As polling day nears, Conservatives are sticking to a strictly economic message. But there should be room in politics for moral arguments.
The weeks grind on, and the election looms closer. Most people who follow politics at all realise how much hangs on the outcome. And yet was there ever a greater sense of ennui and disengagement?
Both main parties seemingly subscribe to the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid.” Of course, it often is. Margaret Thatcher won in 1979 after the “Winter of Discontent” had put the cap on years of Labour economic mismanagement. But she increased her majority in 1983 even though unemployment had soared and the recovery was barely established. Voters, swayed by her resolute leadership in the Falklands War, trusted her more than they did Michael Foot and Labour. Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 with a record majority despite several years of impressive growth under the Conservatives. They would have lost after 18 years of running the country even if they had sent free hampers to every voter.
This election campaign has been dominated by two competing economic viewpoints. George Osborne offers steadiness and reliability. The job is half done, and can only be completed by the Tories. There will have to be more carefully targeted cuts because that is the price we must pay for long-term economic stability. Labour’s response is that the proposed cuts are both excessive and unnecessary (the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is much readier to pour scorn on Mr Osborne’s plans than he is to reveal his own) and in any case the still fragile recovery has been needlessly delayed by too much austerity.
My own sympathies in this rather tedious Punch and Judy exchange lie firmly with Mr Osborne. Nonetheless, the Tories can scarcely pretend their arguments are making headway with undecided voters, of whom there are surprisingly many. (Ipsos MORI recently claimed that nearly half those who say they are certain to vote on May 7 have not yet made up their minds.) One opinion poll suggests the Tories are edging ahead, the next that Labour is fighting back. Conservative MPs and the right-wing Press are becoming nervy. Blame is being increasingly directed towards Lynton Crosby, the jovial Australian political guru masterminding the Tory campaign. He is reported to be reassuring the troops that it will still be all right on the night. If it isn’t, he will no doubt be retreating permanently to wherever he resides in Australia—unless Boris Johnson should summon back his old mentor to run his campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party.
In most respects it’s pretty astonishing the Tories aren’t doing better. Whether or not you believe too much austerity has delayed recovery, Britain’s economy is plainly far more buoyant than that of almost every other developed country, and we may soon be sending food parcels to the French and Italians. Polls suggest Mr Osborne is more admired and trusted than the evasive Mr Balls. As for David Cameron, he must be the luckiest man alive in having Ed Miliband as his opponent. (God alone knows why he is too “frit” to engage with him in a one-on-one television debate.) The Prime Minister’s personal ratings have been consistently better than the Labour leader’s. It’s hardly surprising that so many of Mr Miliband’s own foot soldiers should be privately despairing of him.
And yet he may be the next Prime Minister. He really might. I wonder what Lynton Crosby would then say as he boarded his 747 for Sydney. That the recovery came too late for people to give due recognition to the Tories’ achievement? That years of penny-pinching and making do had inevitably taken their toll? I daresay he would have all kinds of smooth arguments along these lines. It’s the economy, stupid. What I am practically certain of is that he wouldn’t admit David Cameron and the Tories had lost the election for want of moral courage. Or that they failed to convince voters as a result of being too focused on issues of economic competence.
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating new book by Eliza Filby called God and Mrs Thatcher (Biteback, £25). She argues persuasively that Margaret Thatcher was the most religious prime minister since William Gladstone. As a young woman she even preached to Methodist congregations. Her faith, formed as a child when she attended her father’s Wesleyan chapel in Grantham, underpinned everything she did. She sought a Christian justification for every political act, and puzzled constantly about Christian duty.
At the heart of her beliefs, which grew more sophisticated but did not fundamentally change over the years, was the conviction that man is a spiritual being, and immeasurably more than just an economic animal. This is what she said in a lecture in 1977 while still leader of the Opposition: “Every human being is unique and must play his part in working out his own salvation. So whereas socialists begin with society, and how people can be fitted in, we [Conservatives] start with Man, whose social and economic relationship are just part of his wider existence. Because we see man as a spiritual being, we utterly reject the Marxist view, which gives pride of place to economics.”
Ironically, of course, Thatcher’s enemies accused her with some justice of doing the very thing for which she criticised socialists—putting economics first. Among her critics were Anglican bishops such as David Sheppard of Liverpool, a former England cricket captain, who believed that paying tax was a more moral undertaking than giving to charity, and even doubted whether it was possible to be a Christian and a Conservative. In 1985 he was one of the authors of the Church of England’s semi-socialist, and strikingly secular, critique, Faith in the City. Thatcher was outraged, as was the right-wing Press.
