Selling the Conservative Soul
‘Cameron should have been subjected to the treatment meted out to used-car salesman caught selling duds’
My text is taken from the Gospel of St Matthew. “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Why do I open this sermon — sorry, column — in this way?
In a famous moment in A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More says to Richard Rich: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales?” Of course, despite aiming for it, David Cameron didn’t even gain Wales.
In April, I wrote here that for selling out conservative principles, desperately wooing their enemies and deliberately alienating their friends, the Cameron clique “deserved to lose”. And — curse of the Outsider column — they lost. Or at least, even against one of the most discredited Prime Ministers in living memory, they didn’t win the number of seats necessary to gain power and must now attempt to govern in ignominious coalition with a party that in recent years positioned itself to the left of Labour.
Cameron became party leader after a conference speech in which he told the party that it would have to “change to win”. The party trusted this shiny new object and did indeed change. But it did not win. Cameron should have been subjected to the usual treatment meted out to used-car salesmen who are caught selling duds. But the party was in no mood for further catastrophe and so the reckoning appears to have been postponed.
Nevertheless, there remain in the parliamentary party and in the rank and file a number of genuine conservatives. If you spoke to any of these people over the last five years — people on whom the Cameron project relied and whom it has now so completely failed — you were always told the same thing: “Certainly Mr Cameron is not popular within the party. But we gather he will be very popular with the country. So we’re going with it. After all, he promises that we will be in government in 2010 with a Blair-sized majority. Then we’ll really show them.”
But the election happened and the Blair-sized majority did not arrive. The result and the ensuing confusion were the perfect result of a campaign that was probably the worst charade a mature democracy can go through yet survive. In the much-heralded leaders’ debates, as in the rest of the race, no serious policy was discussed and no serious issues were opened up or examined.
The sole, accidental, confrontation with reality came when Gordon Brown met Gillian Duffy of Rochdale. Brown was not merely contemptuous of her; what was really striking, to me at any rate, was how little sympathy he had for her. It happened to be Brown caught with the mike on, but it could have been any of them.
If you are a woman of Mrs Duffy’s age, living in Rochdale, your world has changed unrecognisably during your lifetime. In the last 20 years alone, Rochdale’s ethnic minority population has doubled. In nine of the town’s schools, 70 per cent speak English as a foreign language. In another school, where every child is Asian, the figure is 100 per cent.
If there are any jobs to be had in Rochdale, they are very likely to be taken by the imported working-class, rather than the resident one that should have been encouraged to take any jobs on offer. Of all the huge demographic and economic changes that have occurred, none has happened with the consent of Mrs Duffy or anyone else. Nothing she could have done would have stopped it. And yet, like the rest of the British people, Mrs Duffy apparently accepted this wholesale change to her home without recourse to violence or obvious hatred. Just occasionally, mulling on the lack of jobs or prospects for their children and grandchildren and seeing what jobs remain in the former industrial centres going to Eastern European immigrants, such people were simply left to muse, like Mrs Duffy, that “nobody wants to talk about immigration”.
One of the most haunting phrases of recent years, which occurred to me again during the Duffy episode, came in a 2006 essay by Roger Scruton in the New Criterion. “The fact is,” wrote Scruton, “that the people of Europe are losing their homelands, and therefore losing their place in the world.” I would add that not only the people of Europe but along with them many of the ideals of Europe are being made homeless. As we were reminded at this election, even while this is happening the people to whom it is happening cannot comment on it or lament its passing without being dismissed by the people who would rule over them.
The patch of ground of which Cameron has been tenuously entrusted with governorship is being lost to the world and to itself. The only measure of Cameron’s life and leadership, and the only judgment that history will care to make, will be whether five years from now that ground is lost a little more or a little less.