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Wake up, lefties! It's time to engage with Conservative ideas

The left must end their tribal Tory-bashing. The Conservative party today is thoughtful, and has ideas for post-crash Britain where the left are dragging their heels.
Gerry Hassan
5 October 2011

As the conference season draws to a close, we re-publish Gerry Hassan's call for the left to drop Tory-bashing and engage with Conservative ideas. We run it alongside Peter Oborne's plea for the right to welcome Ed Miliband's vision of a fairer capitalism and accept his challenge of a new post-crash politics. 

Why do so many people caricature Conservatism? This can be seen on the left, anti-Tory opinion, and of course, most of Scottish public life.

The Conservatives are reduced to a series of stereotypes: of being selfish, uncaring, just for the super rich, not understanding what it is like to live on modest means, unmoved by poverty, and wanting to turn back the clock to Dickensian Britain.

If these clichés were true the British Conservatives would be reduced to some impotent rump the size of the Scots Tories or Lib Dems. But they are not because they have always spoken for a large swathe of British society.

Well over a year into the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, not only are the Conservatives not as unpopular as people thought they might be and they themselves feared, but something else is happening. Despite the economic gloom and doom, which you think might lead to a revival of left thinking, so far the running has been made in ideas from the right.

There is a thoughtful Conservatism out there trying to address some of the challenges, post-Blair Bubble. And it is made all the more potent by the paucity on the left, and the blinkers many have about the Tories.

There has been a brief degree of excitement around ‘Red Toryism’ associated with Phillip Blond. The original thesis was a powerful one: a critique of economic liberalism associated with Thatcherism, and the social liberalism of the left and liberals.

However, this agenda hasn’t earned any senior Tory champions, with Cameron keeping his distance, and George Osborne deeply suspicious, while Blond’s think tank, ResPublica, has struggled to make an impact.

Modern day Tories being pro-choice and pro-competition are comfortable in the marketplace of ideas, and some views rising as others fail or fall away. Jesse Norman, Tory MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, in ‘The Big Society’ has shown that modern politicians can engage with serious ideas. He sets out the case for a smaller state, but also challenges conventional economic thinking on which much of the New Right and Thatcherism used to be based upon.

This is a common theme amongst Tory thinkers: of moving away from some of the simplistic interpretations of 1980s success. Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zadawi, Tory MPs for West Suffolk and Stratford-on-Avon respectively, have in ‘Masters of Nothing’ not only challenged some of the self-serving waffle of banking and finance, but also challenged the behavioural assumptions which lay behind the economic crisis. Psychology now interests many Tories as much as markets.

In the world of centre-right think tanks, the work of the Centre for Social Justice stands out as impressive, having integrity and attempting to address the underlying causes of Britain’s welfare problems.

Such is the tribalism of some on the left that the last time I mentioned in ‘The Scotsman’ that Iain Duncan Smith was motivated by the best intentions on welfare, some hard leftist got in touch and invited me to condemn IDS and even worse, inflict on him debating with union leader Bob Crow in Dundee of all places, for who knows what reason! The point in this is the blinkered view of many on the left who only see evil, good for nothing Tories.

British Toryism has a long, proud, rich tradition not just of electoral success, but ideas and understanding and reflecting society. They were never ‘the stupid party’ of folklore, just as they were never fully ‘the nasty party’.

As long as there is a United Kingdom there will be a powerful British Conservative constituency. It is now mostly in support an English Toryism, but Scotland and Wales matter at an instinctual level.

The issues Conservative thinkers are trying to deal with are ones which impact on all of us: the nature of economics, concentrations of power and influence, globalisation, falling social mobility, the welfare trap and more. It does not fall that the answers to these are automatically on the left.

Then there is the constant under-assessment of David Cameron from people who should know better. Whatever your view of Cameron’s opinions and beliefs, the man is clearly making a decent fist of being Prime Minister. It is obvious in the way he has grown into the office, and how he hammers Ed Miliband in the poll ratings.

Cameron is playing an astute game on a number of fronts: the coalition, the character of his administration, and the future of the union. It is not yet quite clear where his intentions and motivations lie, and whether he is a radical like Thatcher or moderator like Harold Macmillan. Many on the left including eminent thinkers such as the sociologist Stuart Hall rail against the supposed neo-liberal vandalism of this government, but refuse to engage with the nuance and subtlety of real politics.

The Conservatives and Cameron should not be under-estimated on Scotland and the union. Cameron has deliberately let the Lib Dem ministers Danny Alexander and Michael Moore front the campaign to ‘bash the Nats’ and independence, while staying clear of such arguments himself.

It is an astute strategy, and one where he seems to be inviting Alex Salmond to define independence, to allow the Tories a target to then shoot at. The concept of the UK as a union runs deep through Tories, and the idea that Cameron or senior Tories would countenance letting Scotland go for the upside of the loss of a pile of Labour seats, is just plain wrong. Tories believe in their version of Britain.

Why many otherwise intelligent people have deliberately chosen to not understand Toryism is bound up with a host of things including class, envy, inverted snobbery and the power of tribes. Some will argue that Margaret Thatcher laid waste to large parts of British industry and society, or that she was somehow ‘anti-Scottish’, but in truth, anti-Thatcherism was just a peg to hang on a gut, visceral anti-Toryism which was already there.

We now live in an age of much less partisan, tribal politics in terms of voters, many ideas and the challenges we face. Isn’t it time then that political tribes themselves moved into the modern world, and that blind anti-Toryism was replaced with a serious debate and engagement with Tory ideas?

This article was originally published in the Scotsman.

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