Home > General Politics, Terrible Tories > Understanding the new Conservatism

Understanding the new Conservatism

(Long post alert: 2,700 words)

What is and where is the Conservative party now?

Those are the questions that a number of left blogs have been starting to explore, as the reality of Conservative rule sinks in, and the need first to understand what we’re up against.

I started my own exploration, briefly almost by accident, here, and this has been brewing since then.Richard Seymour at Leninology has given the fullest recent account (in a blog), and well worth a read it is too, not least as it includes this little gem:

The Tory front bench, for example, is dominated by members of the capitalist class, especially the financial bourgeoisie, as this New Statesman article shows. David Cameron claims to be ‘middle class’, but by this he only means that he is a normally adjusted member of the capitalist class and not some toffee-nosed aristo who warms his feet in the stomachs of slaughtered peasants.

Patrick at The Great Unrest has also started out on what may be slow-burning series (part 2 here) on how we resist the cuts, by stating first:

If we are to oppose austerity, we must understand and oppose this logic.

In this he reflects my own thinking in a three part series that I probably produced too soon for it to be noticed, as questions about what’s really going on and why are only now being explored properly.

And there’s an interesting early contribution from our own Carl Raincoat, who extrapolates to a UK setting commentary on American Conservatism, which suggests that the Right over there has reached a point of ‘epistemic closure’ which for the time being at least means Conservative thought is institutionalized as head-swivelling, froth-mouthed Tea Party lunacy. 

As I make clear in a comment on Carl’s piece, while I don’t agree that you can compare American with British Conservatism in this way, because of their very different traditions, I’m glad that the question of what point Conservatism has now reached is being asked, and am keen that TCF should lead the way on exploring that and related questions; it is only, as Patrick intimates, by understanding the enemy that we can combat it effectively.

What the three articles referred to share, and what distinguishes them from other critiques of Conservatism, is a willingness to examine not just the new Conservative ‘project’ as it is stated by the Conservatives, but to start to explore the institutional settings in which the project is now being developed and implemented.

More negatively, there is something of a tendency to reification.  Carl’s account in particular seems to see Conservatism as a sum of fairly slow-moving (and now, he’s say, stagnant) movement in ideas, relatively uninformed by the traditions/cultures (national through to personal) within which they are set.

Even in Richard’s lively, dialectically aware, account of the way British Conservatism has developed through the 20th century and into the 21st in response to the rise of mass democracy, and how it is now threatened by a narrowing of support base, there is little analysis of how the Conservative leadership and those that influence it see these changes for themselves.  Core beliefs and attitudes are attributed to Cameron without any particular evidence:

Cameron, though basically a Thatcherite in his small black heart, was selected by capital…..

For my own account of where Conservatism may be going, and consequently how the Left might react best, I prefer to start from a somewhat different theoretical position. 

This isn’t the place to get too far into that theory (though for those already or newly interested in this kind epistemological stance, I think Rhodes’ & Bevir’s Interpreting British Governance (2003) is still the best account of competing theoretical views).  In brief, though, I think the challenge for the Left is to seek explanation of different political and policy actions by the new government both in the pressures of government and in what we know of the traditions and ‘operational’ codes of Conservative decision makers. 

Such an approach may lead us, I suspect, to some surprising conclusions about what is really driving Conservative policymaking/implementation, and how different this is from the solely ideology-based explanations being provided by much of the commentariat (that of the return/enhancement of Thatcherism).  While a consciously developed ideological frameworks for government undoubtedly plays a part, I am not convinced they are THE key reason for much of what is now going on.

So what do we know about the way the Conservative leadership thinks and acts? 

Well, we’re not insiders so we don’t know a huge amount for ourselves so it’s handy to look at what insiders tell us.  

First, we know (just as Richard Seymour suggests) that the social make-up of the Conservatives’ inner circle is much narrower and old-school elite than it has been for some time.  Eton and Oxbridge dominate in a way it wasn’t able dominate under the premierships of the daughter of a grocer and the son of a circus entertainer.

As Andrew Rawnsley says, Cameron and Osborne have a small number of trusted advisors and people they really bounce stuff around with, and I suspect that even people like Andrew Coulson, inculcated in the promotion of the party as they are, are not the ones that really drive the way in which policy is made – they are simply there to ensure that it is sold properly to the great unwashed. 

The real inner circle are those, from a very similar background to Cameron and Osborne, who made up what Rawnsley calls ‘sofa cabinet’ that Cameron had before coming into government; he may have expanded his range of decision-making activity because of the necessities of government, but that doesn’t mean that his core attitudes have changed, and it is an ‘Oxford set’ from 25 years ago that defines the way the leadership see its world.  As the Sunday Times said in January 2010:

[T]he shared history of this “brazenly elite” group will shape more than just their own future.

This inner circle of decision makers may even be further immuring themselves from the outside world from a desire to exclude the elements of the Coalition they have had to subscribe to in public in order to take power in the first place, and Political Scrapbook’s scoop on Nick Clegg’s seemingly desperate efforts to develop some kind of coherent and audible voice for himself in the coalition may well reflect that immuring process as much as it reflect the LibDems’ weakness of position in itself.

