"the blogger whose youthful effusions have won him bookmarks all over Whitehall ... horribly compelling" - The Guardian
Tuesday, November 18, 2003
Not a lurch, but a step to the right - and a good thing too
This is quite revolutionary really. For the last decade at least, the Conservatives have been on the run. Having lost every scrap of moral legitimacy to their opponents on the left (even before they were booted out of office in 1997) British Tories lost whatever ability they had to influence the national discourse. In fact, so beleaguered and timid did they become, that no senior Tory could stick his or her head over the parapet of national life without getting promptly chased back into their hidey-holes by a contemptuous and excoriating press.
Interestingly enough, the Guardian itself agrees.
How else to explain the three following remarkable events of recent days? In the first, Rupert Murdoch announces that he - or "we" as he prefers to put it - might be about to tell his editors to back the Tories rather than Labour. Two days later, David Davis, less than a week into his new job as shadow home secretary, told the Sunday Telegraph that he favoured the death penalty for serial murderers. Then yesterday, only hours before Blair was to address them, the Confederation of British Industry published a survey showing that three-quarters of its top companies believe that the government is less business-friendly than five years ago.
Where the two differ is in their view of whether the Conservatives believing fervently and fearlessly in conservatism is a route to or from electoral success. On this issue, I rather incline towards the Samizdata view.
Endless comparisons are made between the modern Conservatives and the Labour Party of the 1980s, based mainly or wholly on the huge majorities of the governments they opposed. In the usual media thinking, a "lurch to the right" is seen as being exactly as fatal as a "lurch to the left". According to this view, the political spectrum is exactly symmetrical: most voters are located at the centre and any move away from this ground in either direction is damaging. So the Tories are now simply mirroring what Labour did two decades ago.
I think the reality of politics is nothing like as simple. While it is certainly true that moving to the left can scarcely if ever make a party more popular, as capital punishment in particular demonstrates, moving to the right certainly can. On immigration and asylum, on taxation, on crime and punishment, on the EU - on a range of issues - the British public is generally to the right of the political class. By taking a more conservative stance on any of these issues, a centrist party usually gains in popularity.
As Rupert Darwall has said, the political spectrum is not symmetrical. Socialism doesn't work; free markets do. Liberalism on criminality fails; toughness works. Going against the grain of human responsibilities and nature's incentives ensures mayhem; going with the grain means order. Ordinary voters are possessive of a lot more common sense than conservatives are often prone to give them credit, and they can see many of these things. That is why just about every time power has changed hands in the last four decades, Labour has entered government by moving to the right, and the Tories have entered government by moving to the ... right.
The ambitious, pre-Thatcherite, Selsdon Park promises of the Conservative opposition in the 1960s stood in sharp, enticing contrast to the drab tax-and-tax-and-tax-and-tax-and-spend strategy of the Wilson government, and 1970 was in fact the only time a post-war government with a decisive majority has given way in one election to another government with a decisive majority. We didn't stick to Selsdon, of course, and soon paid the price. But we learned the lesson of 1974 in choosing the following year a new leader with the guts to see a job to its end.
The last time the Conservatives were in opposition should be a key reference model for how we should approach the same task today, yet it is scarcely mentioned. What Margaret Thatcher did was employ exactly the confident approach outlined in the above quotes. She took on socialist assumptions, challenged the left-liberal dogmas and ideals of the time and showed immense confidence in what conservatives really believed. In very sharp contrast to the 'wets' of her day and their modern Portillista equivalents, she never sought the approval of the Guardianistas or aimed to appeal to the high priests of liberal opinion. Her strategy was to defeat the left, not to embrace the less unappealing sections of it. We know now how well it worked, and it should be obvious why: when a party moves right of the centre ground, what it is offering is to relinquish government control over large areas where the state is currently dominant, to extend opportunities to many more who aspire to do better. That was Thatcher's appeal, and it took Labour until 1997 before they managed to catch up to what the Tories offered to the aspiring classes, an effort to catch up helped to no small degree by the poverty of ambition of the then-tired Conservative Party.
So certainly the left needs to move to the centre-ground if it wants to do well at elections. But the right does not face quite the same dilemma. People vote in Conservative governments when the Tories appeal to their aspirations, when people see a significant different in what they can hope to gain from the parties. When both parties are on the centre-ground, that difference is not obvious, and people may be inclined to vote on other issues. But when the Tories leave a chasm of aspiration between themselves and Labour, the choice is clearer - and the swing voters of Middle England overwhelmingly show themselves willing to jump that chasm whenever we have the courage to offer them greater opportunities.
Obviously, there are limits to how radical the Conservatives can be at any one time. We must always be measured in ensuring the amount of clear blue water between the parties. Britons will gladly vote for change, but almost never for revolution. Equally, the shift has to be confined to only a few issues. Moving rightwards on every issue succeeds only in making the party look extreme without giving its spokesmen the chance to defend each move. But on the two or three issues where the party chooses to be radical and ambitious, it can pick up common sense support and spend the months and years that follow arguing and debating in a way that opens minds to new ideas and concepts, shifting public opinion our way and whets voters' appetites for the reforms on offer.
So when it comes to issues like crime, surely an issue currently near the top of the public agenda, the Tory strategy need not and must not be one of cowering before the liberal dogma of closing one's mind to argument and eyes to evidence. We can easily pick up more support by tackling head-on the notion that it is preferable that millions of innocents be prisoners in their own homes than that we imprison criminals until they reform or grow too old to terrorise others. It means we should stand up for those who defend their homes from intruders. And it means we can remind the considerable majority of people who favour capital punishment for murderers that their local Conservative candidate is the only one likely to agree with them. Whether or not one takes the view that David Davis got it right on the issue itself, if the statement he made signals a new confidence on the right about conservative principles, it can only be good for the Tories' electoral chances.