Well, down at the corner shop, or at the bar of the Rat and Parrot, the
talk, of course, is all about Tory leader David Cameron’s bold attempt
to cast himself as Tony Blair’s natural heir, and to tap into older
notions of one-nation Toryism as a way of winning back the
Yes, okay, sorry, that’s a porky – in terms of day to day politics (as
opposed to the high flung battles of the op-ed columns), Cameron’s bold
move has had almost no impact at all. Doubtless it is different out in
the shires (where I suspect many would want to horsewhip him), but in
London, across the spectrum (or part of it) from Notting Hill
professionals, to professional political activists in the East End, the
announcement has been greeted with a mixture of amusement and cynicism,
but principally one of disinterest.
Of course it is early days yet, and only the beginning of a long
process, but Cameron’s difficulty is that New Labour has been so
successful at turning itself into the natural party of government for a
modernising UK, that anyone trying to move to the centre has to answer
the obvious question as to why the voter should prefer the imitation to
the real. Tony Blair may still be taking some buffetings – the
(fortunate) defeat of the Religious Hatred and Vilification Bill most
recently – but that is all the more sign of Labour’s confidence in its
command of the ground on the questions of social reconstruction,
schools, health and so on.
To succeed Cameron will need to present the Tories as centrist, but
different – plugging together key issues and policies in a manner that
emphasises a different way of seeing how society is put together.
Labour has so thoroughly reconstructed British political life that
everyone now speaks a sort of language that mixes DIY activism with
Scandinavian social democracy.
The Tories may be able to reach back to Disraeli, and MacMillan and
talk of the conservatism as the original ideology of social obligation
and so on – but it cannot talk the current language of “social
inclusion,” “quality regional outcomes,” etc etc, without looking
ridiculous. For all that people grouse about this incredible armoury of
social engineering, it is also a process that most support, because
they believe – consciously or otherwise – that Labour is rebuilding a
society that the Thatcher/Major era came close to tearing apart.
Yes, Labour had its majority slashed at the last election. But a lot of
those went to the left – to the Lib Dems. The block social liberal vote
is enormous. So Cameron had little choice but to acknowledge a key fact
– that a degree of total political convergence is now here. This is
something rather amazing to see. On a whole series of issues, Cameron’s
“one-nation” Tories are to the left of Labour’s soft social
authoritarianism. Since both now share a sort of managerial social
market economics with a free-market edge, the basis of distinguishing
the parties – and Left and Right – is, here, no longer organised around
the economic principle. That may re-appear but for the moment it is a
misleading guide to the political landscape.