On Friday 10th October 2014, Britain woke up to the news that the voters of Clacton-on-Sea had elected a UKIP Member of Parliament. To some, no doubt, this marked the inevitable culmination of the fracturing of the British right that began over twenty years earlier with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, under the auspices of the then Conservative Prime Minister, John Major. It was this episode that led first to the formation of the Anti-Federalist League and then to its successor organisation, the United Kingdom Independence Party, in 1993, which has since attracted significant numbers of disaffected Tories, angry at the Conservative’s apparent acquiescence to further European integration. UKIP has grown now to a membership of over 35,000 and seems to be finally breaking out of its single issue, single personality mould, to become a real electoral challenge to the Tories. The recent defection of two sitting Conservative MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, to UKIP, confirms for some people what they have been thinking for a long time: that the Conservative Party no longer does what it says on the tin, that it is, to quote the journalist Simon Heffer, “insufficiently conservative”, the torch of conservatism having now passed to Farage and co.
In this post, the first of three on conservatism in Britain, I want to consider the plausibility of this claim, as part of a broader attempt to determine which political party in Britain today has the most convincing claim to the mantle of conservatism. The answers are by no means clear-cut (they rarely are in politics) and may even seem counter-intuitive. It must be stated at the outset that conservatism is not, by any means, a single, coherent or homogenous ideology. It consists of various branches and traditions and shares similarities with other, nominally distinct, philosophies—notably liberalism. This undoubtedly complicates the task in hand, but it is important to recognise the complexity of the object of study before embarking on the analysis.
Tory modernisation: still conservative under Cameron?
David Cameron is deeply unpopular amongst many in his own party, including a number of his own MPs. Not only is he seen as untrustworthy on Europe, for example by reneging on his promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, his whole modernisation strategy since taking over the party leadership in 2005 has been seen by some as an essential betrayal of the party’s core, conservative values. Just as Tony Blair had worked to move Labour away from some of the party’s traditional, less electorally appealing positions in the 1990s, so David Cameron, taking Blair quite consciously as his role model, sought to reposition the Conservative party on a number of key issues in a push for electoral popularity. Thus we have the David Cameron of the ‘hug a hoodie’ and ‘vote blue go green’ era, signs of his desire to recast the Tories in a more socially compassionate and environmentally friendly mould, not to mention George Osborne’s early pledge to stick to Labour’s spending plans in the first years of a Tory government.
Some, no doubt, always doubted the sincerity of all this repositioning, and for them, everything that has happened since the Conservatives came back into office in 2010 might be seen as vindication of this scepticism. While the early days of Cameron’s leadership were all about reaching out to new groups and voters beyond the traditional Tory core, since taking power his agenda has been very much in line with that of Conservative leaders and governments since 1979, being characterised by cuts to social expenditure and the privatisation of public services. According to this interpretation, the global financial crisis was crucial in giving Cameron the excuse to pursue the red-blooded, Thatcherite agenda he had always secretly longed to pursue, whilst blaming Labour’s profligacy for the economic downturn.
But those on the right of the Conservative party see things quite differently. To many of them, Cameron and his modernising chums are simply traitors to the party’s core values. On issues like gay marriage, Cameron has pandered to what they perceive to be the prevailing liberal-left agenda on moral and cultural matters, arrogantly dismissing the views of ordinary party members. But perhaps the greatest ‘betrayal’ was Cameron’s failure to win the 2010 general election outright and his subsequent move into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. While the Coalition might seem like a child of necessity, to some in his own party Cameron appeared just a little too keen on the settlement, with the rose garden love-in of May 2010 seeming to confirm Cameron and Clegg as natural bedfellows. While it may be a step too far to claim that Coalition with the Liberal Democrats was what Cameron wanted all along, it did, at least initially, seem to play into the new Prime Minister’s hands, bolstering his image as a young, vigorous and modern leader—the perfect antidote to both the worn-out Gordon Brown and the crustier inhabitants of his own backbenches. It also seemed to chime with Cameron’s claims to be a ‘Liberal-Conservative’: “I’m Liberal because I believe in freedom and human rights, but Conservative—I’m sceptical of great schemes to remake the world.” Cameron was also very keen, particularly in the early days of the Coalition, to describe it as a “progressive alliance”, quite deliberately attempting to poach progressivism from the left.
