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June 30, 2006

The historic failure of "me too" conservatism: Christie Davies argues that Mr Cameron's "nice" conservatism has a proven track record - a proven track record of abject failure

Posted by Christie Davies

In all likelihood David Cameron will win the next general election - but he will then prove to be a disastrous Prime Minister. For David Cameron is not embarking on a new experiment. "Nice" conservatism has a long pedigree, but it is a pedigree of abject failure. This is the argument of Christie Davies. The views expressed in this article are those of Prof. Davies, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

David Cameron stands somewhat to the left of Tony Blair, pinker on social justice and foreign aid, feebler on crime and immigration and greener all round. As for the Liberal Democrats, they now occupy an imaginary point in space, since the overlap between New Labour and New Conservative is greater than the combined size of real Labour and real Tory.

Cameron will probably win the next election against Gordon Brown, not because he is any good, but because by then Brown's economic strategy will be falling apart, as will the British economy. Most people, particularly those who change their votes from one party to another, have little idea what the policies of the different parties are, what they mean or how they differ. Marginal voters simply have a crude sense of "good times" versus "bad times" in their current economic circumstances and vote accordingly. By the next election there will be Brown-induced zero growth, great uncertainty about employment and rising inflation. Brown will lose. Cameron will win.

Winsome Cameron is a young handsome, nicely spoken toff with a good head of hair, who looks good on the telly. Brown by contrast is clumsy, bulky, aging and six o'clock shadowed and speaks an unattractive and almost incomprehensible regional dialect. Brown is a tedious, dour son of the manse and a whustlin' Fifer at a time when most people think it unconstitutional for a Scotsman to be Prime Minister, given that Scotland is in effect autonomous. Estonians are out and Etonians are back in. Look how informal Mr Cameron is in his jeans compared with Mr Brown's Soviet style suits; what is more Cameron's jeans cost more than Brown's entire wardrobe.

Cameron's victory will be a triumph for his party and a disaster for Britain, much as were the Conservative victories in 1931 and 1935 (the so-called National Government) and in 1955 and 1959. No doubt they felt good to be winning but what did the Conservatives do with their victories?

The formation of the National Government in 1931 is often wrongly seen as a disaster for Labour, as the woolly minded Ramsay Macdonald and a few supporters split from their party and embraced Baldwin and the Conservatives and the shrinking rump of the Liberals.

In fact it was a disaster for the Conservatives, a decisive push to the left. The Labour party has always been the internationalist party that puts Britain's national interest last. In the 1930s the Labour party wanted to reduce the size of the navy and abolish the R.A.F. After 1931 the Conservatives served under Ramsay Macdonald who had been a pacifist in the First World War and believed passionately in collective security through the League of Nations. "Me too", said the Conservatives.

Hitler came to power. Germany rapidly rearmed. Stalin was building an even bigger force of tanks and planes than the Germans. The Japanese python was about to swallow China. What did Baldwin and friends do?

They rearmed very slowly and cautiously so as not to appear nasty and nationalistic, unOxford Union stalwarts for King and Country. They signed the Anglo-German naval agreement that allowed the Germans to build the U-boats with which they were later to starve Britain. They allowed the reoccupation of the Rhineland by Hitler because they felt guilty about Versailles. They handed over the Treaty Ports on the coast of Ireland, vital to the defence of Britain's Atlantic trade, to Britain's enemy, Eamonn De Valera, contrary to what the Irish had agreed in the 1922 treaty which allowed them to be used as British naval bases. They encouraged the representative of the King-Emperor to shake hands with Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Gandhi's advice to the Jews in the 1930s was to allow themselves passively to be slaughtered by Germans and Arabs alike in order to gain the moral high ground. The British Government and Gandhi had more round tables than King Arthur. How the Japanese must have laughed. They could envisage Gandhi lying down in the mud in his dhoti at Imphal while the kempetai - the brutal Japanese Imperial military police - trampled over him coming up the road from Mandalay. Hirohito Ind. Imp. was what Gandhi "objectively" stood for.

