January 14, 2007

Who is David Cameron?

British political pundits focus at the moment on the enigma that is Gordon Brown. Brown's motives, his friends, his ideas are scrutinised for any difference from Tony Blair- but as Politaholic notes today in the light of David Cameron's recent interview with Andrew Marr there is far less analysis around of what David Cameron is about. From one side you get many Tory activists and figures like Norman Tebbitt who worry that Cameron is leaving traditional Tory principles behind him and adopting a Blairite centre ground, such a view of Cameron at the extremes has led to a small group of people on the right defecting to the UK Independence Party. One UKIP blogger for instance recently referred to Cameron's supporters as centre left Cameroons.

The response of the left to Cameron has been to deny this movement. Politaholic on his blog for instance, in the article above I've linked to, considers Cameron a traditional rightwing Tory. Douglas Alexander, the young Brownite Secretary of State for Transport and Scotland, has argued that the election of Cameron brought the Tories a new singer, singing the same tune. Mr Alexander wrote an article with his colleague David Milliband in which they argued that Mr Cameron's compassionate conservatism was rooted in lessons learnt from George W. Bush. That Cameron's conservative party was the same old fossil, with a new coat of paint.

The problem with both schools of thought is that we don't as yet know what Cameron would do in government- the left and right in British politics are exceptionally alert to treachery, the left can always smell out a capitalist pretending to have a conscience, the right can always detect a communist who pretends to love companies. We all expect to be betrayed- but is there any way that we can understand Cameron and what he is doing, any way that goes beyond the idea of treachery or lying.

I don't want to say too much- because we don't to be honest know too much- but there is something that we can say about Cameron. Cameron's perception, in my opinion, flows like Blair's from an awareness of defeat- as a candidate in 2001, an advisor to Michael Howard and candidate in 2005, Cameron has only known defeat in his time in politics. In the Commons, unlike say Hague and Howard, he has only know the parliamentary manoervres of opposition not the tactics of government. Furthermore Cameron will be aware of exactly what the conservatives have lost since 1992- and it hasn't been exactly what people believe them to have lost.

These figures from 2005 which include comparrisons to 1997, done as a poll for the BBC and ICM are fascinating because they provide a class breakdown of the British vote- and there is one statistic about the Tory Vote that is very interesting indeed. In 1997 the Tories captured 43% of the vote from classes A and B, in 2005 they only managed to get 37% of the vote from the two richest classes within the country (hence one would assume the two classes most likely to vote for a right wing tax cutting party). 3% of that vote went to the liberals- who get 6% more of a share in those classes than they do amongst the average population, and 3% to others. If we go back to 1992 that trend becomes more pronounced, as Anthony Heath and John Curtis noted the Labour party gained disproportionately amongst white collar workers between 1992 and 1997.

One approach to this set of electoral facts was the Hague-Howard dog-whistle strategy that reaped some rewards in 2005. The idea was that the Conservative Party would turn into a quasi Republican party- a party that relied on cultural wedge issues like immigration to fuel its revival and return to power. The attempt for instance by Hague to make the 2001 election about Europe and 24 hours to save the pound was a gesture aimed at rousing the patriotic working classes to rise in Labour strongholds and in constituencies in Essex, Michael Howard famously tried the same with immigration- in a sense the Howard-Hague strategy came close to an attempt to turn Labour's flank, to capitalise upon the sense that Labour had deserted its traditional supporters and become a party of Islington, champagne drinking sophisticates.

Cameron's reversal of strategy to my mind is as much about the reversal of the Tory target audience. What the Tories have faced over the last couple of years is contempt from people who feel that the environment is an important issue, that gay and straight people are equal, that immigrants deserve respect, that single mothers need sympathy not condemnation and that the modern social world should be accepted. Many of those people are not socialists- not in favour of high taxes and many of them are precisely the kind of people who in many constituencies have deserted the conservative party and gone to the liberals and Labour. What Cameron therefore seems to me to be doing is attempting to make the conservatives accept the new social world of swift immigration, relaxed sexual morality- what you might call young professional morality.

Modernising the Conservative Party and modernising the Labour party don't mean the same things- as Iain Dale recently remarked to Peter Hennessy in many ways the Tories for the first time since the Twenties are facing competition as a non-socialist party from the liberals- what Cameron is trying to do is mould back together a conservative coalition. The Tories retain the rural backwoods, they retain many older professionals but they run last amongst the young and they are leaking votes amongst the middle and upper class- a socially liberal, economically liberal Tory party is possibly a package that might appeal to that demographic. Cameron is obviously about other things too- and I've exaggerated the degree to which this is a new approach- but I do think that it is part of the new Cameroon strategy.

It might work, it might not, but it seems like a reasonable interpretation. There are connections between this and the revival of one nation Toryism- there is a sense in which Cameron wants to enlarge the cultural definition of conservatism, to avoid the Tories descending back to their ghettos and revive the Tories as a national party. Part of that involves attempting to recapture the young and the middle class- and particularly the intersection of those two groups.

We shall see if he succeeds...


james higham said...

..I don't want to say too much- because we don't to be honest know too much- but there is something that we can say about Cameron. Cameron's perception, in my opinion, flows like Blair's from an awareness of defeat..

This is the single greatest worry, as I see it. Cameraon is acting precisely as Blair did and he is just as bereft of firm principles.

Tories are supporting him because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate but the truth is it's going to be the same old guard with a new face.

Just as it would have made no difference in the US - both were skull and bones men.

