I wasn’t a member of the Conservative party in 2005, when David Cameron was elected, and I have often wondered how I would have cast my vote if I had. Thinking about it, had my conversion from socialism occurred two years earlier, I would probably have voted for David Davis. I was, and still am, heavily influenced by the works of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Britain’s experience of economic liberalism under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
But thinking about now – older and a little wiser – I have accepted Cameron was probably the only credible candidate. As much as I admire David Davis’s politics, now that I look back, there is something of Sir Keith Joseph about him that would have barred him from a position of leadership. Sir Keith is another politician I have a lot of time for and greatly admire – but a party leader he was not. He even admitted this himself, telling Anthony Seldon in 1987 “it would have been a disaster for the party, the country and for me” had he been the ‘right wing’ candidate instead of Margaret Thatcher in the 1975 leadership election.
This is not to say I particularly like David Cameron or his brand of Conservatism (though this is partly because very few people seem to actually know what this is). I dislike the way he has repopulated the upper echelons of the party with Old Etonians, I dislike the fact the 2010 flagship policy was a wishy-washy idea no-one understood and I really, really, dislike his arbitrary attacks on individuals and companies legally avoiding excessive taxation.
But the man is a good leader and at the heart of this is good management. Because whatever else you may say about David Cameron, he reinvigorated the party, united it and oversaw its biggest electoral swing since the 1930s in 2010 – remember that we still had fewer than 200 seats in 2005. But most impressive is his style of governance. Unlike many of his recent predecessors, Cameron has a very collegiate style and generally allows his ministers to get on with their jobs – not to mention keeping them in their jobs long enough for them to actually master them.
But he is also a listener and, as many have commented, seems to be at his best when his back is against the wall. And, on Europe, he has been remarkably adroit. No-one pretends he wants to leave the EU. He is openly in favour of membership and is the archetypal eurosceptic (or what that used to mean, anyway), in that he sees it as an institution to be reformed, root and branch if necessary, but not departed from or dissolved. Indeed, this was the founding principle behind the break from the federalist European People’s party and the founding of the European Conservatives & Reformists in 2009.
I should make it clear I do not share this brand of euroscepticism. As a believer in small government and localism, I do not wish for my country to remain a member of what is fast becoming an autocratic, social democratic superstate and believe we should have a referendum on our continued membership as soon as possible. But then, so does Daniel Hannan, yet this doesn’t stop him being president of the ECR. The point being, politics is as much about pragmatism as it is about conviction and, despite the hype, this is something of which Margaret Thatcher was also all too aware.
Cameron doesn’t want to leave the EU but the pragmatist within him can see the wind is changing in the country and in the party. It made sense to ‘stop banging on about Europe’ in the early days of his premiership and focus on rebuilding the party’s image but that was eight years ago. That was before the financial meltdown, before the rise of UKIP, before the continent’s poorest nations were barbarically thrown onto the sacrificial fire of the euro and well before Jose Manuel Barroso announced plans for a federal Europe would be drawn up in 2014.
Having previously said he was not in favour of a referendum because Britain was better off in (thus precluding the outcome), Cameron has committed to holding one in 2017 should the Conservatives win a majority in 2015, largely due to pressure from his backbenchers. Some may see this as weakness but I think it’s another case of good management. Cameron has carefully avoided the European issue, focusing instead on more pressing matters, until events had turned the tide decisively in favour of a referendum.
And, for all the hoohar about today’s proposed amendment to the Queen’s speech, pushing for a referendum in this parliament, it is worth keeping in mind it has only been signed by 32 MPs – two of them not even Conservatives. This is hardly surprising, as the present parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons would make it impossible to pass such a bill. And it is also worth remembering – despite the media managing to spin the intervention of Lord Lawson, Lord Lamont and Boris Johnson into ‘growing pressure on Cameron’ – that all three actually spoke in favour of a 2017 referendum. Their imagined criticism was only by adding that any renegotiation – which is the proper thing to at least attempt before an in/out referendum – would fail and that they personally would vote to leave the EU. ‘Tories call to leave EU’ is a hardly a shocker, is it?
