people such as yourself that we are anti-state. Contemporary Tories believe that the state has vital roles in addition to defence, law and order and other night-watchman roles. Under David Cameron the party has reaffirmed its commitment to the principles and budget of the NHS and schools – both have been protected in real terms. The basic state pension has been enhanced and government aid to the developing world has been increased. The idea that the current government is anti-state bears little examination but our rhetoric has often given the impression that we are. I do want a smaller state. I want welfare more focused on the genuinely needy. I want more people paying for their higher education. I support greater private sector leadership in the provision of infrastructure and, particularly, housing. I’d like voluntary and private sector groups to deliver more public services. But this is an argument about transferring five or so per cent of GDP to the non-state sector. It does not amount to a dismantling of the state or, as you imply, a triumph of unabashed economic liberalism.
The second topic is Labour’s theory of the state. You didn’t really respond to my first note and its argument that the big, sprawling state endangers the small platoons that lie between the individual and the state and which are the most important institutions in any society. The family, in particular, is the greatest educator, carer and redistributor that humankind has at its disposal. We damage it at our peril. I acknowledge untrammelled market forces can damage family and civic capital but I see no acknowledgement from you that the big state can be as dangerous as big business. An unfocused, expensive state damages the family by imposing heavy taxes that force both parents out to work, full-time and stressed out. It damages the family by restricting the choices parents can make with regard, for example, to the education of their children. The state damages charities when in return for grants it demands that it acts more and more like state bureaucracies.
The state bear may mean well when it embraces civil society but bear hugs have a habit of becoming suffocating. I want to hear from you and the wider Labour Party a theory of limits on the state. Limits on public sector pay so that the private job creating sector can flourish. Limits on the state so that the taxation of low income families falls. Limits on the vested interests in the state so that parents can choose appropriately bespoke forms of schooling for their children and medical care for themselves. These questions rather than Labour’s movement towards what you call a “unifying, warmer patriotic language” will prove one way or another whether Labour has learnt the lessons of the noughties when you let spending get out of control. Is your party willing to put chains on the size of the state or is your party a prisoner of the public sector and union interests which, I repeat, are now dominant in your parliamentary ranks and in your party’s funding?