Published:

By Peter Hoskin
Follow Peter on Twitter

BookcoverI’ve
just finished reading Bright Blue’s pamphlet Tory Modernisation 2.0, which was unleashed on a Europe-fixated Westminster
on Wednesday. It contains, of course, the excellent
essay by Graeme Archer
that we published on ConHome that day — but there
are nine others, on subjects ranging from the environment to the north, by
authors including David Willetts, Matthew d’Ancona and David Skelton. It’s
certainly one I’d recommend for this snowbound weekend. You can download the
whole thing here.

But
in case you don’t have the time or inclination to shuffle through Tory Modernisation 2.0, here are five brief
points that I’ve distilled from its pages. They by no means offer a complete
overview of the book; just some of its more persistent themes, which I shall
likely return to in future. And they also happen to suggest where the modernisers’
minds are at now. Here goes:


i) Coalition
with the Lib Dems has, in some ways, been bad for modernisation.
Of course,
not all modernisers think alike; but there does appear to have been a general,
and important, shift in their thinking about the Lib Dems. There was a time when
many modernisers were vigorously upbeat about the Coalition and what it could
achieve, as exemplified by Nick Boles’ book Which
Way’s Up?
But now some of that initial optimism appears to have dimmed. In
their introduction to the Bright Blue collection, Ryan Shorthouse and Guy Stagg
put it in blunt terms: “Gloomy economic circumstances and the nature of
Coalition have meant the modernisation project has been undermined.” And my old
boss at The Spectator, Matthew d’Ancona,
develops this point in his own essay. On his account:

“…partnership
with the Lib Dems has also encouraged a form of laziness amongst senior Tories
– one which, to his credit, the Prime Minister was quick to identify. At a
Carlton Club dinner in 2011, he said it was essential that the Conservatives
not ‘subcontract compassion’ to the Lib Dems (deploying a phrase first coined
by Damian Green).”

And
he also highlights the Tory backlash against the Coalition, with all the trauma
that brings:

“The
Coalition, meanwhile, has bred resentment among Tories and a sense that the Lib
Dems, rather than keeping the party in power with a healthy majority, are
petulantly obstructing true Conservatism. The party waits like a toddler, its
fists bunched, to be let off its reins when the alliance ends. To do what?”

None
of this means that the modernisers loathe the Lib Dems — far from it. Matt, for
instance, urges hostile Tories to think where the party might be if the Lib
Dems "were not standing as a human shield between themselves and the electorate”.
And, in his contribution to the book, David Willetts emphasises that “we should
not be uncomfortable about being in Coalition with the heirs to the old Liberal
Party”. But, on the whole, these feeling are a little more confused now, as
Damian Green demonstrated in
a recent speech
.

ii)
Overcoming the caricature of Margaret Thatcher.
Last year,
I wrote a column
and one,
two
supplementary posts about how Margaret Thatcher has been misremembered by many
on the Right. But Phillip Blond managed to put it all, really, into one tweet: “Thatcher
herself would not have been a Thatcherite.”

Why
does this matter now? For a very simple reason: it is that false memory of
Thatcher and Thatcherism that informs much of the debate within the
Conservative Party now — and this is something that the authors of Tory Modernisation 2.0 realise, and
lament, more than most. There are almost too many examples to mention, but they
include this from David Willetts’ essay:

“It was a
deliberate corrective to a picture of bare-earth Conservatism in which there
was supposed to be ‘no such thing as society’ – which is itself a completely
misleading picture of Margaret Thatcher’s own beliefs.”

This,
by Jonty Olliff-Cooper:

“Thatcher is
lionised by some for smashing monopolies and tackling vested interests. But
when it came to public services, she was quite timid, leaving the basic
fragmented structure of the post-war state as she found it.”

And
this, by Ben Caldecott:

“That
campaign is part of a broader movement to push the Conservative Party to the
so-called ‘Right’. Its adherents believe in a conservatism more socially
conservative, economically combative and defensively nationalistic than
Cameron’s administration. They share a folk-memory that Margaret Thatcher was
far more confrontational and less pragmatic than she actually was.”

