Deciphering the Cameron and Osborne "revolution" - Old Whigs in a Breakdown

The new leaders of Britain's government would like to be one-nation Tories, the times may not let them.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
7 October 2010

I have been thinking about what kind of Conservatives the Cameroons are since Paul Sagar wrote his recent post on Liberal Conspiracy. He was struck by the way George Osborne was being “very cavalier and unconservative”. He called in aid Hayek’s explanation of “Why I am not a Conservative”. But this is, in effect, an attack on a conservatism defined as backward looking, anti-reason, and protectionist. Indeed, Hayek argues, such conservatism merely offers resistance to socialism and thus are all too likely to be unwittingly dragged along behind it, whereas what is needed, Hayek argues, is an alternative direction. Perhaps, he ponders, the best name for what he wants is "Old Whig", which he takes from early modern Britain.

This suggests two things. First, that conservatism in Britain has always drawn on a shaping, active forward-looking energy. And second, given that the essay is the conclusion to his The Constitution of Liberty which Thatcher took out of her handbag and banged on the table saying, “This is what we believe”, it would make Osborne and his colleagues Thatcherites.

But clearly they are doing everything they can politically to position themselves  as not being Thatcherite, talking about “fairness” without pause. Not only that, but also: “I don’t believe in laissez-faire. Government has a role not just to fire up ambition, but to help give it flight”, Cameron stated in his Conference speech.

What are they, then?

Hopi Sen has a clever and revealing post comparing Cameron’s first speech as prime minister with Blair’s in 1997. The suggestion that the Cameroons are Blairites without Brown may be somewhat of a compliment coming from him... But Blair never emphasised egalitarianism of any kind – fairness was Brown’s song. (Not that either man was concerned with Stuart White objection at Next Left that any policy based on fairness should tackle undeserved wealth.)

There are other oddities to Cameron’s speech. Take his assault on undeserved secrecy. More freedom of information was fiercely resisted by Thatcher who defended unchallenged administrative power:

And because information is power, we’re bringing transparency to government.

All those things the last government kept from you, who spends your money, what they spend it on, what the results are, where the waste is, we’re putting it in your hands.

After all, it’s your money – so you should see where it’s going.

This is not about a bit more power for you and a bit less power for central government – it’s a revolution.

Until now, the language of the coalition has referred to ‘people’ but never citizens. Suddenly, the term is back:

citizenship isn’t a transaction – in which you put your taxes in and get your services out.

It’s a relationship – you’re part of something bigger than you, and it matters what you think and feel and do.

And ‘Citizen Cameron’ insists he is on our side:

Let's leave Labour defending the status quo, the vested interests, the unions, the quangocrats, the elites, the establishment.

We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer for power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society.

That is the power shift this country needs today.

Hmmm. This is classic New Labour, to position oneself as anti-establishment. And then Cameron said this, as he talked about the Big Society:

The big society is not about creating cover for cuts. I was going on about it years before the cuts.

It’s not government abdicating its role, it is government changing its role.

I suspect he was indeed thinking on these lines before the financial meltdown. It was his way of abandoning the electorally 'toxic' brand of Thatcherism, and adopting Blairism while giving it a human face; while, just like Blair, avoiding democracy like the plague.

If so, the assumption behind the Big Society was that the money was there, it just had to be spent differently.

To jump to the conclusion I’m trying to formulate. Cameronism does not make sense because it was designed as a response to a long boom, designed to take over surfing it from New Labour. Now it has to be attached to a response to a system breakdown – and it feels more like a symptom of this breakdown than a cure.

Conservative activists are saying that one of the reasons they didn’t win was because of the expenses crisis. I suspect it did indeed damage them more than it damaged Labour. But the scandal was also a displacement from the larger scandal of of the banks and their bonuses.

And the financial crash was caused by Hayekian conservatives.

They screwed up. We have to pay. How can that be fair?

I just caught the end of a superb exchange between Ken Loach and Michael Heseltine on Newsnight. Loach said that if the top 10 per cent who had gained so much from the boom and owned half the country’s wealth paid  just 5 per cent of their assets the whole deficit  would be paid. The look on Heseltine’s face was a delight to behold.

While the Tories blame Labour for the current size of the country's debt – with some justification  – its main source is Anglo-capitalist system. For Conservatives of all kinds this should not have happened. This, perhaps, is what explains their incoherence.

PS: Here is a second, hopefully clearer conclusion, the morning after: The original aim of the Big Society was a non-Thatcherite approach to rolling back a wasteful, intrusive, controlling New Labour state while being inclusive in a way that Thatcher was not. Its underlying economic assumption was the long boom. It was a design for good times. Today Tory top-level rhetoric is that New Labour's abuse of state spending caused the deficit. But, however excessive that spending, clearly it was not the cause of the crash, see Mervyn King's speech to the TUC and Tony Curzon Price's analysis of it. The government had to spend massively to prevent a repeat of 1929. It did so and it was right to do so. The deficit is not Labour's legacy but the inheritance of a reckless financial bubble caused by bankers closer to the Tory party than Labour (however hard Labour tried). In their justification of the cuts Cameron and Osborne are looking to the market and the private sector to provide growth. But they created the downturn in the first place. To stitch the Big Society on top of this as part of the solution means that it can't help but be seen as a cover for the cuts - even if this is not why it was concieved originally. The Tories have a dream, to repeat the success of Margaret Thatcher (as they see it). She did indeed oversee a renovation of the City and service capitalism. But it was funded by black gold, as North Sea oil exports came on stream like manna from heaven. Does manna ever strike twice?

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