What then, are we to make of Cameron’s conservative credentials? Has his modernising project really denuded the party of its traditional principles, or does he remain truer to them than many of his own colleagues imagine? What even are these ‘traditional principles’? In order to try and answer these questions, it is helpful to think about what kind of conservative Cameron might be.
Firstly, let us consider the Prime Minister as a traditional social conservative. He is certainly not ashamed to be thought of as a patriot, once proudly proclaiming (in arguably very un-British fashion) that Britain was “the greatest country on Earth”. He has also spoken out in defence of his own, elite schooling, supports tax breaks for married couples and has indicated that he would like to see a modest reduction in the legal time-limit for abortions. However, on one of the biggest social questions of this parliament, gay marriage, Cameron was firmly in the liberal camp. This decision certainly led to much consternation among some party members and others on the right (see the article by Simon Heffer cited above) who saw Cameron and the modernisers as ignoring the views of traditionalists.
While there is no reason to doubt Cameron’s sincerity in his support for gay marriage, he also clearly recognises how dangerous this territory is for his party, with any hint of old-fashioned moralism threatening to alienate the younger, more liberally minded voters that he has been so keen to court. Britain is not America, and it is inconceivable that a party could win broad electoral support on a platform of traditional social conservatism—particularly on matters of sexual ethics. Some on the radical left would no doubt like to portray Cameron as the figurehead of an inherently socially conservative establishment. His background and schooling alone (along with the backgrounds and schooling of many in his Cabinet) present quite a strong case for this, which I will consider further below. However, on key issues like gay marriage, Cameron does not seem particularly out of step with the mainstream of political and public opinion. His personal preference for a tinkering at the edges of the abortion limit has, and will for the foreseeable future, come to nothing in legislative terms.
The One Nation tradition and neoliberalism
Is Cameron then a compassionate or One Nation conservative, as has sometimes been claimed? He himself has spoken of the importance of compassion and his desire to see everyone sharing in wealth creation, and there are certainly still many within the party around him who like to associate themselves with the One Nation label. In the early years of his leadership, Cameron became connected with the so-called ‘Red Toryism’ of Phillip Blond, a right-wing communitarian approach which criticised both state and market for disrupting traditional ways of life and eroding individual responsibility. In its critique of neoliberalism, Blond was breaking with the dominant Tory economic paradigm of the last thirty years, marrying traditional social conservatism and criticism of the state with an attack on untrammelled free markets.
However, Cameron’s early intellectual openness and flirtation with the One Nation tradition has arguably given way to neoliberalism redux. As Prime Minister, Cameron has presided not only over a massive austerity programme—including policies like the widely-loathed ‘Bedroom Tax’—but a concerted effort to inject market principles into the few areas where the state was still dominant. Not even Mrs. Thatcher, in one her most radical of moods, would have sought to privatise the Royal Mail, let alone Harold Macmillan, who might well be looking down from his cloud wondering if there’s any family silver left to sell. The Coalition’s apparent zeal for radical market reform would seem to put paid to Cameron’s claim that he does not believe in “great schemes to remake the world”. As Michael Oakshott famously said of Hayek’s liberalism, “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” What is neoliberalism if not a grand project to remake the world according to market principles? It is interesting to note that Phillip Blond himself, while still believing in Cameron’s initial sincerity in his enthusiasm for a new kind of conservatism, has written of his despair at Cameron’s apparent reversion to laissez-faire type since taking office in 2010.
