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Shortly after David Cameron was elected as party leader in 2005, I attended a Bow Group event at which some senior party figures explained how they were intending to change our political strategy following Cameron's election. At that event I made myself no friends at all, and generated not a little bemusement, by complaining that what was described involved no change of strategy at all, but simply a continuation of the same failed strategy we had pursued since 1997. It is a theme I have returned to repeatedly in ConservativeHome columns, but since no-one ever seems to grasp what to me seems absolutely clear and simple, I shall have another go.
Here is a political strategy – the political strategy pursued by the party in opposition from 1997 onwards: "Hide the Conservative Party’s obsession with the economy, public service reform and constitutional questions, in an attempt to prevent the public discovering what we're really like, because voters don't like Conservatism and won't elect it."
Here is a tactic – the tactic pursued from 1997-2005: "Hide the Conservative Party’s obsession with the economy, public service reform and constitutional questions by occupying political debate with Save The Pound and asylum-seekers and gypsies, denying airtime to the topics we want to cover up."
Here is another tactic – the tactic pursued from 2005-2008: "Hide the Conservative Party’s obsession with the economy, public service reform and constitutional questions by occupying political debate with green issues and gay rights, denying airtime to the topics we want to cover up."
Now these are clearly different tactics – the topics used for distraction differ, and it's certainly possible to argue that the latter tactic was more effective than the former. But a problem of many Cameroons is that they imagine that what was required was simply such a change of tactics. They were unprepared to consider a deeper change – a change to the underlying political strategy. Cameron "modernised" the tactics, but left the strategy unchallenged.
And it's the strategy that's been the problem. The strategy of pretending to be things we're not has made the party seem inauthentic, conflicted, dishonest, and disinterested in the central concerns of ordinary people.
Perhaps some of you doubt that we've been inauthentic since 1997 or that the leadership has attempted to distract public attention from our true concerns? So, a party that had a reputation for being old didn't choose a 36 year old leader and make him wear a baseball cap, then? A party that had a reputation for wanting to cut public spending didn't hide away one treasury minister for days (Letwin, 2001) or deselect a Deputy Chairman (Flight, 2005) for suggesting public spending might be cut? A party thought to be obsessed with obscure constitutional questions didn't deselect a candidate for defending the Protestant constitutional settlement (Hilton, 2005)? You imagine that in the early 2000s the think-tanks and dining clubs of Westminster debated little else than the rights of Kentish gypsies, rather than, say, foreign policy or education reform?
Many senior Conservative figures thought that central to the defeat of 1997 was that the public wanted a bit more spent on health and education and that Conservatives were dogmatically obsessed with marketising public services and weird constitutional questions (e.g. about the EU or human rights) that seemed of little significance to ordinary people. They thought we had become overly academic, turning ourself into an ideological debating society that half-thought itself still in government and was consequently more interested in proposing ideal policy than in regaining power. They thought that Labour was enormously popular on its management of the economy and of public services and that the public would have no interest in our opinions on those points. So if we were to get anywhere, we had to talk about something else.
So we did. And we lost and lost and lost again. Surely, by now, no-one can seriously believe that the Conservative Party can win (or deserve to win) by simply changing tactics whilst retaining the same fundamentally diversionary and inauthentic strategy.
We must offer the public Conservatism. Conservatives want to control public spending – not because that's a sad necessity forced on us by a large deficit, but because spending less and getting more for it is good in itself. Conservatives want to reform public services, introducing more markets and choice, because that will make public services work better especially for the aspirant working classes and the middle class and also because that will make public services more efficient and hence cheaper. Conservatives are interested in preserving and enhancing the British constitution, because the British constitution was built up, slowly and painfully at the expense of much blood and violence, over centuries and embeds the wisdom and practice of ages and was tempered such that it allowed change without civil war or oppression, and because a constitution that is like that offers inexpressibly higher social benefits to British citizens than do other inferior constitutions.
Conservatives are, of course, also interested in immigration and environmental questions and gay rights and other issues of personal freedom. But these are not our central concerns. No-one becomes a Conservative so she can save the environment or stop immigration. People do become Conservatives so they can campaign for fiscal rectitude and control of inflation, or so they can promote a market-based view of the ideal economy, or so they can participate in preserving and enhancing the constitution. In the past, people because Conservatives so they could argue for a strong military, including nuclear weapons.
Of course, from our core beliefs and priorities – from who we are – we can reach out and address the concerns and priorities of others. But as a party we must, in the first instance, express to the public what we are really about, and engage with the public on the central issues of political debate – even if on those issues we lose. If we do lose, then the public will vote for the Other Guy – that's democracy. But at least then we will have lost whilst being ourselves, rather than whilst pretending to be something we're not. For though we don't know we can win by being ourselves – it's so long since we tried, and the public's view of us as inauthentic is so embedded that it could take some time to turn around – one thing we do know, because we've tried it in 2001 and 2005 and 2010: we can't win by pretending to be something else.