Sunday January 21, 2007
Political scientists once argued about the paradox of working-class conservatives. Why did they vote for the right and turn their backs on a Labour party that was dedicated to fighting their corner in the struggle against the boss class? The academics of the 20th century gave far less attention to the equal and opposite paradox of middle-class liberals voting against their interests by rejecting a Conservative party that wanted to cut their taxes – maybe because political scientists tended to be middle class and liberal themselves.
This once neglected problem is now obsessing the Cameron Conservatives and explains half the wacky scenes of modern Westminster life. David Cameron hugs hoodies and endorses Camila Batmanghelidjh, a psychotherapist who explains away criminals by saying they are ‘thermostatically impaired’ types with ‘very poor self-soothing repertoires’. Martin Bright, the political editor of the New Statesman, dare not turn on his mobile, so numerous are the nuisance calls from the Conservative think-tanks pleading with him to chair their meetings or write introductions for volumes of David Cameron’s speeches. Meanwhile, so persistent has the pestering from Tory stalkers become, poor Polly Toynbee of the Guardian may have to abandon her feminist atheism and take cover under a burqa.
The shunned journalists of the Telegraph and Mail are close to apoplexy as they see their hopes for a counter-revolution vanishing. Ever since they fell out of love with John Major, they have believed that if only they could stay pure and true, the peculiar British electoral system would one day return a righteously right-wing Conservative party to power. The extinction of a hope that has kept them going for 15 years is sending practical men a little mad. Tim Congdon, a previously hard-headed monetarist, and Stuart Wheeler, whose shrewd understanding of the betting market made him the money to fund the Conservative party, talk of heading off into the political wilds and supporting the UK Independence Party, which has no chance of winning a seat at the next election. Columnists on the Mail say they would rather have Brown than Cameron. None of them seems to realise that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of previously natural Tories were never going to vote Conservative because the right-wing politics of the Nineties affronted their values.
The Tories had lost contact with the marketing manager in Bath who gains an almost spiritual satisfaction from buying organic food and recycling her rubbish, the solicitor in Bury who worries about the fate of 16-year-olds in youth prisons and doctors, head teachers, civil servants and NHS administrators in every part of Britain who believe in public service. Cameron understood that without their votes, his party would never regain power. And by ‘moving to the centre’, he’s winning the liberal middle classes back, or at a bare minimum stopping them hating the Tories so deeply that they will vote tactically to keep him out. It’s easy to laugh at the ideologues who prefer purity to power, but the joke may also be on the liberal middle classes because Cameron is holding up a mirror which reveals our priorities, and the reflection isn’t always flattering.
I have always thought that the most interesting stories barely make the news, and last week Cameron proved my point. He gave an extraordinarily reactionary pledge that made a nonsense of his hippy image and no one in the media raised a questioning eyebrow. Writing in the Telegraph, he promised that under a Conservative government Britain would opt out of the European Union’s Social Chapter. The immediate effect would be the removal of legal protection for part-time workers and the ending of the rights of women to extend maternity leave. Not much compassionate conservatism in that announcement, I thought.
I double-checked with Cameron’s friends to see if there had been some mistake. Not at all, they told me. You don’t understand David if you suppose he believes in regulation, particularly regulation from the EU. But what is going to happen to part-time workers – most of them women and many of them poor? Well, they replied, we will exhort employers to be nice to them. David’s views on employment rights are like his views on WH Smith selling chocolate oranges instead of real ones. He’s not going to force employers to extend maternity leave any more than he is going to ban Smiths from selling chocolate. He is just going to ask them to do the decent thing.
The TUC is appalled and points out that workers will have nothing to fall back on when employers ignore Cameron’s lectures, as I’m sure they will. I asked their officials why with the exception of two tiny articles, there had been no follow-up, and one of them said that she feared that Cameron had an alarmingly accurate understanding of the tensions and double standards of middle-class life. As a leading figure in the Labour movement, she hears daily diatribes on how Blair has sold out from members of London’s progressive middle class. With barely a pause for breath, the apparently sincere left-wingers switch to anguished wails about the law forcing them to give their nannies flexible working and other benefits. She doesn’t dismiss their problems, and accepts that finding and paying for child care can be hellish. But she does come away thinking that many of them would quietly welcome a cutback on the rights of Britain’s new servant class, as long as Cameron could make them feel good by covering a right-wing measure in the unctuous language of moral exhortation.
He could pull the same trick by emphasising his environmentalism. In all likelihood, green taxes will hit the poorest hardest because a family in a tower block has no garden in which to compost its rubbish. A Conservative government could easily cut income tax and use green taxes to cover the shortfall. Middle-class voters would come out ahead, but the Tories’ greenery would allow us to avoid feeling guilty about our windfalls.
Sadly, the English are famed the world over for their hypocrisy. As every political commentator has said, David Cameron’s most effective weapon in his battle with Gordon Brown is that he is English to the core.