iPods and ideologues

There is something old and something genuinely new about David Cameron's Conservatism. If the left is to help shape the post-Blair political climate, it will have to engage with its ideas, and not simply dismiss them, writes Oscar Reyes

October 1, 2006
8 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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With Labour MPs currently doing impressions of a Tory Party away day to Brussels circa 1994, the Conservative leadership has chosen a good time to bill a vote on Built to Last, the party’s new statement of aims and values, as its own ‘clause four moment’.

On the surface, there are some obvious similarities. Blue rinse brigades across the land are being offered a straight choice between blandness and perceived political suicide. ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ may have been dropped as Cameron’s headline slogan, but expect a love-in as Tories endorse warm platitudes about their ‘open, meritocratic and forward-looking’ party.

This all smacks of an elaborate marketing scam, which should come as no surprise now that Philip Gould’s Unfinished Revolution seems to have replaced Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as the shadow cabinet’s favourite bedtime reading. But the original clause four moment was about more than marketing. It was an effort to enshrine in Labour doctrine an ideological shift that had already largely happened. The party leadership had long since abandoned any notion of the ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’, which was what the pre-Blair clause four of the Labour constitution used to uphold. The Labour left fought a rearguard action against a symbol of New Labour’s abandonment of socialism. Tory headbangers, by contrast, have barely offered a whimper.

It would be tempting, and comforting, to conclude from this that the Cameron leadership offers merely cosmetic changes that do little to alter the Conservative Party’s anatomy. David Cameron is basically an iPod, a fashion device onto whom right-wingers of all tastes can download their favourite Conservative tunes, be they 1950s crooners or 1980s classics. The left can play with this Cameron iPod too. We can project him as a vacuous moderniser, the Conservative marketing department’s chosen successor to Blair. We might equally interpret the Tories’ endorsement of a pro-fox-hunting Etonian as a reversion to type. But these caricatures do not take us far in understanding the specificity of the emerging Cameron agenda – its distinctive mix of something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

Take the example of localism, the Cameronites’ ‘big idea’. To an extent this a rehash of the communitarian strand of Blairism. Built to Last commits the party to ‘harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit in our communities’, praising social enterprise, community and voluntary organisations as vital agents in the battle against poverty and deprivation. Just like New Labour’s ‘new localism’, this promises devolution-by-marketisation. Extending competition in the provision of services that were once public is preferred to, say, the democratisation and reinvigoration of local government through participatory decision-making.

So far, so Blairite. But the grounds for accepting this ‘localist’ framework are drawn from a more conventionally conservative canon. Danny Kruger, special advisor to David Cameron, has recently written of the central importance to Conservatism of social enterprises, ‘the institutions that stand between the individual and the state’. The point being that the Conservatives perceive the need to ditch their Thatcherite association with aggressive, me-first individualism – not least because such values undermine the social basis of conservatism, breaking down traditional social bonds and melting venerable prejudices and opinions into air.

Beyond this, the new Tory localism is a pre-emptive strike against the Gordon Brown leadership. Conservative strategists long ago identified Brown as the head nanny within the New Labour household. At the extreme end, they accuse him of a ‘nationalisation of childhood’, claiming that initiatives for more childcare centres and after school clubs serve the sinister purpose of enforcing an equality-ofoutcome upon children.

More generally, Brown is accused of encouraging the micro-management of public services from the centre, and misunderstanding the free market with his insistence on a web of tax credits to mitigate its inegalitarian effects. In their 2001 book, A Blue Tomorrow, Ed Vaizey, Nicholas Boles and Michael Gove – now three of Cameron’s closest allies – condemn this ‘misplaced dogma … that government intervention, from a distant centre, always makes things better’. Boles, in particular, argues that the Tories should dismantle this ‘centralised state’, a position that he has consolidated as the director of Policy Exchange, Cameron’s favourite think-tank.

Compassionate Conservatism, Policy Exchange’s book-length attempt to furnish these next-generation Tories with a political philosophy, extends the argument by differentiating between ‘social’ and ‘state’ provision. Whereas the state encourages vertical linkages between people, society is characterised by horizontal connections. The goal of compassionate conservatives should be to reflect this positive vision of society ‘beyond the state’, which they see as fundamentally unproductive.

