Is David Cameron a Thatcherite?

Bruce Anderson debates Robin Harris on David Cameron’s Thatcherite credentials

Features History UK Politics Westminster

YES

BY BRUCE ANDERSON

The Tory Party exists to protect the nation and to solve the problems of the day. In a crisis, the two tasks can merge, most notably in 1979. Then, there were related threats to the British economy, to the rule of law and to the West’s ability to sustain the Cold War. Margaret Thatcher saw off all three and won enduring greatness.

But there is a problem with politics in a fallen world. In Chris Patten’s words, “as soon as you take a trick in diamonds, you find that hearts are now trumps”. Old difficulties give way to new. As long as the Soviet Union cast such a long shadow, the menace of Islamic terrorism was obscured. While Margaret Thatcher was mending a broken economy, not enough attention was paid to a broken society.

For the past 30 years, governments have been uneasily aware of two huge – also related – problems: the underclass and the public services. Since 1945, there has been vast expenditure on the welfare state. Too often, the result has been an “ill-fare state” condemning its clients to hereditary poverty, unemployment, demoralisation and crime. Culturally and economically, London is a city of unsurpassed opulence. Despite that, there has been a social regression to a Dickensian underclass.

The welfare state is not the sole instance of government wastefulness. In recent decades, politicians of both parties have tried to ensure that the public services serve the public: that a pound spent by the state should deliver the same value for money as a pound spent by the taxpayer who earned it. There has been little success.

Now David Cameron has put the broken society and the public services in the vanguard of his agenda. These are not new preoccupations. I have heard him be eloquent on both subjects over many years. Just after he became Tory leader, Cameron had a meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy. The Frenchman told him how much he admired the Tory economic reforms of the 1980s. Afterwards, Cameron’s comment was instructive: “I hope that in the 2030s a French presidential candidate will tell a Tory leader how much he admires the social reforms of the 2010s and the 2020s.”

Cameron faces a formidable challenge. In one respect, Thatcher had an easier task. It is relatively easy to draw up legislation to bring the trade unions within the law. It is much harder to draft a broken society bill. Acts of Parliament can help. Cameron has already made clear that he proposes radical reforms in both welfare and education. It is unacceptable that up to 5m people live off the state and shun work. It is also unacceptable that so many parents have to send their children to schools that offer as much hope of a decent education as Soviet food shops did of a decent meal.

Cameron’s welfare reforms draw heavily on the Wisconsin model. His school proposals are based on American charter schools and on the Swedish system, in which teachers can set up new schools so that the state loses its monopoly over state education. On welfare, Cameron also believes that the role of charities, churches and voluntary organisations should be vastly increased. He wants to replace the current, failing, top-down system, in which the clunking fist imposes regulations and targets, with much more flexible arrangements.

This has risks. Some of these organisations will fail. Some of the charismatic local figures will abscond with the takings. Britain has grown accustomed to the Whitehall system of universal provision and rigorous bookkeeping. Much of that provision is -second-rate and many of the bookkeepers are merely chronicling the disbursement of waste, but the new arrangements will not automatically command public confidence.

Then again, Cameron has proved his skill at winning political battles. If Thatcher had a failing, it was her tendency to invert suaviter in modo, fortiter in re. She often talked tougher than she acted, appearing hostile to state provision while increasing government spending at rates that should have impressed social democrats: running a well-funded blood transfusion service while sounding like Count Dracula. As a result, Tory cuts passed into mythology, although they were indeed a myth. The only cuts were in the Tory vote.

Conservative governments have always spent money on social services. Yet they have often been caricatured as hard-faced men who do well out of grinding down the poor. If Cameron had started his leadership by announcing dramatic changes to welfare and education, the caricature would have been revived. As it is, he has persuaded enough voters that when he talks about welfare and education, he deserves a respectful hearing.

When Thatcher hired Ferdinand Mount as an adviser, she said: “This is my real task, to restore standards of conduct and responsibility. Otherwise we shall simply be employing more and more policemen on an increasingly hopeless task.” Her task has now been passed on to Cameron, who insists that he is “going to be as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer, and radical social reform is what this country needs right now”. Anyone who thinks of him or herself as a Thatcherite should wish him every success.