Sam said...

Interesting post. I, too, like what you said about Blair and Cameron, awareness of defeat. Very interesting point.

I wonder if Cameron will ever sound like he doesn't have a PR man attached to his hip. He strikes me as a Hillary-esq sycophant to the polls and to PR. I suppose he doesn't have to define himself until an election date is set. However, being a heavyweight in spin doesn't give political punch. It just makes people sick of watching you.

CharlieMcmenamin said...

An awareness of defeat? Yes,good thought, Cameron almost certainly shares this with Blair.

But, perhaps, he also shares something even more important
Blair and Cameron are both "apolitical politicians", driven to 'triangulate' policies (and polling population segments) seeking a electoral majority. They are not 'organic' politicians, attached to particular strata, still less conviction politicians. So their programmes always sound managerial, not political.

edmund said...

I think all the comments have a good deal in them.

On the post I think there's a good deal in the article- most of all the lack of knowledge about Canmeroun (who in 1995 would have predicted that Tony Blair would have invaded Iraq with a Republican , not entered the euro and been the only Social Democratic or left of center leader to have raised expendtirue over the tenure of his government...)

However I think you dismiss the like Bush theory (which has very diffetn implications from those not very au fait with his acutal record in government might believe) in particular in 2000 he did a great deal of similar motions there was an enormous amount of what you might call leftish mood music including pro gay and pro environmental (though that loomed less large) and an enormou use of tokenism the use of black, female ect figures and images (thoguh that obviously has less effect in the more decentralized US system.

Most importantly like Cameroun his most important ideolgoical change is one that got little attenion at the time (even less than Camerou) but was key- a move towards a much postive (Christian Democrat?) attitude to government -that is that "when someone hurts government has got to move" you can see this with Camerounon the environment, poverty , overseas aid ect and the rising spending charges

This is more complicated than just becoming leftwing -Cameroun like Bush looks like he'll cut taxes albeit (like bush) less than has been done before and even in the new "big government" ideas there's every scope from ideas much more free market and based on an ethos of personal responsabi8lity than the left- eg the emphasis on family stabliity and the use of tax brakes to promote green energy.

but it strikes me that ius the real ideologicla diffence. Gay rights is not one Howard swithced on that , not Cameroun and we wait to see if Camerou even contiues to be as liberal as Hague or Howard (who had more liberla polices than the tories in 97) on immigration.

This does not necessarily contradict your demographic point - after al Bush's attmpt was to woo middle class/ voters and the same could be true for Cameroun.

on a minor note i'd be carefull about assuming the 3% went to the liberals- they've almost ceri got aquite a few labour professional voters who would have voted labour in 92 (look at the result in Hornsley and Wood Green for example)

I also have to say I think your analysi of the HOwar4d and Hague "stratergy" is a bit unfair. (or too fair!) both of them used the only issues they had any populariyt on in the last few weeks-rightly they'd failled to build up any other and you can't do that in four weeks. They certialy did not try up credibulity on them over the years. This can be seen for example in the 1/5 or so of hte contry who named immmigration a huge issue, said they would be very miunded to vote for a party that was hardlien ( half the pouplation in 2005 wanted no net immigraiton a much more "rightwing" postion than the tories much less labour)-and completley failled to believe tory assurances they would genuinely be more restiricve.

Moreover the result in 92 among hte middle class was in an era whrere radical trade unions, extely high maringal taxaion on the best off, mass nationaization and communism were much more intermediate and even then the tory advantge dephnd a lot on elderly professons who were accultued in the eralier decades in an even more class polarized environment.

Moreover labour now for the first time has a clear advantage in idenficaiton-bigger than their popular vote margin at the last election, the notion that simply by moving left and adopain to Blarite/ Gramscite policies the tories can rebuild their class base is whisting in the wind.

if they're to win due to anything other than attrocious government unpopularity, they need a different stratergy

Gracchi said...

Edmund- very acute criticism. I think there are four points probably that I need to address.

The Bush issue- I left that largely because my expertise on American politics isn't up to your standards- I do agree with you though that Bush too often is looked at through the prism of war. To me though Bush's faith group compassionate conservatism is much closer to Iain Duncan Smith's commitment to social justice based on voluntary and religious groups. I think Cameron is trying to split the difference between that and a Blairite approach to social justice.

On the liberal point- yes I accept the psephological argument- the key in reality is that Tory voters left and left to vote for parties that weren't socialist but were more 'modern'

On Hague Howard- my own view is that you are wrong. The problem lay in the image not in the consistency of what Hague or Howard were saying which probably irritated you as a very politically aware right wing Tory. The issue was that when Hague and Howard appeared they appeared say to disdain Portillo style Conservatism and definitely to many of the less politically aware people I know they seemed to be fossil like in their political awareness.

Lastly to your bigger point about whether this can work. Personally I think that argument isn't lost at all. It does seem to me that the Tories if they retreat into a cultural enclave- if they adopt the Bush policy of making the election about culture not economics- will lose a whole lot of people who might vote for them in other terms. I do think for example that there is a constituency out there for what we might call one nation Toryism still- I just think that constituency has been driven into the liberal party and the New Labour party at the moment- the Tories could get it back. The politics of culture war though I don't personally see as a way forward for them- but as I say the result will be the judge of that- I do think this is in part Cameron's strategy.

Liz said...

Pretty accurate. Cameron is appealling to exactly the same demographic as Blair did, which implies liberal social values with monetarist economic policy. Not much to choose from, really.