This was Britain's first experience of Cameron-style Conservatism. Winston Churchill, the right wing, unacceptable, nasty face of Conservatism, known for his fighting talk during the General Strike, was banished from the scene. Niceness had won. Me too!

Well, we all know where it ended. In 1939 we lacked destroyers. We lacked aircraft carriers. We lacked bombers. In 1940 we very nearly lost. Had we built in the 1930s the weapons we needed, it would have brought work to those very parts of the country worst hit by the depression, the regions of steel, ship-building and heavy engineering. We could likewise have vigorously pursued the technical advances associated with the jet engine.

But we didn't, not for financial reasons, for at a time of high unemployment and low output an armaments-based boost to the economy would have paid for itself. Rather it was because the Conservatives were unwilling to appear to be the nasty party. The Conservatives feared the sneers of those left-wing, middle-class progressives who had set themselves against patriotism and the pursuit of British national self-interest. The sneerers saw them as incompatible with "civilized modernity". These words sound familiar.

The second age of Conservative Me-Tooism was the 1950s when Conservative governments chose the easy rode of consensus rather than battling with the trade unions, restoring the nationalised industries to unsubsidised private ownership and pursuing a rigorous monetary policy to stem inflation and to enable entrepreneurs to make rational investment decisions.

These things were not done because they were seen as nasty. They were seen as causing conflict, as ruthless capitalism, as going back to the bad old days of industrial conflict rather than looking forward. Forwards not backwards was the cry. Instead the Conservatives gave us Butskellism, a policy of left-Keynesian economics and increased spending on the welfare state, of which the nationalised industries were in each case an integral part.

The policies of the Conservative Chancellor "Rab" Butler were indistinguishable from those proposed by that lineal ancestor of New Labour, Hugh Gaitskell. The key and revealing moment of his old Etonian-Balliol conscience-driven cowardice came when Harold Macmillan accepted, perhaps forced, the resignation of the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft and his aides Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell who stood for sound money and the market economy. Macmillan was the inventor (1937) of the Middle Way, the Third Way, a corrupt device for avoiding the creative destruction so necessary to capitalism in which new industries and services replace old ones. Instead Macmillan toyed with the absurdities of indicative planning.

Britain paid the penalty for having a series of "nice" Conservative governments through low growth, economic instability, rising inflation and high taxation. Given a little help from Labour, it led inexorably to bankruptcy by the end of the 1970s when we had to grovel to the IMF to bail us out. Likewise a Conservative willingness to sustain and expand an indiscriminate welfare state led to rapid increases in crime, illegitimacy and family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse. All our current social problems began in 1955, the year in which the "nice" Conservatives won an increased majority.

The Conservatives' record in government between 1931 and 1974 was one of short term electoral success and long term national betrayal. In the 1930s the betrayal was in the field of defence and foreign affairs, and in the 1950s in the running of the economy and welfare. In either case disaster ensued, a disaster brought on by a wish to be "nice", to be the party of peace and diplomacy, the party of compassion and social justice.

Those Conservatives defined as "nasty" did not differ in their wishes, goals and ends from their "nice" colleagues. Churchill wanted peace. Thorneycroft wanted prosperity. Where they did differ was in their willingness not to flinch from using tough and more effective means to get there and to use an accurate terminology rather than one acceptable to the progressive mind to describe what they were proposing. They didn't muck about nor did they try to hoodwink the public. They are still remembered and respected today for their courage and honesty whereas their opponents are seen as complete merchants, complete Ravis, complete other rankers.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction, 2004.

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Congratulations - absolutely correct in your analysis.

Posted by: Peter at July 3, 2006 05:10 PM

An extremely important article.