Indeed,
Mr Caldecott’s essay begins by quoting Lady Thatcher to the effect that “The
core of Tory philosophy and for the case for protecting the environment are the
same.” So it’s almost as though the mods are claiming her for themselves — and
with some
cause
, too.

iii) The
continuing importance of public service reform.
Public
services, and perhaps particularly the NHS, have always been important to modernisers; so it’s no surprise to see that preoccupation continue here.
But, as with attitudes towards the Lib Dems, there has been a shift brought
about by being in Government. There’s less and less emphasis on presentation —
on the mere saying of “we care about Britain’s public services” — and more on implementation.
Jonty Olliff-Cooper’s essay is a good example of this, insofar as it not only
praises, say, the Government’s welfare and education reforms, but also enumerates
their failings and limitations. “Most of the Coalition’s reforms do not readily
interlink,” he writes. “Education policy still meshes poorly with industrial strategy;
offender rehabilitation still struggles to integrate with the mental health
system; and so on.”

This
matters not just for achieving good schools, prisons, hospitals and so on, but also,
of course, politically. The Conservatives have been struck by a misfortune in
having to deliver more for less, yet it is also a sort of opportunity. If
much-needed reform programmes can be implemented, then it could persuade people
that the Tories can be trusted when it comes to public services. And — who
knows? — it might also result in a more significant philosophical shift,
against the Brownite idea that quality can be measured by spending and by state
involvement alone.

iv) Modernisation
pre-dated David Cameron, and it will probably outlast him.
This theme
emerges most in Matthew d’Ancona’s essay, which — as a history of the
modernising movement — excavates all the way back to the 1990s, when people
like David Willetts, Daniel Finkelstein and Andrew Cooper realised that the
Conservatives needed to change radically. But it’s implicit elsewhere, including
in Mr Willett’s citation for his own Civic
Conservatism
, a pamphlet written for the Social Market Foundation in 1994, and
in some of the references to Margaret Thatcher.

This,
I think, is more than simple genealogy: it also makes the point that
modernisation was, is and always will be about more than huskies and hoodie-hugging.
Indeed, some modernisers worry that their ideas don’t get a fair hearing
because of how the early Cameron years have been caricatured, and subsequently
lampooned, in the media. As Matt suggests in his essay, modernisation isn't a point in time or a project that ended around 2008, but rather a "permanent state of mind".

v)
The modernisers are evolving.
That said, for all the permanance of its founding principles, modernisation does appear to changed substantially over the years. Broadly speaking, the authors of the Bright Blue pamphlet come from what Tim Montgomerie calls the "Soho modernising" wing of the party: that which congregated around people such as Mr Portillo and Francis Maude, and prioritised concerns such as gay marriage, diversity and the enviroment. This Tim distinguishes from the Easterhouse tradition, which included himself, and which wanted the party to concentrate on tackling poverty. But, reading the pamphet, it's clear how the two groups are now meeting somewhere in the middle. This is most apparent in David Skelton's essay, which promotes the cause of "blue collar modernisation". As he puts it:

"But the more blue-collar and economic aspects of modernisation have made less progress. And the recession has made the economy and jobs the central issue in politics again. Parts of the Midlands and the North still associate the Tories with unemployment and deindustrialisation, meaning that the Tories have to make substantial efforts to be seen as the party fighting unemployment and encouraging job creation."

And this, in turn, reflects a general appreciation that modernisation must change as Britain has changed over the past few years. Again, I quote Matthew d'Ancona:

"Self-evidently, modernisation in Government cannot be the same as it was in Opposition. Those who sneer about glaciers, hoody-hugging and wind turbines have nothing to worry about."

In the end, this is quite some cause for optimism: the various modernising tendencies are coming together, a deep intellectual genepool for the Conservative Party's future.

Comments are closed.