Brexit expressed something fundamental: Britain was moving away from the liberal-Left social vision that was the basis for Cameron’s strategy after 1997. His resignation was a quiet non-event, but it marked a major change in his nation’s political direction
Fifty-five years ago Angus Maude (left), at different times a senior British Conservative MP and editor of the Sydney Morning Herald (where he was an early tutor to the young Clive James), wrote an article in Quadrant with the title “Cloaking the Dagger”. He also delivered it as a BBC radio talk, which is where I first came across it in Liverpool during a university vacation.
It’s a bracing exercise in high Tory sarcasm which deplores the creeping mealy-mouthed terminology of modern life, which Maude describes as a “conspiracy of euphemisms”. One passage describes his encounter with an egg salesman. He complains that the eggs marked “standard” are in fact small. The salesman agrees. Maude then asks why they’re not marked “small”. “Because no one would buy them,” replies the salesman.
There is much else that is briskly entertaining in this indictment of the soft, evasive and cowardly speaking habits of modern life. But the passage in which Maude’s critical irony really soars is one on the life of politics in which he was an expert:
A whole literature of euphemism could be compiled from the correspondence attending the enforced resignations … of Ministers who had forfeited the confidence of their Premiers. It is, of course, extremely upsetting for the public even to suspect that the management of important Government Departments has for some time been entrusted to incompetent blockheads. So ministerial changes are made to conform to a familiar pattern. The Minister, seething with fury and hurt bewilderment, announces that he has “long felt that it was time to make way for a younger man”, and that it was “only his sense of public service and his loyalty to his leader” that kept him in harness for so long. It will be, he adds, with genuine relief that he gets back to his former job of breeding pigs or defending criminals at the Bar. To this the Prime Minister, who has for months been driven crazy by the stupidity and obstinacy of his departing colleague, replies that he “accepts the decision with genuine regret” and scarcely knows how the Cabinet will get along without the “wise counsel and unswerving devotion to duty” which he has “come to value so deeply”. He then gives him a Peerage.
David Cameron has not been given a peerage, and having himself given away so many peerages to so many undeserving recipients, he seemingly places little value on them and will not mind. But the tributes from such former colleagues as ex-Foreign Secretary William Hague have generally conformed to this standard of mild pleasantries. “A truly great Prime Minister,” wrote Hague, “the most rational person I have ever worked with in government … made his party fit for a more socially liberal age” and so on.
Admittedly there has been a small kerfuffle mainly among journalists about whether Cameron, having promised to stay on until the next election, was breaking his word and being selfish in resigning only weeks later. But Cameron’s argument that he doesn’t want to be a “back-seat driver” or a “distraction” for his successor sounds reasonable enough and, unlike Margaret Thatcher on the Maastricht Treaty after her defenestration, he doesn’t feel that there are any great national issues looming on which he simply must speak out. He’s strolling easily away from the political scene, and the other players are making new calculations that don’t involve him.
This essay appears in the October edition of Quadrant.
“It’s almost as if he had never been here,” said one Tory. “Theresa May may succeed or fail, but neither result will bring Cameron or Cameronism back. It’s an entirely new ball-game. It’s slightly eerie.”
Now, a lot has indeed changed—much of it below the surface of the daily headlines. Brexit is the single most “transformative” development in Britain in recent times. Like the repeal of the Corn Laws that entrenched Britain’s change-over from an agricultural to an industrial society, Brexit has changed Britain from a dissatisfied European province in a centralised and tightly-regulated empire to an independent, free-wheeling, commercially-minded, globalised nation. Early signs are that Britain will revert to what Andrew Gamble, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Cambridge, calls “Anglo-America”—its traditional grand strategy of free trade, free capital movements, secure property rights, and sound money (though the last may take some time!).
