There’s a fascinating article today in the Telegraph by George Bridges: The Tories have gone astray – and I helped. Who’s George Bridges, you ask? Here’s his summary of his political career to date:
First a researcher for the Conservative Party machine, then a tour of duty in the bunker of No 10 for the last three Major years, followed by a few years advising Michael Howard and David Cameron.
It’s a hefty 1,000-word ‘Consevatism: my part in its downfall’ mea culpa, and it’s fascinating in two ways.
First, for its call to arms for Conservatives to ignore the polling and simply stand up for what they believe in. George Bridges freely admits, though not in quite these words, that the whole Cameron modernising project was a sham, that the party put its desperation for votes ahead of its deeply held convictions.
Fair enough, you might say. After all, many Lib Dems were pointing out how inauthentic the Cameron Project was in real-time, back when the media hack-pack was in thrall to his shiny newness.
But the second reason the article is fascinating is for the three issues George Bridges highlights as the key ones where the Tory party made the wrong call for fear of frightening the voters:
1) The Tory promise to ‘match Labour’s commitment to spend more and more on public services’. This Cameron/Osborne pledge was designed to neutralise fears the Tories would slash public spending. (It mirrored the Blair/Brown promise in ’97 to stick to Tory tax-and-spend plans.) Here George Bridges has a point, I think. Labour was right to pump money back into our public services after years of neglect; but it wasn’t all spent effectively; and there was an over-correction which meant the UK ran a too-large deficit in the belief the good times would keep on rolling. The Tories and Lib Dems (notwithstanding Vince’s warnings about private debt bubbles) were both complicit in allowing that situation to continue unchallenged.
2) ‘For years, politicians dared not admit that exam standards were being devalued by grade inflation.’ Assertion isn’t evidence. I’ve made the same glib comments myself in the past, been challenged on it, and looked at the evidence — there is some, but it’s limited and very hard to disentangle from a multitude of other explanations, including improvements in teaching and/or teachers ‘teaching to the test’ and/or pupils getting smarter.
3) ‘Immigration. Fear of being labelled a racist quashed public debate during the Blair years.’ Well, it was either going to be Europe or immigration: no Tory list of Evil Policies is complete without these two horsemen of the apocalypse galloping forth. Perhaps it was fear of the R-label which self-censored Tories. I had hoped it was recognition that the free movement of labour drives better economic growth, that the party had at last recognised that supply-side economics includes freeing employers to hire people with the skills required to do the jobs they want to create. But I was clearly naive: the traditional Tory argument remains, immovable: there are just too many foreign-types in the UK.
So there we have it: George Bridges’ clarion call for a return to authentic Conservative values that’s being applauded by right-wing commentators this morning. Which is fine: absolutely, people should stick up for what they believe, no matter how evidence-free or irrational. George Bridges, I suspect, speaks for many and perhaps most Tories. Ironically, he is, once again, going with the flow of his party, which is drifting irresistibly to the right.
That’s causing tensions within the Coalition (just ask Ed Davey) yet it also makes the Lib Dem task that much easier. Eighteen months ago Nick Clegg worried in a hot-mic moment that he and David Cameron ‘won’t find anything to bloody disagree on in the bloody TV debates!’ There’s no danger now.
The Tories are beating a hasty exit away from the mainstream of British politics, back to their comfort zone of Little Englander nimbyism. The tide of Conservative modernism has gone out, leaving their few, sensible pragmatists beached. That’s a shame for them, but it’s an opportunity for the Lib Dems.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.