Two responses might be made to this critique. The first is that all Cameron and his government are doing, particularly in their reform of the welfare system, is attempting to reset things along the lines of their original remit. The figurehead of the Conservative welfare reform programme, Iain Duncan Smith, has argued that his Universal Credit system embodies the spirit of Beveridge for the twenty-first century. In this view, it was years of neglect that meant that the welfare system failed to keep up with massive social change, meaning that we ended up with a system that failed to properly incentivise work—something that had been central to the original post-war plan. After all, supporters might argue, the Coalition is not planning to scrap state social security altogether, just to reform it to encourage more people into work.
The second response is that conservatives have always in fact believed in free markets and that the current round of privatisations is really only about purging the economy of the final vestiges of the post-war socialism that Mrs. Thatcher began to dismantle in the 1980s. After all, many Tory politicians before her advocated a strong role for markets and private enterprise, not least, Enoch Powell. In this sense, might we be being too quick to simply label Cameron and other leading Tories as (neo)liberals? In a paper published in 2011, the Conservative MP Jesse Norman made an interesting distinction between ‘free market neoliberalism’ and ‘free market conservatism’, “…free market neoliberals value markets as such. Free market conservatives look at markets as institutions, and ask in each case how they in fact work and what the point of them is.” Norman argues that the conservative view of the free market is that it should ultimately serve the needs of the community, promoting values such as hard work, saving and just rewards. The kind of neoliberal free market that has come to dominate in the UK, however, has not done this, being effectively a kind of “crony capitalism” that has led to perverse outcomes, such as massive rewards for failure in the banking sector.
But these responses ring a bit hollow. Welfare reformers might continue to argue for the time being that they just want to restore some balance to the welfare system, but the real test will probably come a few years down the line. George Osborne has already indicated that a future Conservative government would seek to remove housing benefit for the under-25s, hinting at a long-term, transformative plan to reduce state welfare to a bare minimum, well below the standards recommended by Beveridge. As for recent privatisations, the Royal Mail had been in state hands long before Labour dreamt up its post-war nationalisation programme, making its sale seem like a truly radical break with the past, not just a resumption of ‘normal service’.
Born to rule?
One of the most barbed criticisms of Cameron, made by figures on the right as well as the left, is that his driving motivation as Prime Minister is not serious political or economic reform, but rather simply to be Prime Minister. In this view, Cameron, unlike Thatcher, is essentially uninterested in ideas or ideology, being concerned far more with power and leadership for its own sake. Hence he is often attacked for displaying a kind of ‘born to rule’ arrogance, linking this alleged tendency very clearly to his background and upbringing. This is not to say that others in his government are not ideologically driven, just that Cameron is happy to let others set the intellectual and policy agenda while he gets on with the day-to-day work of being PM. It is well known that George Osborne wields massive power and influence within the government, not just over economic policy but many other areas of domestic policy as well. Other Ministers during the course of this parliament, notably Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and Andrew Landsley, have shown themselves to be deeply engaged with the portfolios that they have held (welfare, education and health respectively), while it is hard to detect a comparable passion in Cameron (although Steve Richards, in the article linked to above, suggests that foreign policy is his special interest). A lack of deep ideological or intellectual commitment might also help explain both Cameron’s early, and apparently sincere, engagement with Red Toryism and his later rejection of it in government—a mere window-shopper in the world of ideas, Cameron eventually got distracted and found something that better suited his needs.
While Cameron’s detractors clearly intend this portrayal as an insult, it does seem worth concluding by pointing out that, even if we choose to accept this characterisation, there does seem to be something rather conservative about it. There is undoubtedly a strand within the conservative tradition that is essentially pragmatic, seeing the job of the ruler as being to guide the ship of state wisely through whatever waters it may pass, rather than setting about, as Cameron himself put it “great schemes to remake the world”.
In the next post, we will turn to UKIP, considering its inner ideological tensions and the extent to which it can be thought of as a genuine party of conservatism.
This post is one of a three-part series on British conservatism. For the next two posts, see here.
 Throughout this series I adopt a lower-case ‘c’ when referring to conservatism as a philosophy or ideology, in contrast to the upper-case Conservative party (often, of course, these two converge). Not all studies on this subject do this, but I find it a helpful distinction to avoid confusion.