Cameron clouding the clear blue water
HAS David Cameron come to revive Conservatism or to bury it? It is just four weeks into his leadership of the Tory party, yet anyone who has followed the events of the past week could seriously ask the question.
The 30th leader of the Conservative Party is currently fitting a wind turbine to his roof, hoping to turn Notting Hill breezes into electricity. He has been quoting Gandhi and has appointed Sir Bob Geldof his Africa adviser.
This all may be a cunning ploy to disorientate the enemy, and draw attention to his rejuvenating of the party. Or it could signal the start of a steady break of the link between the Tory Party and Conservatism.
For years, the two have been synonymous - yet a deeper look at British society shows that conservatism has many forms.
Conservatism can be societal (emphasising the family) or economic (for lower taxes and deregulation). It can be philosophical (faith in the wisdom of the masses) or geopolitical (asserting democracy over dictatorship).
Its 'irreducible core', as Tony Blair would say, is a belief in civil society - trusting people over the state, and at every turn preferring bottom-up solutions from communities to top-down schemes from government.
The announcements Cameron has made so far contain little trace of classic Conservatism. What's most intriguing is not so much the themes he has chosen, but his failure to apply any Conservative analysis to them.
In talking about global poverty, the environment and education he has caught Labour off-guard. They are all unusual issues for a Tory party which has spent much of the last decade talking about tax, immigration and defence.
On the environment, classic Conservatism means exposing the dangers of the anti-growth Kyoto Protocol - and calling for new technologies as the road to a cleaner planet. Instead, the Tories have embraced Kyoto.
On education, Conservatives worldwide are pointing to the success of the voucher system and demanding its adoption as the only way to free the poor from sink schools. This was Tory policy a month ago: it is now scrapped.
On health, classic Conservatism means exposing how a liberalised National Health Service, with a full voucher system, could end the scandal of waiting lists for the poor and instant access for the privately insured rich.
Instead, Cameron has reversed what tentative steps the Tories made in this direction. He seems to have bought in to the dangerous idea that "saving" the NHS means saving its political masters.
No Tory can complain about Cameron taking the fight to Labour on its home turf - especially if his series of surprise Christmas attacks is leaving the Labour enemy stunned, divided and bewildered.
But it is another thing to hear a Tory leader attack Tony Blair from the left - using Labour language and accepting Labour premises. Anyone hoping for a battle of the ideas, rather than a battle of the parties, would be disappointed.
Conservatism used to argue that middle earners, if allowed to keep more of their salary, are highly likely to spend extra money on health and education. A voucher system could unleash a fresh wave of bottom-up investment.
Instead the shots of the Tory party are being called by Oliver Letwin, who is very much in the business of raising an ideological white flag to the Labour party - and especially to Gordon Brown, of whom he is petrified.
As Shadow Chancellor, Letwin copied Brown's plan to raise the tax burden and pledged to outspend Labour. Now in place as Cameron's policy tsar, it seems Letwin has many more surrenders up his sleeve.
He told us a fortnight ago that "more should be done to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor" and that "inequality matters". Did he mean poverty? For Conservatives, the distinction has totemic significance.
Between 2002-03 and 2003-04, for example, the UK inequality index fell - but incomes of the poorest 10% actually dropped. The greater "equality" had simply come from hitting the wealthy.
Whacking the rich is no substitute for helping the poor, which is why fighting "inequality" is not synonymous with fighting poverty. Letwin should know better than to conflate the two.
But perhaps he chose his words carefully. Perhaps keeping the rich in check is to become important to the Cameron Conservatives - and he is embracing "social justice" components of the Labour programme.
Perhaps Cameron has decided that health and education should be the exclusive domain of government. And perhaps in his leftwards shift, he is sending a message not only to Blair but to his own party.
During the leadership contest, a rumour did the rounds suggesting that Cameron had a plan to axe the Tory right wing and rebuild from the centre. Ken Clarke's allies spoke about "losing 25%, and gaining 50%".
And indeed, seeing the likes of Sir Bob around Conservative Central Office will certainly torment at least a quarter of his party - who may end up as orphaned as the Labour left have been under Blair.
Those who hate Conservatism (and there are a fair few in Scotland) should not be worried by the Tory revival, but instead ask themselves what is intrinsically Conservative about what Cameron has announced so far.
His star advisers? His crusade on gender equality? His coming speech to the organic Soil Association? Forcing businesses to publish salaries of all staff? Pledging to outspend Labour on state services?
Just as anti-Socialists rejoiced at the emergence of New Labour, so anti-Conservatives should be encouraged to see the new Tory Party looking to other political pastures for new ideas and intellectual sustenance.
I own a coffee mug with an old quote from Herbert Morrison: "Socialism is what the Labour Party does". Fittingly, the text faded in the dishwasher; socialism is a creed now distinct from the Labour Party agenda.
Today, what the Tory Party does is not necessarily Conservatism. This is the Cameron effect: he is cooking up a political hybrid based on Conservatism, but mixed with Labour mantra and environmentalism.
It remains very early days. But the deep blue of the Tory logo is being accompanied by streaks of red and green - all emblazoned on a new political wristband which may very well make Conservatism history.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
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