Second, we also know that in what I’ll term social policy – and especially that policy being developed subsequent to the election – is marked both by what often appears to be rank ignorance of what’s happening ‘in the real world’, and inconsistency with the supposedly innovative (though contradictory) ‘Red Tory’, ‘nudge’  and ‘ black swan’ and thinking undertaken before the election.  

The examples of these ill-considered ‘policy-on-the-hoof’ decisions are growing weekly, but include:

  • Proposals to scrap Primary Care Trusts and require GP consortia to purchase care through their own (no doubt, privatized) management arrangements, despite clear evidence from the last PCT reorgsanisation and the development of GP commissioning that this approach simply will not work;
  •  The diversion of public funds for the Swedish Free School experiment, rushed through without proper thought and at the direct expense of existing education and planned improvements;
  •  Contradicting the apparently carefully thought-through and much vaunted Big Society policy by suggesting that people getting a well-paid enough job should move out of council accommodation.  The inference seems to be a) that houses are not really homes, but assets; b) only those on benefits should live in council housing;
  •  Being apparently unaware of existing  provision for refererenda on local matters of concern before setting out proposals to allow communities to vote on local housing plans, in a move highly likely to exacerbate local tensions and in a manner wholly out of keeping with the Big Society plans;
  • Easy acquiescence to the car lobby over the removal of speed cameras, despite the jury being out, to say the least, on whether they save lives;
  • Support for local authorities to introduce minimum alcohol pricing, despite such an approach being totally out of keeping with the ‘nudge’ theories advocated and apparently accepted by the government’s own advisors;
  • An announcement presaging the end of Asbos, desirable in itself (I would argue) but taken with no consulation whatsoever with Tory (or any) local authorities who to date have made much of their use;
  • Unimplementable plans for 5,000 community organizers now replaced by high-cost, civil-service backed ‘pilot schemes’ which will lead to nothing because the expense involved means that the promised ‘no cost’ approach (ridiculous in itself) is not actually being piloted;
  • Broader, vacuous talk of the voluntary sector and volunteering (and the two sometimes confused) being the way forward for mainstream public service delivery, with no apparent grasp of the funding needs of the sector or the reality of volunteering.

Now, its fairly early days, but what I suggest is happening in this set of examples is start of a longer term trend for the Conservatives simply to abrogate responsibility for detailed political administration of the country, and the development of a laissez-faire attitude to what actually happens in the country beyond the Westminster village purview. 

While much of the new Tory social policy agenda is being cast for public consumption in terms appropriated from New Labour – responsibility, mutuality, localism – and as a rebalancing from the years of New Labour’s invasive micro-management in the interests of renewed civil liberty, what I suspect will become more apparent as time moves on is that central government is actually abandoning its erstwhile role as mainstay support for (and controller of) the periphery in respect of many functions. 

This trend, I suggest, will be driven principally not by a Thatcherite desire to slash the state – though this ideological stance will play its part.

Rather, I contend that it will be driven by a return to an older Tory tradition which has never been erased from its High Tory/high society wing that Cameron and Osborne have emerged from to lead the country.

This is the tradition, set out most fully in the 1960-1980s by the recently ‘rediscovered’ political scientist and early ‘interpretative’ historian Jim Bulpitt (1937- 1999), of the ‘dual polity’, rooted in even earlier ‘court vs. country’ traditions, but still very much alive as an operational code of government well into the 1960s (and I would argue even beyond that).

This the High Tory tradition, reflected in Lord Hailsham’s words (1954):

To the great majority of Conservatives, religion, art, study, family, country, friends, music, fun, duty, all the joys and riches of existence of which the poor no less than the rich are the indefeasible free-holders, all these are higher in the scale than their handmaiden, political struggle.’(The Conservative Case, 1959, pp 12-13; quoted in Henry Drucker, Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party, 1979, p24.)

It is the tradition still reflected in government in the 1960s in The Crossman Diaries, when Crossman talks of his own Permanent Secretary , Eveyln Sharp:

[A] tremendous patrician and utterly contemptuous and arrongant, regarding local authorities as children which she has to examine and rebuke for their failures (p.28)

Suggesting an emerging distinction between the ‘high’ politics of defence, foreign policy and other choice matters coming under a generic heading of ‘statecraft’, and the ‘low’ politics of administration in the regions, may well seem a little extreme at this early of the new government.  

Against the argument, there will of course be many countervailing factors, and indeed traditions, working against any such ‘laissez faire’ trend from central government, and there is evidence of these already e.g. the debate over whether Eric Pickles’s (not from the Oxford set) announcement on street clutter on English streets constitutes an instruction to local authorities or simply a view on the matter. 

Such tensions are likely to emerge even more clearly as the Coalition progresses on its manifesto commitment to the Powers of General Competence legislation (on which I have blogged a good deal).

The strongest countervailing tradition, indeed, is likely to be Thatherite/New Labour propensity to micro-management and ‘initiative-itis’ which has already developed a strong element of path dependency within the departments, given the local power interests that are associated with target setting and monitoring.  We need only look to the changing of ‘targets’ to ‘goals’ within the NHS for some evidence of that. 

