Mr Cameron, The Tories & ‘compassionate’ conservatism: compelled to justify neoliberal politics at #ge2015?

As the 2015 British general election campaign gathers momentum, the prospect of a hung parliament looms large. Concerning Scotland, the 2014 Scottish Referendum may have produced a result that was to the satisfaction of supporters of the ‘no’ campaign, but the Scottish National Party’s subsequent rise as an extremely decisive contender in national-level politics could be described as the seminal consequence of #Indyref. Irrespective of the ultimate election result, the SNP, led by the articulate Nicola Sturgeon, is definitely set to be a decisive element in the post-election political dispensation.[1] Critics of the Conservative government’s policy agenda have developed strong arguments over the NHS, immigration policy, austerity and discriminatory practices. A cursory glance at the body of work by bloggers such as Thomas G. Clark (author of Another Angry Voice, which has attracted some 141,292 likes on Facebook) suffices to take stock of the key issues on which the Tory government has caused substantive public discontent.

This short article is an effort to briefly revisit David Cameron’s transformation from a young and reformist leader keen to break away from the Tory Party’s legacy of Thatcherism, and his position today, as a Conservative Prime Minister who is brought to defend Conservative policies, which are far from popular outside the politico-economic elite Cameron himself represents. It purports to shed light upon the challenge of ‘modernizing’ or giving a constructive and cosmopolitan face to the Conservative Party.

By no means is this article an adequate appraisal of the Conservative-LibDem coalition’s record in government under the Cameron-Clegg duo. Instead, what follows is rather an effort to outline several points that exemplify the challenges the Conservative Party under Mr Cameron has faced in its efforts to move on a path of – as Cameron repeatedly reiterated in his 2005 leadership bid speeches – compassionate conservatism (the definition of which, to borrow from Sophocles, is up to the wise to determine).

David Cameron’s accession to Tory Leadership: focus on compassionate conservatism

When David Cameron was appointed leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, efforts were made to give a ‘progressive’ touch to the traditionally establishment-friendly party, and also to distance the party from the legacy of Thatcherite neo-liberal politics. Having been an MP for only four years, Cameron emphasised his resolve to develop a brand of ‘modern compassionate conservatism’ soon after his election as party leader.

It was a time of dealing with the past, and setting the record right on a number of issues, from the party’s 1980s position on same-sex relationships, mass privatization, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and more. For a moment, Cameron did appear to bear the aura of a reformer, a man set to take the Tory Party to a new era in its political evolution. As Peter Dorey, an academic, wrote in 2007, Cameron’s initial efforts in demonstrating a move towards a socially inclusive and compassionate conservatism were somewhat successful, with the Conservative Party enjoying its first sustained poll leads over Labour since 1992.[2] Efforts to ‘modernise’ the party’s policy agenda have been at the heart of the Conservative Party’s agenda throughout the 20th century. In Cameron’s case, he initially demonstrated that he was more in tune with a modernisation agenda than his predecessors William Hague and Ian Duncan Smith.[3]

Drift in to the abyss of neoliberal politics?

 Since coming to power in 2010 through a coalition with the LibDems, Cameron began to gradually lose his reformist aura. Instead, the party’s polices, be it austerity, financial discipline, immigration, Europe, or the NHS, have marked a continuation of a neoliberal (and neoconservative) agenda, which favours the party’s wealthy donors and influential well-wishers, while widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Concerning the NHS, for instance, the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 turned out to be contradictory to election pledges, to say the least. In the on-going 2015 election campaign, Cameron’s modernising, reformist and progressive credentials have substantively waned, as the dominant image of the Prime Minister and his coalition government is that of a quintessentially Tory and neoliberal establishment. Jeremy Paxman’s pointed questions to Cameron at a recent TV show, if anything, provide proof of this reality. Unlike at no point in the recent past, more and more people have ended up dependent upon food banks under the Tory government. Pace ‘political’ readings of this trend, a somewhat nuanced view from across the water on the food banks phenomenon recently appeared in Le Monde.

