David Cameron's Conservative Con

by Hilaire de Sauveterre (Nov. 2006)

 

There is some consolation, I suppose, to be taken from the fact that Enoch Powell was not alive to hear David Cameron’s speech at the recent Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth. One by one, Cameron recanted longstanding tenets of conservative faith, effectively anathematizing any conservatives who remain in his party.  Well so long, Davy boy. You may not be fit to lick Wellington’s boots, but I know when I’m not welcome.

I hope you will forgive me if I took Cameron’s speech particularly badly.  My excuse is that, despite moving among three countries for most of my life, the Conservative Party is the only political party of which I have ever been a fully paid-up, card-carrying member.  Deluded young man that I was, I believed in the party of Canning and Salisbury, of Wellington and Churchill.  Thatcher, famously, was “not for turning”; Cameron, I fear, is not only for turning, but for spinning.  He certainly spun a few whoppers in his conference speeches, not the least of which was the pretence that his modernizing agenda has anything do with conservatism.

It would be difficult to overstate the corruption that this callow lad has introduced into the soul of a great party.  Some Conservatives are preaching patience to the faithful, assuring them that Cameron is merely positioning the party for power when he will reveal his true conservative mettle.  Quite apart from what this implies about Cameron’s capacity for deceit, I simply don’t believe it.  Surely no Conservative conference speech has better captured what Lord Tebbit once called “the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy.” 

Excerpts cannot convey the cumulative effect, but some nuggets will capture the tenor:

Conservatives, converting a disused church into a community centre.  That's our idea - social responsibility - in action.

The NHS is an expression of our values as a nation.  It is a symbol of collective will, of social solidarity. … Stop cutting the NHS and let's back it with all our hearts and improve it for everyone.

Like the minimum wage.  We'll keep it and, when we can, we'll increase it.

Yes of course low-energy lightbulbs, hybrid cars - even a windmill on your roof can make a difference and also save money.  But these things are not enough.

If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth.

We have asked Tony Blair to put a Climate Change Bill in the Queen's Speech.  If he does, we'll back it.

…we will abolish the Human Rights Act and put a new British Bill of Rights in its place.

I believe in spreading freedom and democracy, and supporting humanitarian intervention.  That is why we cannot stand by and watch further genocide in Darfur.

Why are so many single parents trapped in poverty?  Partly because childcare is so costly and complicated in our country. … [W]e support the Government's efforts to put more money into childcare.

There’s something special about marriage.  It's not about religion.  It's not about morality.  It's about commitment.

And by the way, [marriage] means something whether you're a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man.

I am optimistic about human nature.  That's why I will trust people to do the right thing.

“Collective will,” “solidarity,” “humanitarian intervention,” “optimistic about human nature,” increasing the minimum wage: is it any wonder the KGB approached him as a possible turncoat when he visited the Soviet Union on his gap year?  Cameron’s speech was the sentimental rhapsody of a man desperate to impress upon his audience that his is a soul of peculiarly exquisite sensibility.  Of its style I will say only that I’ve heard more mellifluous Morse code; of its substance, sadly, I am compelled to say much more.

Cameron chose to begin on a sour note, praising the conversion of a church into a community center.  Is he so lost in the ahistorical fug of the New Britain that he has forgotten that churches were once – not so long ago – literal community centers?  When Larkin wondered “When churches will fall completely out of use / What we shall turn them into” I don’t think even he expected the answer would come so soon or from such an unlikely source.  Not that the solution itself would have surprised Larkin; the poet who elegized post-war Britain as the “First slum of Europe” would have savored the bathos.

Cameron, by contrast, flits merrily through the slum, seeing only progress in decay.  And what more can we expect of a man who “cannot stand by and watch further genocide in Darfur” but enthusiastically endorses policies that have visibly debauched British society in his own lifetime?  The post-war idea of a welfare state in which no Britain would starve or lack necessary medical treatment is now unrecognizable under layers of tax credits, subsidies, incentives, and disincentives that have dragged even comfortably middle class families within the purview of government support and control.  The social safety net is now a hammock.  Cameron, however, offers no promises to unwind this tangle of government benefits; worse, he proposes to pull the knot tighter by underwriting the cost of childcare.  One more public “benefit”; one more subsidy for irresponsibility.  “Why are so many single parents trapped in poverty”? Cameron asked, as though the question does not beg its answer: Because they are single parents. 

Not that you will hear a squeak of reproach from Cameron.  Indeed, it is quite impossible to imagine Cameron questioning any of the political and social ideologies of the 1960s and ’70s still poisoning British society.  Cameron is hardly alone in his failure to question long-discredited social policies, but his failure to do so, coupled with his insistence that Conservatives must rebuild civil society, is willfully myopic.  Superficially antisocial behavior like public drunkenness is roundly condemned, but a blind eye is turned to the deeper problems of unwed mothers and the chronically unemployed.  In our modern, civilized society, such people are victims – though of what is left unsaid.  Bad judgment, perhaps, but the State doesn’t open its coffers to unlucky investors or gamblers.  At least not yet. 

