Commentary (The Times)

Conservatism: “Exorcise these Tory ghosts” (expunging Thatcherite rhetoric)

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 28 Dec 2005
Journalist: Bruce Anderson, The Times
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,020 words
Themes: Conservatism, Conservative Party (history)
David Cameron Chris Patten Charles Powell Charles Moore Simon Heffer Bruce Anderson Harold Macmillan William Pitt Sir Robert Peel Benjamin Disraeli John Major John Stuart Mill -->

Exorcise these Tory ghosts

Bruce Anderson

David Cameron knows that expunging Thatcherite rhetoric is vital for his party's future success

IT ALL COMES back to the classics. Anyone who wants to understand the changes that are now taking place in the Tory party should begin by considering a Latin tag — suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. Like most of the best Latin phrases, it is so pithy as to be almost impossible to translate, but applied to politics it means “be firm on the essentials of policy, while using conciliatory language to explain yourself to the public”. That is Cameronism, Even if David Cameron has not said anything about detailed policies, his willingness to think boldly has alarmed a number of Tories who prefer to cling to Thatcherite certainties and Thatcherite rhetoric.

Margaret Thatcher often inverted the Latin tag. Her premiership was a sustained exercise in creative schizophrenia. Asked what she had changed, her reply was instant: “Everything.” Though not literally true, that is an accurate account of her effect on our political culture.

In 1979 a large number of senior politicians had come to believe that the best any government could hope for was the orderly management of national decline. Mrs Thatcher regarded such sentiments as treason. She viewed decline rather as Churchill had viewed Nazism. The success of her project depended on the revival of the animal spirits of the British middle class. That would not have been possible without her dramatic rhetoric.

There was a cost. Lady Thatcher has endowed British political vocabulary with two words, “Thatcherism” and “cuts”, which are widely believed to be synonymous. She never used the term “cuts”, but her body language gave it credence. Yet there were no cuts. During her years, tax revenue hardly fell as a proportion of GDP, while public expenditure went on growing, especially on health. Mrs Thatcher once insisted that “the NHS is safe in our hands ”. So it was.

Back in 1981 Chris Patten complained: “Why do we talk as if we were Count Dracula when we are actually running a blood transfusion service?” His protests were unavailing, which was probably just as well. Without the exaggeration of Thatcherite language, it would have been impossible to achieve the essential Thatcherite reforms. But this caused no end of problems for her successors.

Mrs Thatcher left the Tory party a doubly accursed legacy. More than half the voters thought that she had hated and slashed the public services, which became a gift for Labour. A much smaller group of Tory ultras took the opposite view. They were inspired by the fantasies of hatred; they wanted to renew the slashing that had never occurred, and they were not interested in the historical record.

One would try to remind them about the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe settlement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Single European Act, the deal to retain the Common Agricultural Policy, the steady increase in state spending. It was as pointless as arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep.

The Charles Moores and Simon Heffers were so obsessed by the myth of Thatcherism as to be blind to the facts.They, and others, were also determined to punish any successor who failed to guard the vestal flame. No reasonable person could claim that John Major’s Government was more left-wing than Mrs Thatcher’s. It could indeed be argued that by privatising the railways and the coalmines he was displaying a radical right-wing courage in areas that had daunted her.

It is true that Mr Major signed the Maastricht treaty, but it also made far fewer concessions than Mrs Thatcher had. Not only that: Charles Powell, who knew Mrs Thatcher’s mind on foreign policy far better than anyone else did, has always pointed out that if she could have negotiated something on the lines of Maastricht, she would have signed it.

None of this was any help to Mr Major. His enemies were not interested in truth. They wanted only a show trial. Some of them are still at it. Mr Heffer has misinterpreted the Beatitude. He thinks that it reads: “Blessed are the mean in spirit.” J. S. Mill described the Tories as the stupid party. That is not enough for Mr Heffer. He would also like them to become the nasty party.

Curiously enough, David Cameron disagrees. He wants to win elections, and he knows that if this is to be achieved, there are two essentials. He has to make the British people feel good about themselves. He also has to persuade them that the Tories can harmonise a strong economy and excellent public services. This does not mean that he will repudiate tax cuts, deregulation or privatisation. It does mean that his Tory party will not sound like the political wing of the Treasury.

It is already clear that Mr Cameron starts with one advantage, which has taken him by surprise. Three months ago, hardly anyone had heard of him. Since then the public has paid attention, and it likes what it sees. He is the first Tory leader since Harold Macmillan with the gift of popularity. In Macmillan’s case, a complex and in no way populist personality had to be presented in a deceitful array of demotic disguises, all assisted by social deference, which was still powerful in those days. Mr Cameron will have no such aids or artifices, but as he is genuinely likeable, he will not need them.

There is a further parallel with Macmillan. Until the late 1950s, the Tories’ electoral prospects were still overshadowed by the 1930s. Many voters associated Toryism with a hard-hearted response to mass unemployment. Macmillan exorcised those spectres. He set out to associate it with mass prosperity.

Mr Cameron, too, has unquiet ghosts to still. He has to ensure that no one who uses or works in the public services should automatically assume that the Conservative Party is an enemy. He will use a new tone to bring about a changed mood. Over the past 200 years only five Tory leaders changed the party’s public discourse significantly: Pitt the Younger, Peel, Disraeli, Macmillan and Thatcher. David Cameron will be the sixth.