In fact, notwithstanding Tory harrumphing there’s absolutely no reason why the Church should not stand up for the poor and defenceless. Jesus certainly did. Where it tends to go wrong—both in 1985 and in a letter published by the Anglican bishops this February—is in making divisive party political points and betraying basic ignorance. In their latest epistle (the ostensible purpose of which is to guide people on how to vote) the bishops come close to advocating membership of the European Union and to suggesting that the Trident nuclear deterrent may have passed its sell-by date. They also appear to believe that unemployment has risen since 2010, as Labour predicted it would, whereas it has actually fallen by 600,000.
What Margaret Thatcher wanted to do in 1979 was to liberate people so that they could be responsible for their own lives. The consequence, she believed, would be that successful people would assist the less fortunate—a kind of forerunner of David Cameron’s now shelved and mostly forgotten “Big Society”. She once reasonably pointed out that the Good Samaritan was only in a position to help because he had money in his pocket. As things turned out, though, the beneficiaries of her revolution did not always behave as they were supposed to. The greed and selfishness of City bankers came to grieve her. In a way she was too optimistic about human nature. Eliza Filby, who I suspect hails from the Left, suggests that her religiously-based project was undone by events. I would say that the jury is still deliberating.
Few who lived through the exciting but stricken decade that was the 1980s would want a re-run. Margaret Thatcher was a woman of and for her time. Besides, Britain has become an even more secular country over the past quarter of a century, and would be likely to be even less receptive now than it was then to arguments grounded in Christian belief. But for all that, reading God and Mrs Thatcher I felt the painful absence of a moral dimension to our modern politics. And I was struck again and again by how serious a thinker Margaret Thatcher was. I found myself comparing her to her successors—to their disadvantage. Her detractors often claim she had a second-rate mind, but if she did it was one that most of them should be proud to possess.
Here, of course, I am shining a spotlight on David Cameron. It is he who employs Lynton Crosby, and he who is ultimately responsible (with George Osborne at his elbow) for the depressingly narrow nature of the Tories’ campaign. Think of all the important issues that trouble many people which could be discussed but are considered either out of bounds or barely worth mentioning.
As I write, immigration is certainly one of them despite being at the top of voters’ concerns. This is very odd. There are almost no votes to be lost, and some to be won from prospective UKIP supporters, by raising the matter. I can see that Mr Cameron is embarrassed by his failure to bring down numbers to the “tens of thousands” as he promised in 2010; in the year to last September net migration was a record 298,000, of whom 190,000 came from outside the European Union. But most people can understand that it is not easy to stem the flow. What they generally look for, I think, is evidence of a balanced, decent but determined approach which shows that the Prime Minister really understands the disruptive effect of untrammelled immigration on people’s everyday lives.
Another virtual no-go area is defence. Mr Crosby is said to believe in his wisdom that there are no votes in it. Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, was reported to have expressed the same view to Tory MPs at a recent private meeting. He denied he had, and then said in a speech that Britain faces the “greatest challenge” to its national security for decades. He was referring to the dangers of a resurgent Russia directed by an increasingly unpredictable and unstable Vladimir Putin, and to the rise of Islamist fanatics in the Middle-East and North Africa. If Mr Hammond is right, as I am sure he is, why are we not hearing more from the Tory front bench about these dangers, and why does Mr Cameron refuse to guarantee that already diminished levels of defence expenditure will be maintained? It requires moral courage to tell comfortable voters they are threatened, and that more money may have to be found to protect them, but in the end most people will respect such candour.
Perhaps the most serious failing is the absence of any discussion about the “broken society”. The phrase was used by Mr Cameron after the riots in August 2011 but seems not to feature on Mr Crosby’s famous “grid” of policy announcements. Our sick society certainly hasn’t been mended. Almost every week yields more appalling details of children in Oxford, Sheffield, Rochdale or other places being abandoned by the authorities to their tormentors. In most cases such abuse was well underway in the Labour years, so the Tories need not feel politically vulnerable were they to address it. Where is the heart in their campaign? Where is the concern for hard-pressed families (marriage has received only minuscule tax breaks in the teeth of Lib Dem opposition) and for the problems they face—from hardcore pornography corrupting young minds to the allure of drugs? How lethally far removed the Tory hierarchy often seems during this election campaign from the experiences of ordinary people.
There are exceptions, of course. Michael Gove has declared that the Tories will only win if they can convince voters that they are “warriors for the dispossessed” and demonstrate that they “are in public service to help the people who need us, not just those who agree with us”. Though his speech contained declarations of support for the Prime Minister, it was in fact an attack on the aridness of the Tory message as Cameron, Osborne and Crosby have conceived it. He lavished praise on Iain Duncan Smith’s “moral” mission to get people off benefits and into work. Mr Gove and IDS are the two ministers who have shown over the past five years that they are driven by moral conviction. What are we to make of the fact that Mr Gove has lost his job as a reforming Education Secretary, and Mr Duncan Smith had to fight to keep his post as Work and Pensions Secretary?