Cameron’s earlier zest as a young party leader intent upon progressive transformation, the election manifesto of 2010 built in the backdrop of that discourse, and his track record as Prime Minister have led to considerable inconsistencies that political analysts have strongly criticised. As Thomas Clark noted in an article in November 2014, the Tories have deleted their 2010 election manifesto (the pre-election “contract”, as they used to call it) from their website, most likely in an effort to avoid public attention on policy inconsistencies, broken promises, under-achieved targets and policy mishaps. In the cyber age we live in, it is extremely difficult for a government, be it in the global North or the global South, to conceal hard facts and contradictory policies from the electorate.

Yet another controversial policy decision that caused the wrath of academics, the literati, school teachers and pupils alike, was Michael Gove’s efforts to reform the English curriculum in schools (and to make English literature an optional subject), giving more attention to British literature and scrapping key texts of American literature.[4] This zest to reform curricula was somewhat reminiscent of Mrs Thatcher’s efforts to influence the teaching of history. Thatcher took a strong interest in a new ‘national curriculum’ in history. As she wrote in her memoires, ‘though not an historian myself…, I had a very clear ­– and I had naïvely imagined uncontroversial – idea of what history was’.[5]

Uptight attitudes? 

To make things worse, it is hard to deny that an uptight, arrogant and somewhat boisterous attitude has added to the scars on the Cameron government’s track record. The controversial bedroom tax issue led to a report filed by a UN Investigator, Raquel Rolnik, which was critical about the tax, and the way in which it affected the most vulnerable. It was Grant Shapps, the Chairperson of the Conservative Party, who launched a scathing attack on Ms Rolnik, with several other politicians following suit. This was, as several analysts have correctly highlighted, an extremely undiplomatic and undignified reaction on behalf of a government. The arrogance involved somewhat echoed Andrew Mitchell’s angry ‘plebgate’ altercation of 19 September 2012.

Is Compassionate Conservatism a mirage?

This legacy of policy orientation and ‘attitudes’ of senior personalities may prompt the discerning analyst to raise a vital question. As noted above, initial assessments of Cameron’s modernisation agenda (in contrast to the failures of his predecessors on the driving seat, Messrs Hague and Duncan Smith) often maintained that he was successful in upholding a modernisation agenda in his party. In the long run – and especially with regards to the years spent in office – could one reach the same conclusion? Or rather, does the Conservative Party continue to operate along an agenda that takes Thatcherite policies to the next level? These are questions that Tory policymakers and policy strategists ought to raise seriously, in determining their policy focal points in future, irrespective of the general election result.

What is unique about #ge2015 is the very real possibility that no party will be in a position to secure a safe majority. As Sadiq Kahn MP has rightly admitted, the Labour Party faces an unprecedented challenge from the rise of the SNP in Scotland, traditionally an electoral minefield for Labour. Indeed, the emergence of UKIP, the Green Party and the SNP mark a new phase in the gradual demise of a strictly speaking two-party system, in which the two main parties on the right as well as the left are faced with substantive challengers.

In such trying times for political parties seeking a place in the British House of Commons, it is worth for politicians across party and ideological dividing lines to reflect upon Sir John Major’s retrospective comments from a book chapter he authored, entitled ‘The Limits of Power’:

‘In government, we should have explained more and assumed less. In Opposition, we shouldn’t have let myths take root: but we were demoralized by defeat–and did’.[6]



[1] The primary focus of this article is not the impact of the Scottish referendum on the election campaign, or the overall role of the Scottish question in the election. It is a topic best discussed in a separate article.

[2] Dorey, Peter, 2007, A New Direction or Another False Dawn? David Cameron and the Crisis of British Conservatism. British Politics, 2, 137-166.

[3] On the Conservative Party’s modernisation discourses, see, for example, Denham, A. and O’Hara, K. 2007, The Three ‘Manthras’: ‘Modernization’ and The Conservative Party. British Politics, 2, 167-190.

[4] The Gove reforms on the English curriculum sparked a broad critique, with some analysts, such as Claire Fox, supporting Gove’s decisions.

[5] On Mrs Thatcher’s involvement in the history curriculum and her confrontations with historians, see Bernard Porter, 1994, ‘Though not an historian myself…’: Margaret Thatcher and the historians’, Twentieth Century British History, 5:2, 246-256.

[6] Major, John, 2013, The Limits of Power. In R. Carr and b. Hart (Eds.), The Foundations of the British Conservative Party: Essays on Conservatism from Lord Salisbury to David Cameron. London: Bloomsbury.

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