The ball is now in the voters’ court. All that remains for the party to do on this issue is to drive home to the electors that the only way to guarantee a referendum on Britain’s EU membership is to vote Conservative in 2015. Labour doesn’t want one, the Liberal Democrats lied about wanting one and UKIP can’t get one. In fact UKIP has become, ironically, the biggest single obstacle to this generation of Britons ever getting a vote on the EU by splitting the eurosceptic vote. But true patriotism rises above party ties (which is why Enoch Powell called on people to vote for the then-eurosceptic Labour party in 1974) so if you truly want Britain out of the EU, whatever your political colouring, vote Conservative in 2015 and let’s send Brussels packing.
That UKIP has made unprecedented waves in the latest round of local elections should not have come as a surprise to anyone.
The party is riding on a wave of anti-government feeling as austerity bites, the Lib Dems’ protest vote evaporates and Labour continues to be an ineffectual opposition with a slightly weird MP at its head.
In many ways it’s a re-run of the early 1980s, what with the recession, Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 budget, the SDP surge and the godsend that was Michael Foot.
It’s worthwhile learning a lesson from that. One of the noticeable features of the Thatcher years was the willingness of the electorate to punish the government in local elections and by-elections but reward it with landslide majorities when it came to deciding the government.
We will see a similar situation in the European elections next year, where UKIP has always done well. But as many have pointed out that does not mean voters will see the party as one of government in 2015. Remember when the Lib Dems were coming second in polls in 2010?
But the last thing we want to be is complacent and this is, of course, something Margaret Thatcher could never be accused of. Another thing the Thatcher government could not be accused of is having an image problem.
Margaret Thatcher and her close allies were largely from lower middle class families who had risen through the grammar school system and done well for themselves off their own backs. This chimed with voters.
It’s also something about Nigel Farage, I suspect, that chimes with UKIP voters. The man is down to earth, straight talking, and utterly unashamed of both his humble beginnings and lucrative rise.
But you only have to remove Farage from the equation – as when he allowed Lord Pearson to take over – to see how little substance UKIP has. Under Pearson’s leadership the party machine fell into disarray.
It says something about the party’s lack of quality members – seen again in its choice of election candidates last week – that Pearson was seen as the next best thing.
UKIP presently has great style but very little substance. Our problem, however, is reversed. The leadership has failed to adequately communicate the radical strides it has made in welfare, education and tax reform to the people who will benefit from it most – those on low and middle incomes.
Likewise, Cameron has failed to capitalise on public support for an EU referendum – first by declaring it out of the question then, when forced into a corner by his MPs, setting one for the next Parliament.
His reason for doing so is, reasonably, that a referendum would have to be voted on by the House of Commons first – and without a majority this isn’t going to happen. But God loves a tryer. And so do voters.
Tabling a motion for a referendum would show up Labour and the Lib Dems and let voters know we are serious – allowing a second motion to be a core election policy in 2015. Tabling this for 2017 has only allowed UKIP to say we have no intention of holding a referendum.
But there is also the issue of having a top table of Old Etonians and ‘toffs’ – which has only been compounded by the incompetent handling of various minor scandals.
To be sure these are nothing compared to the scandals of the Major years. But the handling of ‘Plebgate’ and Osborne’s first class upgrade saga has done great damage to the brand. In both cases things have not been how they initially seemed in the press but the mud has stuck with voters because they believe the shoe fits.
If we want to stop UKIP destroying our chances in 2015 we do not need to change our policies. But we do need to shout about them louder, promote more ‘grammar school kids’ and get a grip on the presentation of the party as one of working people, aspiration and responsibility.
Paul Nizinskyj / News / cameron, canada, conservatives, eastleigh, lib dems, liberal democrats, maria hutchings, nigel farage, progressive conservatives, reform party, stephen harper, tories, tory, ukip / 0 comments
How do you solve a problem like Maria? That was the tagline, with a few variations, for many commentators during the Eastleigh campaign. But the Conservatives’ catastrophic defeat at Eastleigh is indicative of a number of problems facing the party, of which candidate Maria Hutchings was by far the least. The real question ought to be ‘How do you solve a problem like the Conservatives?’
Hutchings was not without blame for the failure in Eastleigh. Her campaign appeared to gravitate towards issues very few of the electorate cared about – particularly abortion and gay marriage – and the idiocy of announcing her opposition to the latter after the Commons had already voted on it is staggering. Whatever your opinion on gay marriage (and, popular or not, this blog regarded is as the right thing to do), the inescapable fact is your average voter simply didn’t care.
