Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cameron the neocon?

Jonathan Freedland has a piece in today's Guardian where he argues that for all the talk of "compassionate conservatism" Cameron, like Bush, is surrounded by neocon advisors and allies such as Ed Vaizey and Michael Gove. The comparison is, although not quite right, an interesting one because it isn't that Freedland is wrong about Cameron necessarily. He outlines a number of the measures that Cameron has voted against, such as increased spending on health and education, extended maternity leave, and the right for employees with young and disabled children to request flexible working and so on. He also points out that Cameron has mooted the idea of a flat tax, as practiced in a number of post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. In general, Cameron has spoken of a need for 'more capitalism', as if those who favoured this had been somehow on the defensive for the last 25 years. Freedland's suggestion is a bit like Polly Toynbee's yesterday:
"Brown signalled it yesterday: it is that Cameron is a rightwing wolf in compassionate sheep's clothing. He is the same old Tory, just rebranded and with a full head of hair."
My own view is that it would be more risky than one might think to follow the Freedland-Toynbee advice. For one thing, I doubt very much whether the electorate as a whole is anything like as impressed with Gordon Brown and his achievements as they are. And I'm also not sure that "he's just the same old Tory" line will work with Cameron because it is a little too simplistic. They have confused social liberalism with welfare, thereby understating, if not completely ignoring, the cultural shift that Cameron represents. Blimpish thought I was relying on a stereotyped view of the Tory party by taking this view. While I'd have to admit that this might well be so since I actually don't know any Tories (or I may do, but am unaware of it - people tend not to admit to that sort of thing up here), I really don't think that someone who skirted around a question over whether he had ever taken class A drugs at university would have been able to become Tory leader a few years ago - or someone who argues that gay couples should be able to adopt in certain circumstances.

Freedland is right to say touchy-feely rhetoric about social inclusion means nothing if you're going to preside over a regime that slashes welfare for single-mothers or whatever but the point is that under previous Tory administrations, it was arguably the other way around and not very many people seemed to notice. I was a welfare rights advisor when Thatcher was in power and it was then that social security was reformed to include a single-parents allowance in Income Support applicable amounts and unlike with the Blair regime, they were not compelled to seek work or training to be eligible for these. The hard-faced Victorian rhetoric, in other words, didn't always match the reality, whereas it was that nice John Major, aided and abetted by the affable Ken Clarke that the Guardian inexplicably seemed to like so much that saw quite stringent restrictions to welfare, particularly to unemployment benefits.

In other words, people tend not to pay anything like as much attention to fiscal policy as Mr Freedland and Ms Toynbee suggest and it is the case of the former that illustrates the point because when it comes to Bush, it is he that hasn't been paying attention. Bush has been, of course, very right wing in his social policy but I consider it hugely significant that much of the criticism of this has focused on the President's evangelical faith and the implications that has had vis-a-vis abortion, the issue of gay marriage, the involvement of faith organisations in inner-city projects and so on.

But if you look as his fiscal policy, the picture is more complicated. Under his Presidency, federal education spending has been increased, as has spending on Medicare - to the extent that it represents the biggest expansion of any federal programme since the New Deal. Other aspects such as tax cuts for the rich and the proposed attempt to privatize pensions are more traditionally right wing but taxes certainly have not been increased to pay for all this, resulting in what the Economist described as the fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history. Irresponsible perhaps, by other interpretations quite Keynesian given that it was done during an economic slowdown. Whatever else he might be, Bush is no 'fiscal conservative'.

Contrast and compare with Clinton: touchy-feely liberalism in the American sense, and on the right side of the 'culture wars', yet he dismantled a major plank of the New Deal by pushing responsibility for welfare back onto the states and was in his approach to deficit reduction a real 'fiscal conservative', unlike Bush or Reagan. Who noticed? Not that many people, which is why there's nothing in Freedland's piece that would change my view that Labour should be worried about Cameron.

And I worry about the Labour party if they imagine that the electorate is as fond of Gordon Brown as so many of them seem to be. Simon Jenkins' article in the same paper today was much better than Freedland's, although I'm open to the criticism that I would say that since he's making similar points:
"Brown and Cameron will offer a fascinating encounter. They are chalk and cheese, blandness and bile, candy and acid. Brown is the old politics, long protected by Blair's coating. He is all facts and figures, human nature wrapped up in a comprehensive spending review. Cameron is youthful. His politics are digital, offering pathways to the subconscious that Brown has yet to discover. By 2007 he will have had two years of experience in the job over Brown.

Thatcher in 1979 smashed the Labour party and thus made Blair electable. She still approves of him. Blair then smashed the Tory party. Something tells me he would not mind if he had made Cameron electable, a bizarre political compliment returned. British politics is longeur subject to periodic explosion. An explosion may be at hand."
Labour malcontents should be wary and remember the just because Blair says something, that doesn't mean it isn't true: never ever underestimate the Tory party.

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