Over the first 18 months since he became Party leader, he avoided any definite policy commitments, but he did, in place of policy seem to be interested, for a while at least, in discussing a new set of values for the Party. We first saw this with his advocacy of “General Well Being, GWB as being more important than GDP”. Then came “Compassionate Conservatism”, a phrase he borrowed from American Conservatives. That was followed by “Built To Last”, a detailed booklet expressing a few beliefs, but also containing a few teaser policies such as ending the CAP.
Then came a follow-up period when he seemed to be avoiding emphasis on, or mention of both beliefs or policies. There was a brief showing for the phrase “Cameron’s Conservatives” , which didn’t work too well at the Southall Byelection, and the overview of what Cameron was really all about, has been put on the back burner in recent months.
Cameron’s been busy adjusting his leadership style away from being ‘the next Blair’ to facing down Gordon Brown. Only now as Brown has been placed firmly on his back foot, since he backed off calling the election, is Cameron returning to his earlier attempts to define a new set of values for himself and the Party.
The keyword badging his philosophy this time is not ‘Compassionate’ but ‘Cooperative’ Conservatism. David Cameron spoke as follows –
“the co-operative principle reflects an important part of the vision of social progress that we on the centre-right believe in: the role of strong independent institutions, run by and for local people. That’s why Conservatives have always argued that free enterprise and the co-operative principle are partners, not adversaries. And now I want the Conservative Party to take the lead in applying the co-operative ideal to the challenges of the 21st century. So I am delighted to announce today the establishment of the Conservative Co-operative Movement. “
Hardly a comprehensive explanation.
There is a big clue, though in that the head of the new CCM is none other than Jesse Norman of Policy Exchange (Pictured), who co-wrote the previous pamphlet Compassionate Conservativism. There is nothing in the idea of Cooperative Conservatism which conflicts with the earlier Compassionate version. It would seem to be a fair assessment that Cameron here is updating and confirming his earlier views, and finding better ways to orientate and express them.
What are they? I read and reviewed the pamphlet Compassionate Conservatism for Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home at the time it was published, June 2006. I wrote as follows, quoting the authors extensively,
” In 1997 the State was 36-37% of GDP. By 2010 it will be 43%. Should it be permitted to keep rising to Scandinavian levels of 50/60%, ask the authors? Public sector productivity fell by 10% between 1997 and 2003.
The quantitative picture is clear enough.
The statements that accompany the bare figures ask the reader to look deeper, and it has to be said that the authors do not lack courage when it comes to offering their conclusions. ‘The implicit deal by which people trade social engagement for security..is starting to break down’. ‘The overall picture is, in short, not merely that the state itself is less effective than it should be. It is increasingly hard to manage at all.’ The primary theme that comes out is that ‘We need to think beyond the State.’
That, they claim puts CC in direct confrontation with the ideas of the current government, which is ‘characterised by a default instinct to extend the powers of the State over the lives of its citizens.’ They add that ‘the extension of the state..tends to undermine the voices, the energy and the creativity of the citizens.’
My review continued, –
In the past Conservatism has encompassed a broad view, incorporating Liberal Conservatism with an emphasis on free markets, localism and private property, and Paternalistic Conservatism focused on community and social stability. But there was never the thought until now presented here by Jesse Norman and Janan Ganesh that Conservatism may need to go broader still and start to protect the private and public associations and connections of individuals from state power and interference.
They write, ‘In economic theory, people are treated as though they are purely self-interested seekers of profit….individuals cut off from each other, who react positively for gain and negatively to the possibility of loss.’ CC looks to see people differently, as creating their own connections motivated inter alia by affection and personal ties.
They write that ‘man is a social animal, people are not merely sterile economic agents, and they create institutions of extraordinary range and diversity.’,
The Left believes that ‘Only the State has the power to stand up for people against the Market’ but as CC writes, ‘In equating social justice with redistribution and state spending on the public services, it has tacitly adopted a grossly inadequate conception of society itself.’
Those like Richard North of EUreferendum who fear Cameron is untrustworthy and might water down his earlier opposition to the EU and its Constitution, according to the pattern of earlier Conservative governments, might take heart from the fact that Cameron is holding true to the same beliefs he espoused 18 months ago. It is surprising that they, and Policy Exchange have received so little attention.
When the Conservatives win power, their actions will be informed by their beliefs. A great deal of effort is clearly going into finding ways to articulate those beliefs, and adapt Conservative thinking to the challenges ahead. Thatcherism emphasised the competitive side of human nature, and found that that was what her era required. Cameron is finding that re-emphasising the cooperative side of our natures could hold the key to the next phase in developing and adapting our culture to improve the quality of peoples’ lives.
What many political commentators overlook is the power of such cultural levers to build a political movement, preferring to follow the daily political interplay, and ascribe significance to each little step. In the cynical environment resulting from years of political spin, you could hardly blame them for refusing to see anything else. Politics as ideas has almost disappeared from view.
And yet, as Gordon Brown ceases to make any serious attempt at articulating any vision, Cameronism as a political philosophy is gradually strengthening and taking shape. Philosophy provides an underlying, almost hidden quality, over and above any specific visible policies, which these beliefs inform, and as it grows, it should help Cameron to establish himself in a position of moral authority over his opponents, and attract his own Party to follow him.