1979 and all that.
How curious that some on the right find it hard to reconcile the promotion of quality of life as a critical political imperative with their Toryism!
If the essence of Conservatism is a belief that in an imperfect world, our shared sense of belonging to civil society – with all its defining structures, traditions and morés – is central to that which stands between each of us and chaos, then, of course, our communitarian concern with the quality of our collective national life and our individual lives is at the heart of our mission.
David Cameron’s persuasive presentation of this orthodox Conservative view deserves wholehearted support, not only because it is philosophically authentic, but also because a concern with all those things that go beyond material gain matches the zeitgeist.
Once, parties were differentiated by their contrasting macroeconomic views. In my political lifetime Labour advocated the nationalisation of banks, insurance companies and land. Trade unions didn’t just influence public policy, they were part of government. This highly constrained form of capitalism (dubbed a mixed economy) had become both highly inefficient – with endless strikes and shortages – and the shared paradigm of the major political parties.
It was Margaret Thatcher’s triumph that she broke this mould. Her passionate view that things could be better because politicians could make a difference smashed the self-satisfied, consensual acceptance of decline. The assertion of individual initiative and enterprise as virtues, worthy of reward, was as radical, for its time, as it was appealing. Margaret Thatcher made people feel good about Britain because they felt good about themselves.
But the significance of Thatcherism was not limited to its dynamic impact on Britain’s economic performance and the consequences for standards of living. Perhaps her most profound effect was to produce a seismic change in the political landscape.Without the Iron Lady, New Labour could not have been born. The generation of Labour politicians that followed her, at first grudgingly and then with tempered enthusiasm, conceded to a new set of a priori assumptions about a free economy – all Mrs Thatcher’s.
There remain, of course, important differences between the parties on economic management. As George Osborne has argued, there are significant disputes about productivity, competitiveness, borrowing, savings, pensions and tax, amongst other things. But almost no one, and certainly no one with influence, any longer argues for a socialist managed economy. We are all capitalists now.Our conversion of Labour to the Tory core view of economics creates an obvious problem. The electorate find it harder to tell us apart.
So, what was politically right for 1979 is no good for now. There are new dividing lines; new dragons to slay.
Civil society is broken. The decline of stable communities because of a mix of family breakdown, unchecked hedonism and the drug-fuelled crime wave makes most lives less agreeable and many intolerable. At least, the routine experience of incivility leaves people unhappy, at worst, the nihilistic few’s violent contempt for the rule of law terrifies us. Many Britons feel brutalised by those Britons that are brutal.
The people long for a government that might tackle the challenge of rebuilding broken Britain from the bottom up. So when David Cameron, recognising that the great challenges ahead are social and cultural, calls for social responsibility and civil renewal to regenerate a decent quality of life for all Britons, he is striking a Tory chord in tune with popular feeling and providing the leadership that our party needs and our country craves.
John Hayes is Co-Chairman of The Cornerstone Group