Britain is not South Africa. The Conservative Party is not the African National Congress. And David Cameron is most certainly not Nelson Mandela. Matthew D’Ancona, the political columnist of the Sunday Telegraph and the author of an insight-packed study of the Coalition, is the last person to draw such crude analogies. But his column today is impossible to read without applying them, at least at some level. “Nelson Mandela still has lessons to teach the Tory Party,” the headline reads. In the piece itself, Matthew writes that “the ability to step into the shoes of another – to think as someone else thinks – is one of the distinguishing features of true political greatness…Victory eludes the Conservative Party because it has not learnt to think as the other guy thinks. Too many Tories still find it hard to think beyond the tribal stockade; or – much worse – assume that everyone beyond its boundaries thinks as they do.”
It should go almost without saying that with only one Parliamentary seat in Scotland, 20 of out 124 seats in northern and midlands urban constituencies, a derisory 16 per cent of the vote of ethnic minorities, a smaller electoral base than its main rival (over two in five voters wouldn’t even consider voting Tory), the Conservative Party is indeed finding it hard to travel, let alone think, beyond the tribal stockade – where, to add to its woes, a new party of the Right now holds roughly 150 council seats. The question is how to do the thinking and make the journey. Peering at a map of South Africa, and seeking a read-over from the mighty life of Mandela, are unreliable guides in both cases. Why? Here’s why – more fully.
First of all, Britain is not South Africa. The differences between them are too many to list, so I will restrict myself to only one: we have no legacy of apartheid. In Britain, the discrimination written into law was religious, not racial (which is why being of Jewish origin didn’t prevent Disraeli from entering the Commons). This helps to explain why many people from abroad, including of course black ones, want to come here and live here. And for all our religious and racial tensions, it also accounts for why “today, across the country, people from different backgrounds get on well together”. There have been no “rivers of blood”.
Next, the Conservative Party is not the ANC. Indeed, the ANC is arguably not a political party at all. It is, rather, a mass movement, brought into being by a mix of resistance to apartheid, group solidarity, and union organisation (it has a tripartite alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Communist Party). The ANC came from below. The Conservative Party, for all its historical genius for adaptation, originally emerged from above, as one of the two great established parties (the other being the Liberals). The ANC’s vote share hovers at around two-thirds of the total. In a neat statistical reversal, the Conservatives’ vote share wavers at about a third. And unlike the ANC, it has a rival on its flank that can flourish in a national contest – UKIP and the euro-elections – and is consistently chalking up some ten per cent in the polls. I could go on, but you get the point.
Finally, Cameron is not Mandela, though there are two resemblances. Like Cameron, Mandela was a “Posh Boy”. The latter’s father was “a chief of the Thembu clan of the Xhosa people and a descendant of King Ngubengcuka, who had ruled over all the Thembus early in the 19th century”. (The Prime Minister’s background is too well known to require repetition.) And, like Mandela, Cameron has known the terrible death of a son. (The former President’s child, Thembekile Mandela, was killed in a car crash.) This family sorrow gives the Prime Minister a moral authority to speak about the NHS that none of his predecessors have had. But nothing that he has experienced can remotely compare to hammering stones into gravel, or labouring in a lime quarry, for year after year on Robben Island.
Why linger over the obvious? Why plod in such detail over differences so undeniable as scarcely to be worth enumerating? Because having a workable map, and learning from the right leadership abroad, is indispensable if the Conservatives are to break out of that electoral corral, and become a winning Party again after 20 years without a majority to call their own. That means what Tim Montgomerie calls the Politics of And and I call a conservatism for Bolton West – an appeal that can reach voters in those midlands and northern marginals who simply dismiss the Tories as the party of the rich.
Leaders in countries more comparable to Britain than South Africa have built winning alliances by the straightforward means of holding their flank while expanding to the centre. Unlike Mandela, they are not heroes; unlike him again, they lack drama – the experience of triumph over suffering through humility, played out against the raw backdrop of apartheid; unlike him yet again, they are men of the centre-right. Arguably, they are rather dull people, to whom nothing truly remarkable has ever happened: Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott – the recent centre-right election winners of the Anglosphere. Downing Street’s capacity “to think as someone else thinks” must apply to older, conservative voters as well as younger, liberal ones, if it is to build the coalitions they’ve built. At the moment, it’s not doing all that well with either. To follow Matthew’s analogy, it has failed, all too often since 2005, to speak “in their native tongue” not only to its enemies, but to its friends.