That transformation is accompanied by changes of long-range political sentiment. A new Opinium poll for the (mildly progressive) Social Market Foundation shows that between 50 and 63 per cent of voters place themselves on the political Right compared to only 24 per cent on the progressive or socialist Left. Neither bloc is monolithic. In particular the Right is divided between nationalist and socially conservative working people and a more liberal middle class that wants a low-tax economy. But both sides of the Right oppose mass immigration and are broadly patriotic. And given that they account for more than half of the electorate, they look like fertile ground for a Tory appeal rooted in a vision of Britain as a successful free-trading nation out-competing its sluggish corporatist neighbours.
Conventional party loyalties are shifting in response to these economic and political winds. Last year’s election saw the emergence of a five-party system with, in order of declining importance, the Tories, Labour, UKIP, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. Since then Labour has been wracked by internal divisions and may be on the verge of dissolution. But however hard the kaleidoscope is shaken, it’s hard to see that famous “progressive majority” emerging as the pattern after some future election. Cameron formed a Con-Lib-Dem coalition in his first term; moderate leftists eternally hope for a Lib-Lab coalition; but the only coalition that looks likely to command an electoral majority any time soon is a Con-UKIP coalition—especially now that the Tories are Brexiteers too.
As my Tory friend said, it’s an entirely new ball-game. My interpretation is that Cameron walked away from it without apparent qualms because he saw on the day after the Brexit vote that the political strategy he had crafted in the early 2000s was no longer relevant to this new world. Indeed, he saw that Brexit marked the end of the political world that began in 1997 when Tony Blair won a landslide (the first of three election victories) and the Tories suffered a nervous breakdown and a long crisis of political identity.
It’s odd but true that the Left adapted much more quickly to post-communism than the Right. After 1989 social democratic parties won power throughout the West, apparently against the tide, by presenting themselves as more likely than the capitalist parties to administer capitalism compassionately. In Britain the Tories over-reacted to their defeat and began wailing that conservatism was incompatible with a post-modern liberal society and that they would never hold power again. So the “modernisers” proposed a series of prescriptions to restore their chances of power that were rooted less in conventional budgetary and foreign policies than in emotional style.
They wanted to change the identity of the Tory party to make it more “caring” and to overcome its reputation as “the nasty party”. They wanted Tories to adopt a new emotional style of politics following Blair’s exploitation of the “People’s Princess” in his eulogy. They wanted the Dianafication of Toryism. And they wanted the Tory party to stop “banging on” about migration, crime, and above all “Europe”, which they thought put off the voters. They stressed “Green” issues instead.
I argued at the time that “party identities, like national identities, are not malleable images open to wholesale transformation. Voters ‘know’ at a fairly deep level that Tory MPs do not ‘care’ as much as Labour MPs—just as they ‘know’ that Labour MPs are not as patriotic as Tory MPs.” The only thing likely to alter these deeply-rooted perceptions is events in the real world such as Labour winning a war or the Tories establishing a massive new welfare entitlement. And those things are hard to arrange—especially from the opposition benches. Despite the modernisers’ best efforts, the Tory party did not become an emotionally incontinent party.
What this attempted Dianafication implied, however, was that Cameronism would never challenge the cultural values of the Guardian, the BBC, and the metropolitan liberal intelligentsia. Because of that he could never really articulate the cultural values that appealed to the Tory party’s own supporters and activists. He therefore became the liberal leader of a conservative party, thinking to shift his party slightly leftwards to win liberal votes. He inevitably alienated many Tory voters in the process and drove some bedrock Tories to join UKIP. As the 2010 election approached, he badly needed to win back those votes—and promptly began “banging on” about immigration, crime, and so on. He won a draw electorally (and in 2015 a narrow win) but he never broke through to the centre ground or pushed his party there.
It was the same story, though a more dramatic one, with Brexit. Cameron was the Europhile leader of a Eurosceptic party. It was an unstable situation that eventually compelled him to hold the Brexit referendum to keep his party together. But when the vote was called, he didn’t have sufficient authority over his voters to persuade them to vote Remain. Tories went for Leave by 60 to 40 per cent.
Yet the Brexit vote expressed something still more fundamental: Britain was moving rightwards and away from the liberal-Left social vision that had been the basis for Cameron’s political strategy after 1997. His resignation may have been a quiet non-event; but it marked a major change in Britain’s political direction.