If this were confined to a candidate in a by-election, it wouldn’t be a problem. The trouble is, a muddled sense of priority goes to the heart of the Tory election machine. And it couldn’t possibly be at a worse time. In a development that has widened Nigel Farage’s grin even further, UKIP have now come second in no less than four by-elections during this Parliament (Barnsley, Rotherham, Middlesborough and Eastleigh). And this time within less than 2,000 votes.
The prognosis, to be frank, is dire. Although Nigel Farage said today only a third of the votes in Eastleigh were from former Tory supporters, in such a tight race, this alone will very easily have cost the Conservatives first place, never mind second. Worse still, it signals a now very serious split in the Right-of-centre vote that will cost Cameron many elections to come – including 2015.
Many have dismissed UKIP’s rise to their newfound status as the ‘protest party’ now the Lib Dems are in government. But only a fool would dismiss the destructive potential of a protest vote. As Nigel Farage has himself said, it is just such a Right-wing protest vote that destroyed the Progressive Conservatives in Canada (the clue is in the name – the party was very similar to the Cameroon Tories) for a decade – leaving them with just two Commons seats in 1993 and only ten more in 2000. The following is an extract from a Globe and Mail interview in December;
“I think the parallels with UKIP today and the Reform party in 1992 are quite eerie,” [Farage] said, adding that the Tories ignored the challenge and were wiped out. “Reform revolutionized politics in Canada in an incredibly positive way.”
In the long run, perhaps. The Canadian Right’s fortunes only turned round when, facing bankruptcy, the Progressive Conservatives grudgingly agreed to merge with the more Reform in 2003 – which was by that time called the Canadian Alliance and led by current prime minister Stephen Harper. Within three years, the new Conservative party of Canada had formed a minority government and, in 2011, won its first majority.
So how did they do this? Well, obviously healing a split in the Right-wing vote was a major factor, but it also brings us back to priorities. Reform was a highly conservative party, determined to win back the Right. But, as head of the Conservative party, Harper realised that after almost a century of Liberal government the party could not win by being seen as anti-immigrant and focused on socially conservative issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
They also polled. And polled. And polled. What emerged was that one of the electorate’s main concerns was the economy – big surprise there – and that immigrants’ concerns were not much different to those of more settled Canadians, including on illegal immigration. So taxes, public spending and illegal immigration went down. That’s a vote-winner.
But the biggest revelation was that voters voted as classical liberals, if not through conviction, then by proxy – and that polling which did not drill down far enough would be fatally misleading. As Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker co-wrote in ‘The Big Shift’ this year;
“Health care was the number-one priority for most voters [in a Nanos-IRRP poll], but also the issue they had the least confidence government could do anything to improve. In other words, people think that new government programs would be nice, but they don’t trust the government to deliver those programs. Which leads Tory supporters to conclude that government is the problem, not the solution. Which leads the Harper government to avoid grand new schemes.”
Anyone remember ‘The Big Society’? What happened to that? What was it even about? The fact this bizarre and intangible idea appeared to trump even deficit reduction in the 2010 campaign exposes a party leadership deeply out of touch with the electorate. And that’s not because they’re rich Etonians – it just means they haven’t done their homework.
It fell to the Liberal Democrats to push for the reductions in personal tax allowance which has reduced the tax burden on millions of working families and taken many out of tax altogether. Again, this is worrying, but too much of Cameroon policy both in the election and in government smacks of ‘grand new schemes’.
Top-down NHS reform, a completely new system of benefits, education turned on its head – not that these aren’t areas where reform is needed but the government is attempting too much on policies that simply aren’t vote-winners at the expense of those that are. Right now UKIP is mopping up that deficit. If they’re allowed to continue, the Right may be out of power for a generation.
Paul Nizinskyj / Blog / cameron, church of england, civil marriage, conservatives, david cameron, free trade, gay marriage, marriage, robert peel, slave trade, slavery, tories, tory, whig / 2 comments
We have more to be proud of than we sometimes give ourselves credit for in this country. We not only led the world in the development of parliamentarianism, free trade and industry but also in some of the great humanitarian leaps of history such as abolishing the slave trade and, ultimately, slavery itself.