Foremost among the social institutions for which Cameron vouchsafes his support is marriage, though his idea of marriage is so far from that which prevailed even twenty years ago that I doubt it was shared by even one percent of his Bournemouth audience.  Marriage, the party faithful were lectured, is “not about religion” or “morality.”  It is about “commitment.”  To repeat: in the radical philosophy of the new party leader, an abstract notion of “commitment” in marriage exists outside the realm of morality.  (Did Cameron run this idea past his wife?)  So many questions arise:  If “commitment” is so supremely important, is it permissible to lack “commitment” in marriage?  If not, is it immoral?  Is it immoral to assert that marriage is “about morality”?  But all these questions were brushed aside as Cameron revealed that his statement was merely prologue. 

Cameron, you see, had to reject a religious or moral foundation for marriage in order to endorse the opinion that marriage “means something whether you're a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man.”  And with that sentence a new era of British politics was born, in which none of the three major parties believes there is something unique about the socio-religious union of a man and a woman.  Wisdom unquestioned in these islands for a thousand years has been summarily discarded as childish superstition in a single generation.  Cameron has said that he is conservative because he “recognize[s] the complexities of human nature, and will always be skeptical of grand schemes to remake the world.”  With marriage, however, Cameron has begun with his goal – the equivalence of marriage and homosexual relationships – and muddled his way back to his own ersatz first principles, abandoning custom, tradition, history, religion, and morality, in turn, as each interfered with his grand scheme to remake the British family.

On British sovereignty, Cameron promised to scrap the “Human Rights Act,” but, bafflingly, proposed replacing it with a “new British Bill of Rights.”  What, one wonders, is wrong with the old one?  Is Cameron even aware it exists?  The British constitution may not be distilled into a single document, but it is most surely written and effective.  No country has been freer for longer than Britain, and somehow this has been achieved without the dubious assurances of either the “Human Rights Act” or a “new British Bill of Rights.”  It would be an unpardonable disaster if Britain were to adopt a new charter along the lines of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the South African Bill of Rights, thereby reducing ancient liberties to bureaucratic prose. 

These are only the worst of a bad lot of policies.  Reciting them here, it occurs to me that, had Conservatives known in 2001 that Cameron was crouching over the next hill, they would probably have opted for Michael Portillo and have had done with it.  For who is Cameron if not Portillo without experience, gravitas, national respect, wit, learning, and an atavistic whiff of Mediterranean duende?  If the Tories are going to embrace victimology, the “human rights” culture, Eurowaffle, pink pretension, and preening condescension, they would be better off recalling the smug Spaniard from his lazy, if lucrative, exile in television.  Better a big beast than an eager pup.  Somewhere Portillo is sobbing softly into Diane Abbott’s shoulder.

 

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To his credit, Cameron revealed a few glimmers of common sense among the politically correct dross.  Particularly heartening was Cameron’s plan to increase streaming and setting in schools, though this is little more than common sense.  More impressive would have been a commitment to reducing the number of school leavers entering university from Labour’s current, ludicrous goal of 50%.  The only things Britain needs less than a hundred thousand media-studies graduates are the debased standards and proliferation of “universities” required to accredit them (I will not say “educate” them).  At a time when the government has abandoned any notion of academic rigor – evidenced by the recent proposal to reduce university entrance standards for students from “disadvantaged” backgrounds – a serious proposal for reversing this decades-long trend would have been refreshing.  

Cameron is also to be applauded for his firm stance against national I.D. cards, his criticism of Labour’s overregulation of British business (easy to say in opposition), his notion that “civic responsibility will provide the answer to improving the quality of life in the communities left behind” (which at least sounds right, if vague), and his sharp attack on Labour’s nanny-statism, which Cameron accurately described as “the nationalisation of everyday life.” 

And then we come to the environment – or perhaps I should say The Environment, that fashionable reification of so much confused science and pseudo-science.  I will preface my comments on this controversial topic with the warning that I am one of the few conservatives not utterly dismayed by Cameron’s environmentalism.  I grant that his nattering on about wind-turbines and Al Gore’s dishonest movie are more than a bit batty, but conservation is a theme that Conservatives should always put front and center. Conservation of British buildings threatened by a homogenous global aesthetic; conservation of old town centers menaced by authoritarian planners; conservation of farm land blighted by foreign meddling; and conservation of a rural landscape that has been scarred by too many roads and by all the shabby appurtenances of the auto culture. 

I accept that environmentalism – at least as Cameron deploys the term for political advantage – is not synonymous with conservation, but at their best they share the deep and noble desire for harmony between man and his dominion.  That harmony has never been perfect, and never will be, but it could and should be much better than it is.  The case for investment in clean burning fuels – and nuclear power in particular – for example, is simply too strong to ignore. 

Cameron, I believe, recognizes this; now he needs to recognize the economic stupidity of environmental tokenism as typified in the Kyoto Accord.  If implemented, this treaty would have no appreciable effect on global warming but would almost certainly condemn Britain to a generation of severe recession.  The United States, Canada, and Australia have openly admitted this, and virtually every other country has tacitly done so as it has quietly failed to meet its targets.  Kyoto is dead end, but elsewhere there is a role for Britain to play in the climate change debate.  That role should be to ensure that national and international policy is based on sound science, realistic proposals, and the creative use of market forces and scientific ingenuity.  I’m not sure that Cameron is quite there yet, but he is not too far away.   