What is needed now is a round robin signed by conservatives willing to confront the challenges of today's world. This round robin would call for action on:

Leaving the EU, Court of Human Rights, Court of Justice
Discrimination legislation
National Insurance
Grammar Schools
Welfare State (hand over to mutual societies)
Relations with India, the Gulf and China

and suggest that Mr Cameron calls for open debate on each topic to be moderated and organised online.

Posted by: Henry Mayhew at July 3, 2006 06:30 PM

Yes but, yes but, yes but.... Like Swiss Toni said in the Fast Show: "It's like making LERV to a beautiful woman". If you march up to her and say: It's time I impregnated you. Take off your clothes and lie down!" She will slap your face and walk away. (That, at any rate, is what most women have done whenever I've tried that tactic.) The electorate must be wooed, gently, sweetly and charmingly. A woman needs to now that you are safe, sincere and have the wherewithal to fulfill your promise. And she likes to take her time.

Since "nice" Mr Cameron took charge we have begun to win her over, she is turning her face towards us and is listening. The opinion polls could hardly be better. If we can make her laugh and lighten her mood, show her we see more clearly than the other guys, show her we can help her, then maybe we can take her by the hand, get married and live happily ever after.

Once we have the ear of the people then we can get them moving in our direction. If we say the wrong things then we are in for another slapping.

Posted by: David Cann at July 3, 2006 07:25 PM

How right.

The "ratchet" of politics requires that adherence to the socialist concensus, which is entirely rational human behaviour given that individuals benefit at the expense of some amorphous "society", will continue until such time as the conditions become so dire that the people turn to somebody they may not like, but whom they respect and whom they trust to sort out the mess.

As they turned to Churchill, they turned to Thatcher, both now universally recognised by those with eyes to see as the two greatest Prime Ministers of the 20th Century for what they acheived, one universally admired for saving his nation from tyranny of Nationalist Socialism, the other reverred and hated in equal measure despite her saving us from the equally miserable tyranny of just plain Socialism.

Will Cameron turn out to be a Butler or Macmillan, or a Thatcher?

I suspect "events, dear boy", will conspire to the latter as the mess that is required to be sorted out will be so bad in 2009/10, that nothing other than the committed application of liberal/conservative principles of economic management and social policy will have any chance of succeeding. I also suspect that Cameron is wise enough to recognise that bumbling along with the "concensus" will simply speed the return of Labour to power and another downward click on the ratchet, with another, stronger, less populist but more respected leader required to sort out the even greater mess that will be created.

Of course, I could be wrong, but Conservative policies are popular with the electorate, they just haven't liked Conservatives for some time and Cameron seems to be changing this at least. Whether the policy reviews return cleaned up, better researched, better thought through proposals, but ones with the same basic principles at their core, or not, will decide. If they do, and if Cameron has earned us the right to be listened to rather than shouted at, then we might possibly win, but if they don't or he hasn't, they we won't stand a prayer.

John Moss
2005 GE Candidate Hackney South

Posted by: John Moss at July 5, 2006 10:12 AM
They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily.

C.H.Spurgeon, expounding this verse (Psalm 73:8) in his Treasury of David, expresses the thoughts of the powerful wicked as follows:

"Who are the poor? What are they made for? What, indeed, but to toil and slave that men of education and good family may enjoy themselves? Out on the knaves for prating about their rights! A set of wily demagogues are stirring them up, because they get a living by agitation. Work them like horses, and feed them like dogs; and if they dare complain, send them to the prison or let them die in the workhouse."

and comments

There is still too much of this wicked talk abroad, and, although the working classes have their faults, and many of them very grave and serious ones too, yet there is a race of men who habitually speak of them as if they were an inferior order of animals.

Could someone please convince ME that the Conservative Party does not yet harbour people who think along a modernized version of these lines?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at July 6, 2006 09:05 AM

[qoute] All our current social problems began in 1955 [/quote]

Do you not think that is a completely absurd thing to say and rather unhelpful?

Posted by: James Smith at July 18, 2006 05:08 PM
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