It is difficult today to overstate the magnitude of this accomplishment. In the eighteenth century, slavery was illegal in Britain itself but not in the Empire – indeed it was widely regarded as the only thing sustaining it. Without the slaves to work on sugar plantations, it was said, the economics of the enterprise would collapse.
The trade was, naturally, supported by the very powerful plantation owners but also merchants, dock owners and even – astoundingly – members of the Church of England. In the days of pocket boroughs and patronage, these men controlled many members of the House of Commons – where one of the vilest evils in human history was to be defended for economic and religious reasons.
But it was also defended for reasons which may sound a little more familiar. The slave trade was actually abolished in the British Empire in 1807 – right in the middle of a long, protracted and bloody war with France that had been raging since 1793 and, save for a 14 month peace, would continue until 1814.
Thank heavens men like Charles James Fox and William Wilberforce did not listen to those arguing the issue of slavery was not worth discussing because of the concentration needed for the war effort; that they ignored protestations it would alienate sympathetic voters and patrons; that they shunned the argument it would destroy a fragile wartime economy while allowing France to step in to the trade we had abandoned.
Yet the very same arguments are being used against even discussing the rights and wrongs of gay marriage. Already I have heard the familiar line that ‘this is not the right time’ for the Bill because of ‘instability in the Middle East’, ‘the collapse of the eurozone’ and ‘won’t somebody PLEASE think about the economy?’ – as though politicians are incapable of debating more than a handful of issues at once.
The admittedly more rational reasoning of the danger in splitting the party and alienating voters is also employed though I do not think this sufficient to sink the issue. While I can hardly fault members who oppose the legislation for wishing to protect their party and its electoral fortunes, this should not factor into the thinking of those who support gay marriage because of its inherent virtues. Indeed, if this were to be the case, it would serve as an indictment of modern politics that party is placed before country and what is right – something far too many voters already believe.
It is an issue that has echoes of the great debate over free trade in the 1840s. Sir Robert Peel, then leader of the Conservatives, became convinced of the inherent goodness of removing trade tariffs for the benefit of the country and its people, thereby splitting his party in two and making it virtually unelectable for the rest of the century.
Yet free trade was to reap enormous benefits over the next century, not least for the very poorest British people, who could now buy cheap bread made from imported grain. Indeed, so popular was free trade to the working man, the Conservatives who didn’t join the Liberals were forced to, if not accept it, then at least keep quiet on the subject until the collapse of international trade in the First World War. It was, in effect, a Thatcheresque game-changer.
I am under no illusions that gay marriage will be any such thing, of course. Indeed, I agree with JP Floru that the issue will likely be forgotten the day after the Bill becomes law. But the point is that, like the slave trade and free trade before it, gay marriage is an issue of human dignity and political principle that must cast other concerns aside.
It is, specifically, an issue of equality before the law. Civil marriage has existed in this country since 1836 and yet, despite the legalisation of homosexual activity in 1968, homosexuals have been excluded from this institution of state. This is a situation no believer in legal equality – a Conservative as much as a Liberal – can tolerate.
The legislation makes no inroads on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. Homosexuals having the right to wed in a civil marriage does nothing to harm others, much as it may offend some, yet its continued prohibition perpetuates the discrimination of one group of people by the state – contrary to the principle of equality before the law (as is ‘positive discrimination’ but that’s an issue for another post).
And the argument that the state has no right to change the definition of marriage – that this belongs exclusively to religion – is also groundless, as the aforementioned 1836 Act established civil marriages as a purely state ceremony. By the same principle, despite what many continue to believe, the legislation currently before Parliament does not concern churches and religious marriage at all.
In short, this debate has perhaps done more to highlight the continuing differences between the Conservative party’s Whig and Tory traditions than any in modern times. Somewhat ironically, this relationship has in many ways functioned like a marriage over the last two centuries and, like any marriage, seemingly inconsolable rows are to be expected.
They have caused separation, if not outright divorce, in the past, for sure, but I genuinely believe gay marriage will not force such an outcome. That said, even if it were to do so, should Cameron hold firm like Fox, Wilberforce and Peel before him, he can console himself with having the hand of history very firmly on his shoulder.