School standards, personal liberty, civic responsibility, and conservation: dwarfed by too many specious policies and lacking in substance, perhaps, but a modest good start nonetheless.  It says much about Cameron’s wild lurch to the left, however, that such traditional conservative positions must be singled out for praise. 

 

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It is an old saw that the British Conservative Party is neither conservative nor particularly British.  Recent events have almost made that joke a truism.  If Cameron doesn’t want to be a conservative (and, as a self-confessed “liberal Conservative,” he avowedly does not) he should leave the Conservative Party to those who do.  If he does not, Britain will enter the next election with three parties whose positions on the preeminent issues of the day – British sovereignty, immigration, crime, the family, taxes, public services, the Islamist threat, the homosexual question, Northern Ireland, social mores, pornography, academic standards, and property rights – where not congruent, differ only in the footnotes.  It should surprise no-one that those voters who do not simply stay at home are turning increasingly to fringe parties. 

Perusing the re-launched Conservative Party website, I found a link to the party’s current “policy campaigns”: the six policies, I presume, with which the party intends to build the support that it believes will carry it to victory at the next election.  These policies are: the Competitive Challenge; the Quality of Life Challenge; the Public Services Challenge; the Globalisation and Global Poverty Challenge; the Social Justice Challenge, and Our Security Challenge.  I am being generous when I say that three of these might be sensible policies, depending on how they are developed and implemented.  The rest could be panel discussions at a World Health Organization conference.  With so much emphasis on Global Poverty, Social Justice, and Public Services, it is not surprising that George Galloway – taking a break from promoting The Fidel Castro Handbook (I couldn’t invent a detail like that) – recently expressed his admiration for Cameron’s leadership.

Broadening the appeal of the party is a fine plan, but any Conservative Party platform that appeals even superficially to that unrepentant Trot Galloway has ceased to be conservative in any meaningful sense.  And even more alarming than the flimsy planks in Cameron’s platform are the gaping lacunae between them.  Where is the party on Europe, immigration, hunting, or Blair’s blundering parliamentary reforms?  I understand that being out of power for so long has made Conservatives willing to do whatever it takes to win the next election but, to paraphrase A Man For All Seasons, “Why David, it profits a man nothing to lose his soul for the whole world ... but for Downing Street?” 

With the Conservative leadership courting the Live Aid crowd, who now speaks for the Britain of the very recent past?  For that world we inherited and trashed?  For the national spirit that carried an heroic generation through the last great war?  Heroes who now cower in council flats for fear of endemic crime, or go to their death beds, tended by foreign nurses, in a country that has abandoned their grandchildren to a pornographic popular culture, ignorant teachers, therapeutic schools, atheistic ministers, and a civil service so bloated and corrupt that it rarely serves and is never civil.  This is the society of wimps and scroungers conservatives are supposed to entrust to our jejune party leadership?  

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The quodlibetal question must be: Do conservatives have an alternative?  Unlike Cameron, I am not a natural optimist.  Larkin’s grim verse ring ominously true to me:

 

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.

I do not feel a counterrevolution brewing, and Britain’s dull, fat, undisciplined, and ignorant populace shows no will to reform, assuming it even knows that another way of life is possible – that their own grandparents did not live as they do.  And even they did, who would lead them?  Certainly not a man who holds summits with rappers and implores his party to understand juvenile delinquency.

Quite by chance, however, another vision of Britain emerged this month from an unexpected quarter.  Though it was not, strictly speaking, appropriate for him to air his private views in public, General Sir Francis Richard Dannatt KCB CBE MC has articulated an incisive diagnosis of the ill’s besetting his society and their proper cure.  The General’s words are so out of step with our right-thinking elite, and so inimical to any modern party line, that they seem to have confounded the self-appointed guardians of what can and cannot be said in polite society.  Had the General aired his views on the BBC, he almost certainly would have been bullied off the set before the full import of his message had a chance to sink in.  But since they were published alongside doubts about the war in Iraq, the media could not bring itself to silence them.  Here they are:

In the Cold War, the threats to this country were about armies rolling in. Threats now are not territorial but to the values of our country.  In the Army we place a lot of store by the values we espouse.  What I would hate is for the Army to be maintaining a set of values that were not reflected in our society at large — courage, loyalty, integrity, respect for others; these are critical things. …

When I see the Islamist threat I hope it doesn’t make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind. There is an element of the moral compass spinning. I am responsible for the Army, to make sure that its moral compass is well aligned and that we live by what we believe in.

It is said we live in a post-Christian society. I think that is a great shame. The Judaic-Christian tradition has underpinned British society. It underpins the British Army.

Could General Dannatt’s unfashionable views take hold in Britain?  I seriously doubt it.  But when Cameron fails, as fail he will, perhaps the good General will consider a different calling in the public service.

 

Hilaire de Sauveterre is a former member of the Conservative Party.

 

 

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