These distinctions can seem obscure, but they are worth noting as clues to the ideological framework through which Cameron’s new generation Tories understand the world, and in relation to which they will develop their policies. New Labour had a vision of the ‘entrepreneurial state’, the state as contractor of services. Cameron and company are not wrong that this is unsustainable.

Market-driven states tend to produce corporate monopolies and expunge democratic accountability. Sensing a political opportunity here, Cameron’s turn to Danny Kruger is noteworthy, since he is also a leading figure behind the ‘Direct Democracy’ manifesto (www.directdemocracy.co.uk). Its signatories pledge, among other things, that ‘independent schools and hospitals should be free to compete for state-funded parents and patients’. Perhaps this is what Kruger meant when, during the 2005 election campaign, he referred to a Conservative ‘plan to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services’.

Cameron’s Tories are engaged in a similar ideological realignment in their approach to foreign policy. In a speech on 11 September, co-authored by Kruger, Cameron now claims to be ‘a liberal conservative, rather than a neoconservative’. But the substance of such statements is that he accepts all of the basic premises upon which the ‘war on terror’ has been conducted: the idea that the scale of today’s terrorism is unprecedented (the world changed on September 11); the legitimacy of pre-emptive military action as a means to tackle this; and a belief in ‘promoting freedom’ in ways that include regime change.

Liberal conservatism apparently means accepting all of these things, while recognising that the US has so far failed to provide sufficient ideological cover for their use by way of multilateral fig-leafs and the wider extension of its soft power. It is not a criticism of empire, in other words, but an argument for its extension. Moves to withdraw from Iraq, and criticism of Israel’s policies towards Lebanon and Palestine, are viewed as appeasement of ‘jihadist anger’ – much as, on the home front, Michael Gove has railed against progressives”appeasement’ of ‘Islamist totalitarianism’.

It is hard to explain this as simply a marketing exercise. Despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, the Notting Hill neo-cons have embraced it with fervour. If they differ from their US counterparts, it is only in placing a faith in the good of interventionism above a strategic lust for oil as their guiding principle. The differences in the basic approach are minimal, but they are accompanied by a large shift in emphasis. To sell such moves to a domestic audience, Cameron and his supporters now seek to embed neo-con interventionism with an embrace of market-driven strategies on global poverty and climate change.

Their stance on the latter is particularly revealing, with Cameron claiming that ‘climate change is the single biggest challenge facing our planet’. Underlying this are attempts to wrest environmentalism as an issue from the left – much as Blair, while shadow home secretary, sought to claim law and order authoritarianism for Labour.

No doubt there are several layers of greenwash here, as well as an instrumentalisation of environmentalism as a means to portray a softer, more ‘caring’ image of the new look Tories. But that should not blind us to the fact that there is a conservative tradition of environmentalism – as well as one of environmental damage and complacency – built around a mix of localism and market fundamentalism. ‘Green growth’ is to be encouraged by market incentives alongside increased capacity for sustainable production. As Kruger writes in this month’s Prospect, ‘microgeneration might be seen as the policy trope of the Cameron project: decentralised, diverse and sustainable’ – terms as glowing as any anarchist or deep green activist might wish.

This is not entirely cynical. Cameron’s Tories would no doubt welcome a flourishing niche market in microgeneration – a useful reminder to the green left that anti-capitalism is not a necessary condition for autonomist selfsufficiency. Instead of dismissal, then, a better response would be to engage with this argument – highlighting the contradictions of a free-market environmentalism accompanied by a push for deregulation, usually a code for removing environmental protections, while at the same time pressing for an environmental justice approach that attends to the inequalities and perverse incentives produced by carbon markets.

Such ideological engagement should serve as the wider spirit underlying our approach to the new-look Tories. Cameronism is not yet an ideological project in the Thatcherite mould, but it certainly represents a more considered attempt to develop a politics for the post- Blair age than recent Tory leaderships gave us reason to expect was still possible. On the left, we would do well to recognise the conditions of its emergence, and its attempt to reframe politics around a mix of market-driven localism and soft-power, neo-conservative internationalism, if we are to mount our own hegemonic challenge to reshape British politics after Blair.

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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