Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"The Good Right" is a symptom of Conservative malaise. Well meaning, thoughtful. But doomed without Leadership.

I always thought that the oft-quoted remark of Aneurin Bevan's :

"No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin."

a little over the top! But I am not alone in having consistently opposed and voted against Conservatives ever since I first got the vote. Vermin they may not be, though some are pretty nasty, but most Conservatives seem utterly different in the way they approach Society, and some believe that there is no such thing of course.

A few weeks ago I attended the launch of "The Good Right" - an attempt by Tim Montgomerie, Stephan Shakespeare and others to achieve a conservatism which is "compassionate and electorally successful". Oddly they chose Michael Gove to launch their initiative and he gave a speech which seemd to me to be old-fashioned tub-thumping Conservatism. In it he said this:

"Inequality remains the great social and political challenge of our time. Fighting it is central to our mission in Government."

It won't be just Lefties like me who see this as ringing hypocrisy. And that brings us to the heart of what Conservatives are really about. Let me give you a couple of quotes:

"No one seems to care anything but about money today. Nothing is held of account except the bank account. Quality, education, civic distinction, public virtue seem each year to be valued less and less. Riches unadorned seem to be valued more and more. We have in London an important section of people who go about preaching the the gospel of Mammon... who raise each day the inspiring prayer "Give cash in our time , O Lord"

and then this one:

"I hate the Tory party, their men, their words and their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them..."

You can perhaps tell from the language that these are historic quotes - in fact both one hundred years old. And both by Winston Spencer Churchill ! Churchill was at that time ratting to the Liberal Party where he became a successul early practitioner of a nascent Welfare State. Later he was to double-rat back to the Tories of course and later still he was to be an outspoken opponent of Socialism and of the Attlee government. But on his return to power in 1951 and during the administrations of his Conservative successors Eden, Macmillan and briefly Home, there was to be little in the way of unravelling of the 1945-1951 Labour government's model. The Welfare State was here to stay.

The thirteen years of Tory Government 1951-1964 can be seen as compassionate Conservatism in action - although there were few revolutionary changes. Socially liberal progress had to await the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments during which, among many other moves forward, Capital Punishment was finally abolished and the beginnings of acceptance of homosexuality was legislated for.

Modern 21st Century conservatism was set in position not by the post war Butskellite middle ground or by Macmillan and Heath and co. When Margaret Thatcher died she was hailed by just about every Conservative Grandee and commentaator and all of the current cabinet. And Michael Gove, at the launch of "The Good Right" name-checked not Macmillan (other than for his house building programme) but, at length, Thatcher:

"The leadership of Margaret Thatcher...led to the liberation of billions - and not just from political tyranny but also from poverty." 

This is the conceit that the free market will create wealth for all (a hyperbolic "billions" in Gove's argument) - trickle down time! But actually the world that Thatcher created has far more in common with the world of the "gospel of Mammon" that Churchill condemned than with the compassionate world that Macmillan and all the post war Prime Ministers presided over.

The Tories do have a dilemma. They do not want to concede compassion to their opponents, fair enough if you want electoral success. But equally their ranks are full of passionate neo-liberal free marketeers and to be accused of being "Statist" is the ultimate crime. I have no idea what, if anything, David Cameron stands for. But I know exactly what the Tory Right wants. During the Blair years they had in Hague, Howard and Duncan Smith three standard bearers of that Right. They got nowhere. But notwithstanding this much of the rhetoric is not for middle-of-the-road Conservatism but for another swing to the Right post Cameron. 

"The Good Right" is a welcome corrective but in truth it is a touch on the tiller not a major tack. There are some decent people in the Conservative Party but until there is a credible, strong leader who can do for the Tories what Blair did for Labour (Clause Four, et al) they are condemned either to opposition or to the shifting to the Thatcherite Right. Leadership is the key, strong decisive and compassionate. Is it there?


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