NO

BY ROBIN HARRIS

The enthusiasm with which the Conservatives greet their leader at the annual party conference will be artificially heightened this year by embarrassed knowledge of how near the party came to ditching him 12 months ago. Had Gordon Brown called an election then, David Cameron would be one of the less important footnotes in the Tory Party’s long history of assassination. He was lucky, but fortune does favour the brave, which he also was. While it is true that he dug the hole into which he nearly fell, he at least showed agility in stepping back from it.

The Conservatives, faced by a tired administration, a charmless Prime Minister and a sharp economic turndown, are now on course for victory at the next election. That victory will be inglorious, as winning by default always is – but it is better than losing in a fair fight. The party leadership will be warning against complacency or arrogance. So it may be uneasy at the suggestion made here by my old friend Bruce Anderson that David Cameron is not only a winner, but that he is more of a Thatcherite than Thatcher.

Such paradoxes make interesting journalism, just as historical revisionism sells books. But counterintuitive propositions usually turn out to be flawed, and so is this. Bruce Anderson has a fund of amusing stories, some of which are printable, but he clearly believes that the old ones are the best. With a different cast – substitute Sir John Major, Bruce’s hero then, for David Cameron, his hero now – and this one has been around for 15 years. Major, on this scenario, was to give practical effect to aspirations which Thatcher had just stridently asserted. He didn’t.

Cameron is a more skilful and intelligent politician than Major. But, like his old boss, he is an operator, a pragmatist, indeed an opportunist, with no clear philosophy but a ruthless streak and a pleasing manner. Such figures come and go in politics, and they have their merits and uses. But they have nothing in common with those rare, impossible, magnificent political giants, who seize nations by the scruff of the neck and hurl them into a new direction. David Cameron is blessed (or cursed) with a gaggle of cheerleading commentators who might have learned their trade as members of the Nicolai Ceausescu Appreciation Society. He should ignore them. He is not – and should not try to be – Margaret Thatcher, though he can learn from her.

Cameron bears Thatcher no personal ill-will, nor does she towards him. For a time no Cameron speech was complete without its mantra that “there is such a thing as society” – twisting her words for his own purposes. But that period is over. More lasting are the consequences of the decisions he made in the course of it.

The rationale for Cameron’s tactics of distancing himself from recognisably Conservative positions was to create a good impression. It was an exercise in public relations, the activity he best understands. But leaving aside the question of whether it was necessary, it has created problems for any new Conservative government, which the Thatcher government did not face. Under Thatcher, the Conservative Opposition made people face up to the unpleasant necessities of what needed to be done in order to save the country. As a result, she had a mandate – though she also needed huge resolve – to make the enormous changes which friend and foe alike acknowledge emerged from her time in office.

Under David Cameron, the Tory Opposition has done the reverse. On almost every point, appearances have prevailed and incoherence is the result. For example, Britain today is once again, as Keith Joseph used to say, “over-spent, over-taxed and over-borrowed”. Yet, rather than argue straightforwardly for the large reductions in public expenditure that alone will resolve these problems, Cameron and Osborne have so far, and despite growing wobbles, proclaimed their adherence to Labour’s obviously unaffordable spending plans. Perhaps in order to compensate for such timidity, Cameron has pledged to repair Britain’s “broken society”. Without wishing to echo the Mayor of London’s description of this as “piffle”, any serious analysis suggests it is wildly ambitious.

Society, as Conservatives traditionally understood it, is not a machine but an organism. We should meddle, even with its most pathogenic features, with caution and with awareness of the law of unintended consequences. The next Tory government will thus have no mandate to repair the economy – which can be repaired – but a mandate to repair society – which, by and large, cannot.

The business of government is difficult. It is sometimes possible to take credit for a legacy one has not earned and to pass the buck for failure to one’s successor while smiling and cheating long enough to survive. That is Tony Blair’s way – to which Cameron and his friends are attracted. Or one can embrace a philosophy, expound it, practise it in season and out of season, and be judged by the results. That was Margaret Thatcher’s. David Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher, nor need he be. But hers is the better way, and in the short time left before he assumes the responsibilities of power, he should be encouraged to understand and internalise her example.