Only 24 hours after Mr Gove’s intervention, Tories in the safe seat of Kensington exhibited the same complacency and narrowness that characterise the national campaign. Following the forced resignation of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, they were presented with a choice of candidates between Victoria Borwick, the wife of an hereditary peer, and Shaun Bailey, a black youth worker. They plumped for the former. Lord and Lady Borwick live in Phillimore Gardens, where houses change hands for at least £10 million, while Mr Bailey, though born in North Kensington, cannot afford to live in the constituency. I’m sure Lady Borwick is able, but so is Mr Bailey, and he speaks to the “dispossessed” in a way she never can.
Why is it that most of our leading politicians seem like pygmies in comparison with their predecessors of 30 or 40 years ago? They are not less intelligent, though they are usually younger and more callow. What makes them seem slighter figures is their lack of depth, the limited scope of their preoccupations.
To return to David Cameron: it’s a truism that you can never really change politicians. The Prime Minister is as much a product of his background as Margaret Thatcher was of hers. We can’t expect him to think like her, and we wouldn’t like it if he tried. But I still nonetheless retain some hope that he is something more than the slightly smug, managerial, professional politician without deep and lasting convictions that he so often appears to be.
After all, it was Mr Cameron who adopted the idea of the “Big Society”. The problem did not lie in the concept, a stirring one which most decent people would wish to embrace, but in the lack of rigorous thought behind it. Whereas it should have emerged organically from prolonged discussion and reflection, it was somehow plonked down half-formed, and inevitably attracted ridicule. Mr Cameron then lost interest in it, and the words can no longer be uttered without a giggle.
His critics on Right and Left will say it was only a stunt. Perhaps it was. But let me air an alternative theory—which is that the Tory leader is in his way a religious man, and has grown more so, perhaps as a consequence of the deaths of his son Ivan and of his father, whom he seems to have loved and revered. In 2008 he told the Guardian that his faith was “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But by Easter of last year he was describing himself as being “evangelical” about his Christian faith, and even went so far as to criticise some non-believers for failing to grasp the role that religion can have in “helping people to have a moral code”.
Another stunt? Or a passing enthusiasm, quickly forgotten? I don’t know. If he is being sincere, he’s wise not to talk about his faith too often, since to do so might alienate the increasing number of militant non-believers. And it should also be stressed that the moral courage which I am calling for does not have to have its roots in religious belief. Winston Churchill, who was at most sympathetic to Christianity, was able to tie together the deepest bonds of nationhood by appealing to history and people’s love for their homes and country. What was that if not a profoundly moral mission?
All the same, if I am right in suspecting that Mr Cameron has grown increasingly religious, we may credit him with having a moral dimension which, since he is an upper-middle-class Anglican from the home counties rather than a lower middle-class non-conformist from Grantham, is apt to be concealed. He must know, though, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Lynton Crosby’s philosophy. I should say that I have met the great Australian political guru only once, and found him charming, amusing and cynical. Affable though he is, I imagine he would boil any of us alive if required to.
Perhaps I am catching at straws, and attributing qualities to Mr Cameron which he does not possess. But if he does have them, fate has bestowed a potentially incalculable advantage in pitting Ed Miliband against him. For the Labour leader, who happens to be a self-professed atheist, really is the kind of socialist to whom Margaret Thatcher alluded in that 1977 speech who prioritises economics to the detriment of everything else. In his robotic way he can’t speak to the hearts of ordinary people, and he struggles to make any connection with their everyday concerns and anxieties. His proudly declared socialism even fails to ignite the dormant passions of the faithful.
I’m not asking Mr Cameron to commit political hari-kiri by climbing into a pulpit on the eve of an election. The task is a simpler one. Most voters don’t need much persuading that the Tories would be more competent in running the economy than Labour, and they probably don’t even believe scaremongering by the “two Eds” that a Conservative government would destroy the NHS. But many people do think that these rather aloof and conspicuously privileged public school boys who dominate the Tory party don’t really care about those significantly less fortunate than themselves.
The stakes are indeed very high. So much hangs on this election. Mr Cameron will only win if he succeeds in conveying that he is more than a reasonably safe pair of hands. To be sure, he will have to act against the script written for him by Lynton Crosby, and say things that would not come naturally to his friend the Chancellor. He will have to show moral courage. And it will only work if it comes from the heart. Time is running out, but it is not too late. Somehow David Cameron must show not only that the economy is safe in his and George Osborne’s hands, but that the people of this country are.