The Appeal and Vision of Tory Britain shouldn’t be underestimated by the left

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, October 11th 2015

The Tory conference gathered this week in good spirits after unexpectedly winning an overall majority in May, and with all their main UK political opponents in disarray.

One rather significant anniversary passed unnoticed this week. This was the 65th anniversary – the day after Cameron’s speech – of Harold Macmillan’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ election victory in 1959 when the Tories won a third term and overall majority of 100 seats.

Britain and Scotland have changed dramatically since then. Tories and Labour were national parties; neither is now. In 1959 the Tories won 47.2% of the Scottish vote and 31 seats, whereas this May they won 14.9% – and a solitary MP.

The 1959 election was the beginning of how British politics ended up where it is today. This was the first post-war election where Scotland deviated from the rest of the UK: Scotland swinging towards Labour in seats, while England moved to the Tories.

It was revealing that, for all their ‘One Nation’ rhetoric, the Tories didn’t reference 1959 and Macmillan at the conference. This is because for all their invoking of tradition, the Tories do not evoke specific past victories and defeats, except for generally invoking Churchill and Thatcher. On the other hand, the left continually embrace their past and seem prisoners of it, referencing previous defeats as if they were proud of them.

Conservatism has always been about a mixture of continuity and change, and Cameron’s uplifting rhetoric in his keynote speech was redolent of Tony Blair at his peak. This was an economic and social liberal prospectus, determinedly optimistic, and prepared like Blair, to take on some of the traditionalists in his party and tell them that the world has changed and they have to embrace it.

This is audacious in rhetoric and ambition, but of course the record and government plans over the next five years are rather different. This is a government which is soon to inflict huge public spending cuts, more severe than ever before, and which has declared that it would like to reduce public spending to in terms of GDP levels not seen since the 1930s.

Despite this the Cameron Conservative project, like Blair before when he was Prime Minister, confuses critics and confounds opponents. A whole raft of the left from Polly Toynbee to Owen Jones, and the protestors outside the Tory conference, think this is the most ideologically charged government in post-war Britain: ‘far to the right of Margaret Thatcher’ declared Toynbee this week.

This is a caricature of Cameron Conservatism. Instead, his aim is to create a modern Conservatism – moving on from Thatcher and Blair – which is adaptive and pragmatic. Thus, on some areas it is pro-public spending, such as the NHS and international aid. It wants to decentralise – the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ may be Osborne rhetoric, but devolving business rates in England is real. And in some areas it is hard right, in demonising immigration and cutting back welfare.

The left rhetoric of shouting ‘austerity’ and ‘Tory scum’ while not noticing the complex balancing act of what the Tories are doing in office is terrible politics. It was the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis who said recently that the UK Government hadn’t really done what he understood as ‘austerity’ in its first term – certainly compared to Greece and most of the Club Med.

The Conservatives have been given a number of advantages, one of which is the ineptitude of their UK opponents. Cameron has gone from facing Blair and then Brown to Miliband and currently Corbyn – each weaker than the last. The Lib Dems have blown themselves up, and UKIP – despite four million votes at the election – hurt Labour as much, if not more than the Tories.

The Tory project is foremost about governing and the idea of statecraft. They don’t have debates about balancing power and principles, and didn’t even in the Thatcher years. Tories don’t say the equivalent of what a senior trade union leader did this week – that it ‘almost makes you want to celebrate the fact Labour lost the election’ – because now they have Jeremy Corbyn.

Instead, Tories get on with creating an inclusive British rhetoric that is about rewarding the Southern Tory heartlands and planning daring raids into Labour’s northern heartlands. They know that for all their talk of being the party of the union that their limited Scottish box office appeal is actually a threat to its continuation: a far cry from the days of Macmillan.

They face huge future challenges in relation to Europe and if there is another economic downturn, but it is still strange that the more successful the Tories are electorally, the more that parts of the left and Labour want to stereotype them as hard right. They never notice that this plays into the Tory gambit for the centre ground – allowing them to be that historic mixture of reassuring and radical – remaking politics in the process.