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What the Tory modernisers did next

By Peter Hoskin
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BookcoverI’ve just finished reading Bright Blue’s pamphlet Tory Modernisation 2.0, which was unleashed on a Europe-fixated Westminster on Wednesday. It contains, of course, the excellent essay by Graeme Archer that we published on ConHome that day — but there are nine others, on subjects ranging from the environment to the north, by authors including David Willetts, Matthew d’Ancona and David Skelton. It’s certainly one I’d recommend for this snowbound weekend. You can download the whole thing here.

But in case you don’t have the time or inclination to shuffle through Tory Modernisation 2.0, here are five brief points that I’ve distilled from its pages. They by no means offer a complete overview of the book; just some of its more persistent themes, which I shall likely return to in future. And they also happen to suggest where the modernisers’ minds are at now. Here goes:

i) Coalition with the Lib Dems has, in some ways, been bad for modernisation. Of course, not all modernisers think alike; but there does appear to have been a general, and important, shift in their thinking about the Lib Dems. There was a time when many modernisers were vigorously upbeat about the Coalition and what it could achieve, as exemplified by Nick Boles’ book Which Way’s Up? But now some of that initial optimism appears to have dimmed. In their introduction to the Bright Blue collection, Ryan Shorthouse and Guy Stagg put it in blunt terms: “Gloomy economic circumstances and the nature of Coalition have meant the modernisation project has been undermined.” And my old boss at The Spectator, Matthew d’Ancona, develops this point in his own essay. On his account:

“...partnership with the Lib Dems has also encouraged a form of laziness amongst senior Tories – one which, to his credit, the Prime Minister was quick to identify. At a Carlton Club dinner in 2011, he said it was essential that the Conservatives not ‘subcontract compassion’ to the Lib Dems (deploying a phrase first coined by Damian Green).”

And he also highlights the Tory backlash against the Coalition, with all the trauma that brings:

“The Coalition, meanwhile, has bred resentment among Tories and a sense that the Lib Dems, rather than keeping the party in power with a healthy majority, are petulantly obstructing true Conservatism. The party waits like a toddler, its fists bunched, to be let off its reins when the alliance ends. To do what?”

None of this means that the modernisers loathe the Lib Dems — far from it. Matt, for instance, urges hostile Tories to think where the party might be if the Lib Dems "were not standing as a human shield between themselves and the electorate”. And, in his contribution to the book, David Willetts emphasises that “we should not be uncomfortable about being in Coalition with the heirs to the old Liberal Party”. But, on the whole, these feeling are a little more confused now, as Damian Green demonstrated in a recent speech.

ii) Overcoming the caricature of Margaret Thatcher. Last year, I wrote a column and one, two supplementary posts about how Margaret Thatcher has been misremembered by many on the Right. But Phillip Blond managed to put it all, really, into one tweet: “Thatcher herself would not have been a Thatcherite.”

Why does this matter now? For a very simple reason: it is that false memory of Thatcher and Thatcherism that informs much of the debate within the Conservative Party now — and this is something that the authors of Tory Modernisation 2.0 realise, and lament, more than most. There are almost too many examples to mention, but they include this from David Willetts’ essay:

“It was a deliberate corrective to a picture of bare-earth Conservatism in which there was supposed to be ‘no such thing as society’ – which is itself a completely misleading picture of Margaret Thatcher’s own beliefs.”

This, by Jonty Olliff-Cooper:

“Thatcher is lionised by some for smashing monopolies and tackling vested interests. But when it came to public services, she was quite timid, leaving the basic fragmented structure of the post-war state as she found it.”

And this, by Ben Caldecott:

“That campaign is part of a broader movement to push the Conservative Party to the so-called ‘Right’. Its adherents believe in a conservatism more socially conservative, economically combative and defensively nationalistic than Cameron’s administration. They share a folk-memory that Margaret Thatcher was far more confrontational and less pragmatic than she actually was.”

Indeed, Mr Caldecott’s essay begins by quoting Lady Thatcher to the effect that “The core of Tory philosophy and for the case for protecting the environment are the same.” So it’s almost as though the mods are claiming her for themselves — and with some cause, too.

iii) The continuing importance of public service reform. Public services, and perhaps particularly the NHS, have always been important to modernisers; so it’s no surprise to see that preoccupation continue here. But, as with attitudes towards the Lib Dems, there has been a shift brought about by being in Government. There’s less and less emphasis on presentation — on the mere saying of “we care about Britain’s public services” — and more on implementation. Jonty Olliff-Cooper’s essay is a good example of this, insofar as it not only praises, say, the Government’s welfare and education reforms, but also enumerates their failings and limitations. “Most of the Coalition’s reforms do not readily interlink,” he writes. “Education policy still meshes poorly with industrial strategy; offender rehabilitation still struggles to integrate with the mental health system; and so on.”

This matters not just for achieving good schools, prisons, hospitals and so on, but also, of course, politically. The Conservatives have been struck by a misfortune in having to deliver more for less, yet it is also a sort of opportunity. If much-needed reform programmes can be implemented, then it could persuade people that the Tories can be trusted when it comes to public services. And — who knows? — it might also result in a more significant philosophical shift, against the Brownite idea that quality can be measured by spending and by state involvement alone.

iv) Modernisation pre-dated David Cameron, and it will probably outlast him. This theme emerges most in Matthew d’Ancona’s essay, which — as a history of the modernising movement — excavates all the way back to the 1990s, when people like David Willetts, Daniel Finkelstein and Andrew Cooper realised that the Conservatives needed to change radically. But it’s implicit elsewhere, including in Mr Willett’s citation for his own Civic Conservatism, a pamphlet written for the Social Market Foundation in 1994, and in some of the references to Margaret Thatcher.

This, I think, is more than simple genealogy: it also makes the point that modernisation was, is and always will be about more than huskies and hoodie-hugging. Indeed, some modernisers worry that their ideas don’t get a fair hearing because of how the early Cameron years have been caricatured, and subsequently lampooned, in the media. As Matt suggests in his essay, modernisation isn't a point in time or a project that ended around 2008, but rather a "permanent state of mind".

v) The modernisers are evolving. That said, for all the permanance of its founding principles, modernisation does appear to changed substantially over the years. Broadly speaking, the authors of the Bright Blue pamphlet come from what Tim Montgomerie calls the "Soho modernising" wing of the party: that which congregated around people such as Mr Portillo and Francis Maude, and prioritised concerns such as gay marriage, diversity and the enviroment. This Tim distinguishes from the Easterhouse tradition, which included himself, and which wanted the party to concentrate on tackling poverty. But, reading the pamphet, it's clear how the two groups are now meeting somewhere in the middle. This is most apparent in David Skelton's essay, which promotes the cause of "blue collar modernisation". As he puts it:

"But the more blue-collar and economic aspects of modernisation have made less progress. And the recession has made the economy and jobs the central issue in politics again. Parts of the Midlands and the North still associate the Tories with unemployment and deindustrialisation, meaning that the Tories have to make substantial efforts to be seen as the party fighting unemployment and encouraging job creation."

And this, in turn, reflects a general appreciation that modernisation must change as Britain has changed over the past few years. Again, I quote Matthew d'Ancona:

"Self-evidently, modernisation in Government cannot be the same as it was in Opposition. Those who sneer about glaciers, hoody-hugging and wind turbines have nothing to worry about."

In the end, this is quite some cause for optimism: the various modernising tendencies are coming together, a deep intellectual genepool for the Conservative Party's future.


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