By Iain Martin.
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One of the great underutilised voices of Fleet Street is Bruce Anderson. His grasp of history, peerless prose style, rapier wit and attempts to grapple with the perpetual struggle between principle and pragmatism in the conservative mind, make him a joy to read.
Happily (mostly happily) for me, Bruce is a good friend. I not only get to read him, but I can enjoy his company at lunch and dinner (although I do not recommend trying both in one day).
It is a pleasure to hear him talk about art, Venice, the latest exhibition he has seen, American politics, Scotland or wine. Not only does he “know his claret from his beaujolais”, as the Blur song has it, he knows his first-growth claret from his second-growth claret.
But, like any of us, he has his weaknesses. Bruce’s worst vice is a desperate desire to be cravenly loyal to whichever individual happens to be leader of the Conservative party at any given moment. He only made an exception in the case of Iain Duncan-Smith.
I understand his attachment to the current Tory leader. He started life as a Marxist (Bruce not David Cameron) and he prizes devotion. I can remember, from a lunch party in Edinburgh in August 2005 when David Cameron looked like an also-ran in the leadership race, the mocking laughter that rose to greet his assertion that his man would make it to Downing Street. Bruce has a good claim to have helped invent Cameron, being the first to identify him in print as a future Tory leader long before there was a vacancy. He did similar with William Hague and John Major.
Whenever his hero is under attack, or rather whenever anyone uses the instruments of a free society to question or criticise David Cameron, Bruce responds with gusto.
On ConservativeHome today he has attacked the “belly-achers”, singling out me as having “traded in belly-ache futures”. Last week it was the (excellent) Standpoint magazine getting it in the neck for supposed crimes against Cameron Conservatism, this week it is my turn.
Here Bruce is making one of his usual mistakes – jumbling up journalists/ columnists and paid-up Tories. Sometimes there is a cross-over between those two groups, but in my case I have only ever been in the former group (journalist). He has never really grasped this, although I have attempted to explain it many times.
There is way too much criticism, says Bruce, of the government’s approach to the twin crises in Europe and the economy. Critics are pretending that there are easy answers available (I’m certainly not). As always, Bruce’s answer is: trust the leader of the Conservative party in these difficult times.
Many Conservatives, desperate to rid the country of Gordon Brown, unswervingly trusted David Cameron and his team during the election, and were rewarded with one of the most ill thought out, incoherent and expensive election campaigns in history. What were the Tory team trying to tell the worried country? Something about a Big Society, not cutting the NHS but cutting the deficit and, er…
Those who observed years ago that the Tories had no clear message of opportunity for the millions of “strivers” of modest means, and that they were attempting to win without the direct appeal to the aspirational voters that has been the bedrock of the Tory party’s greatest successes since the Second World War, were told not to be so old-fashioned. What mattered was reassurance, soft mood-music and pledging to increase the foreign aid budget. Good grief.
This all had real consequences. It led in government to the Conservative party, the Conservative party, announcing plans at a time of great economic stress to remove child benefit from families where one taxpayer dares to earn £43,500. This sends a message to those earning below that level who hope to get there through effort and application. Osborne also put another 750,000 people into the 40p tax band with his tax changes.
I am not arguing that all tax rises can be avoided in this climate. But to say to hard-working people that there is no money, hike taxes and then increase spending on foreign aid by many billions is, well, a bit rich.
Now, it is reported that David Cameron’s pollster, arch-moderniser Andrew Cooper, has belatedly discovered in his numbers a group called “the strivers” who suddenly deserve the PM’s attention. Apparently they work hard, are worried about the squeeze on their family income from inflation and high taxes and are rather important to the health and well-being of the country. You don’t say.
This is not the first time that the Tory modernisers have miscategorised what their critics were saying, dug their heels in confusing stubbornness with conviction and then changed course late. When the Tory front-bench was committed to matching Labour’s spending levels the “bellyache brigade” warned them (in the manner of the audience at a pantomime shouting “It’s behind you!”) that there was an economic storm coming and they should rethink. Pretty soon there wouldn’t be any proceeds of growth to share.
Eventually, came the last-minute switch from Osborne, and a sensible focus on deficit reduction (but minus an equally important focus on the supply-side measures needed to encourage private sector led growth and job creation). The overall effect was not a reassuring one.
It raises a question. If the Cameroons are going to be three years late to every party, why should the rest of us stand around talking politely and waiting for them to turn up?
I attribute these problems that the Tory leadership has to an excessive reliance on short term-tactics which they like to dress up as grand strategy. Rather than starting with honest questions – What does the economy need? How can the strivers who are the key to recovery be encouraged? How can Britain engineer a new settlement as the Eurozone unravels? – they start with a broadly Blairite set of assumptions about what they think will be popular. Or what will not offend the Lib Dems. It is all rather out of date.
I understand the impulse and the need for what Bruce terms realism. In print I have applauded the government’s reforms in education and welfare. Unlike some of his own MPs, I think David Cameron is a likeable and steady personality.
But I think Bruce is being unrealistic about what happens to politics in a genuine crisis.
In times of great tumult Britain’s traditional post-Reform Act system of party management and whipping can break down. It happened in the 1930s over appeasement, when some Tories demanded blind loyalty to the leadership and deselection for one particular maverick Tory “lunatic”.
I am not comparing the current Tory rebels on Europe to Churchill, or Cameron to Chamberlain (although I do think he has a great deal in common with Baldwin). Mercifully, this time the threat to Europeans is not a military one. It comes in the form of a challenge to democracy, potential economic collapse and continent-wide social unrest.
It is greatly to be welcomed that many on the Tory benches, and a few on the Labour benches too, see all this and are noisy and vexatious in asking questions and demanding to know where Britain’s government thinks it is going. Unelected journalists and independent columnists are perfectly entitled to join in. It is imperative that they do.
Of course, this is accentuated in the 21st century by the absence of a culture of deference to leaders or FCO mandarins, thanks to the transparency of the internet age, the epic cynicism of many voters about politicians and the independent personalities of a great many of the new crop of Tory MPs. Bruce’s demands for “followership”, whilst hugely entertaining, are thankfully not going to change that.
PS: Bruce also takes aim at the Don’t Underestimate Ed Mili Society. DUEMS is obviously a wholly different organisation from the Don’t Underestimate Ed Mili Association (DUEMA), of which I was a founding member. I cannot speak for DUEMS, but DUEMA has been put in chapter 11 and filed for intellectual bankruptcy. However, the Tories are lucky that it is Ed Miliband making the case against bankers and questioning wealth disparities. Miliband’s personality has not connected with voters, but there is great discontent about these themes in the country. It is an unfashionable view, but if the Tories fail to get the economy moving and dawdle through the European crisis (driving some Tories to UKIP by their hare-brained attempts to keep Nick Clegg sweet) it is not difficult to envisage Labour ending up narrowly as the largest party in an election.