These may be traditions of the lower reaches of government rather than the leadership, but as Lipsky demonstrated 30 years ago, (and New Labour ignored at its peril) the fact the leadership sets policy doesn’t mean it is implemented as leadership wants (and this is a weakness in Bulpitt’s focus on elite/centre traditions to the exclusion of the traditions held at the periphery of government).

Nevertheless, when the background of these key leadership actors is taken into account – these are people whose first conception of estate is not council estate – alongside some of the early, more reactive social policy decisions, I think there is enough to suggest that the new Conservatism is not simply a return to Thatcherism, but also to a more ‘primeval’ Tory tradition, in which the concerns of the working classes (in the plural, EP Thompson sense) are not there to be understood, but to be delegated.  

Perhaps, indeed, the Left’s quite visceral hatred of Cameronism is in part a realization that Cameron is the worst of both Tory worlds.

What, finally, does all this mean for the Left?  Does it change the way we need to deal with the new Conservatism?

Yes, I think it does.

The key attack line to date has been that Cameronism is a return to hard-headed, and economically illiterate, Thatcherism.  While there is certainly mileage in that approach, I think there may be more oppositional mileage in the development of a narrative of the Tories top tier as precisely what they are, totally out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, and increasingly dismissive of the need to be.

While there is an undercurrent of this approach in the way the Left has approached opposition, it does often seem that it’s an approach that is adopted half-heartedly, with people almost embarrassed to use it, under the impression that to talk about Tory backgrounds is in some way not ‘decent’ politics. 

Thus, the attempts to attack Edward Timpson for being a ‘toff’ in the Crewe & Nantwich byelection in 2008 turned were humorous (though not very funny) and simply looked stupid rather than hitting the target, and the Tories were able to turn the tables on Labour by claiming out ‘class war’ tactics were out of date and made us look like ‘dinosaurs’. (I’m grateful to Tim Flatman for this insight.)

Now, with our fingers burned, it seems that no-one senior within the Labour party (or even the wider Left) feels able to take on Cameron about his claim to be ‘middle class’, for fear of a backlash against Labour as class warriors (or perhaps for fear of offending the Queen and her own middle class aspirations).

What we need to do, I suggest, is to get serious in our attack on the backgrounds of the top Tories, not on the basis of personal criticisms, but on the basis that it doesn’t allow the government to govern responsibly. 

Responsibility in modern government, and the fact that the Tories cannot offer it as a result of their core beliefs and traditions, is a theme we should be keen to develop (and in fact at a local level I have been developing it quite effectively already), and this theme needs to be backed by a constant flow of stories about irresponsibility, as well as an ongoing flow of evidence (of the type Laurie Penny has been working on) about the core attitudes and behaviour behind closed doors of the Tory establishment as a whole.  In the next two years, as the rich stay rich and the poor get poorer, these stories and revelations will gain ever more traction.

Exposing the Tories for where the come from, what they are, and what they’re doing to us, is perfectly decent politics because of who they are and where they come from, and a decent opposition should be working all three of these factors, not just one.

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  1. Barney Stannard
    August 28, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Paul: apologies for not yet replying to your intellectual honesty post. I have been rather busy and unable to give my reply the attention your post deserved. I am hopeful that I will be less busy by the end of this week.

    But on a brief note, I’m curious as to the evidence which makes it obvious that the NHS reforms won’t work.

  2. April 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    I think you present a number of false paradigms here, notably that there really is some kind of glib left/right axis where individuals and parties can be neatly placed, where ideas are polarised and antithetical.

    There is no meaningful difference at all between Labour/Conservative/Lib Dem, and where there is difference it is so marginal to be irrelevant. Perhaps this is why you hark back to yesterday’s politics; yesterday’s protagonists, Bevan, Thatcher etc., when there was a genuine difference in ideology? Either way today we are faced with a political kleptocracy, devoid of intellectual vigour, ideals, anything. Just empty gruel and muddle through careerists busily spending (and living off) other people’s money.

    Another widely propagated myth is that the state shrank under Thatcher. It grew. A pretty cursory analysis will tell you this:

    http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/spending_chart_1980_2015UKb_11c1li111mcn_F0t

    Thatcher co-opted the rhetoric of Libertarianism, (old Whiggism possibly), but had distinctly small ‘c’ conservative policies. Conservatism with a ‘c’ is not about cutting back the state, it seems to be more about diverting state resources to different people than under ‘socialist’ rule. Instead of having national companies, you have notionally ‘private’ companies that are not at all ‘private’ insofar as they require subsidies, bailouts, monopoly protection to survive.

    This is not ‘capitalism’ this is etatism, just a different flavour to out and out socialism. The UK hasn’t seen proper laissez faire capitalism since pre WWI, before the world came off the gold standard.

    PS. This is no defence of ‘conservatism’ they are all f***ing useless, I think you’re burning energy trying to find differences and rivalry between ideologies that are empty and the same.

    Meanwhile, quietly in the background, a banker makes off with the loot. I suggest you look to money, credit and banking for the ills of the world today. And there is nothing capitalistic about reserve banking.

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