Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Tories, new danger: the mainstreaming of extremism

People can be incredibly stupid about the stupid party. Here's someone, for example, going on about the 'pinks turning blue' and asking: what has changed about the Tories? I think we're seriously being invited to believe that the apparent phenomenon of gay voters switching to Cameron's New Model Conservatives is evidence that they really are quite nice now.

This is just idiotic. What's changed about the Tories? Absolutely nothing. Everyone with any understanding of the history of British Conservatism knows that one of the ingredients of their electoral success in the 20th century was a hunger for power combined with enough pragmatism to adjust to contemporary reality - when contemporary reality absolutely insisted on it. For instance, the view amongst most social historians is that the 'postwar consensus' was a bit of a myth - with the Tories only accepting the existence of the NHS, for example, when they were confronted with the fact that it was actually quite popular and politically impossible to dismantle. The Cameronian acceptance of homosexuality is merely an example of this.

It's also a fairly trivial example since it doesn't fundamentally touch on the Tory view of economy and society, which remains really rather, um, conservative. This shouldn't be that surprising - the name of the party is a bit of a give away here. But if that isn't enough, there's two positions they've taken - both fundamentally related - that rather give the game away.

One is their position on Europe. I don't really want to get into the ding-dong about the nature of Cameron's unsavoury allies in Europe, partly because I don't know enough about them but also because it can distract from the wider point: even if there was no firm evidence of the Tories' new friends being homophobes and/or anti-Semites, the position he has taken with regards to the EPP is itself something that puts him and his party out of the mainstream of European democratic political parties. I appreciate this is a contestable point and I would acknowledge that it is intellectually feasible to be a reasonable centrist and also be Eurosceptic or even be in favour of complete withrawl. But the reality of the situation is that the overwhelming majority of those who take this position belong to either the hard left or the hard right. Put simply, the former think the EU is too 'neoliberal'; for the latter it isn't nearly neoliberal enough, as well as being by definition not nationalist enough.

And after the Tory conference, no-one can be in any doubt anymore that this is where Cameron is coming from. Martin Kettle is right to describe the Cameron speech as a 'revelatory moment' because his remarks about the role of government in relation to the bank crisis were absolutely astonishing:
""It is more government that got us into this mess," Cameron said. "Why is our economy broken? Not just because Labour wrongly thought they'd abolished boom and bust. But because government got too big, did too much and doubled the national debt." When Britain was in recovery, he said in his peroration, it would not be because of government or ministers, but because "you made it happen"."
The piece goes on to question whether there's anyone else in the economically developed world that believes the credit crunch was caused by government that was too big, too involved? It's rhetorical, obviously - one would hope not because it is so patently absurd. I'm a little surprised that more hasn't been made of this. I'm also a bit worried. There's been a few to choose from but with this remark alone, Cameron vacated the centre ground and reality simultaneously. Yet apart from in the pages of the Guardian, there's been little made of it in the MSM. Plus the aforementioned well-known serious leftwing paper carries this sort of comment - but alongside the unserious musings of a political ignoramus who thinks the Tories have changed simply because they've realised it isn't electorally expedient to be quite so mean to gays and single-parents. Kettle adds:
"Cameron and Osborne seem to think they are confronted with another 1979 when they should be more concerned with a repeat of 1929."
He's right although I'll be a little pedantic with the dates: the Wall Street Crash was in 1929 but after this, the US economy recovered for a while; most (all?) economic historians would date the Great Depression proper from 1931. I doubt we would see anything on this scale but I have absolutely no doubt that a rush to slash public spending would turn a 'double-dip' recession from a possibility to a probability. Osbourne deserves absolutely no credit at all for being 'honest about the public finances'. It's not just that honesty is of limited value in politics when you're completely wrong, it's that I doubt this is honesty at all: assuming he isn't a complete ignoramus (debatable, I realise), he must know perfectly well that the measures he has already announced are really just tinkering at the margins. What I'm concerned about is that they are the tip of an iceberg that reveals underlying determination to embark on a Nozickean vandalisation of public services, using the state of the public finances as an excuse to do so.

I've argued on this space more than once that Cameron's skills as a political strategist have been consistently underestimated. Now I'm worried I was more right than I knew. He has positioned his party on ground that the original Thatcherites feared to tread - and has done so with hardly anyone noticing.

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