“Have confidence in conservatism.” Tim Montgomerie is keeping the faith. While many of his party run toward a centre ground defined by New Labour, becoming careless of long-held principles as they scent electoral victory, Montgomerie offers a voice of admonition. His brand of centre-right politics is generous, democratic and firmly conservative -and he believes it is only such authenticity that can win.
Ex-chief of staff to Iain Duncan Smith, Montgomerie is not without experience in these matters. His conservatism, informed by Christianity and strong on personal rectitude, has sometimes been mocked. But in 2009, such “old-fashioned” sentiments have never seemed more timely. As Britain struggles to cope with financial turmoil and the legacy of a decade of spin, Montgomerie may well be right that only his kind of integrity can rescue the country from its social and economic malaise. When a message centred on economic freedom would be lucky to gain a fair hearing, his social conservatism has more traction, offering pragmatic and immediate answers, calling individuals to uphold the vigorous virtues of courage, ambition, creativity, self-sufficiency and enterprise. His beliefs are firm, but his analysis is also hard-headed. Studying the conservative victories of the first half of the decade in Australia, America and Canada, he concluded that their electoral coalitions were built around “Morrisons Voters” (named after the supermarket chain): lower-income families at the bleeding edge of failed government interventions and surreptitious tax hikes, adrift in the ruins of the civil society those interventions tore down. In the US, Tim Pawlenty used the phrase “Sam’s Club voters”, referring to a discount store, and rightly identified them as the missing ingredient in post-Bush Republicanism.
A British Conservative victory, Montgomerie argues, cannot be assembled by simply wooing the press, decontaminating the Tory brand and expecting the party faithful to trot loyally after Cameron’s bicycle. That kind of centrism, built around a managed political message issuing from the centre, misunderstands the damage a top-down model has brought.
By contrast, Montgomerie begins and ends down at the grassroots. It gives him the kind of connection to everyday British realities that the patrician Cameron sorely lacks. He sees the problems first-hand, and also the local ingenuity and compassion working to resolve them.
As early as 2002, it was Montgomerie who organised a tour of the inner cities for David Willetts. The vision Willetts spoke of there is shared by Montgomerie: a conservatism not of the lone individual or the nannying state, but of the “neighbourly society”, enriched by citizen action. Montgomerie’s work with Duncan Smith in founding the Centre for Social Justice in 2004 sought to “get government off the back of the armies of compassion” and provides the keystone for Cameron’s social agenda today.
At the same time, in ConservativeHome.com, Montgomerie has created not just Britain’s leading conservative blog, but a place outside the political party where all strands of Conservative opinion place their views before the nation’s conservatives. It is characteristic of the man that what could have been a hobbyhorse for his own views provides such a broad forum, and that its greatest achievements have been to resist top-down control: Michael Howard’s attempt to rig the electoral rules for the leadership, or David Cameron’s attempt to keep a secret A-list of candidates. Nor are Montgomerie’s interests merely national: he is deeply concerned with Britain’s duties on the international stage, and particularly with maintaining the special relationship. He has established the AmericaInTheWorld website to counter anti-Americanism.
These online ventures are a reminder that he is the party’s sole internet visionary, a man who recognises that the power of the new medium is that information flows both ways. It is not one more pipe to send David’s message down, but a means to raise, as Obama so effectively demonstrated, an army of like-minded Davids.
If Steve Hilton knows how to sell Cameron like a product, Montgomerie sees that the real need is to build a new community. For Britain to work properly, it needs the 21st century equivalent of Burke’s little platoons: the armies of compassion. These internet-enabled groups, arising to solve their own problems, are the proof and guarantee not of Bush’s discredited “Compassionate Conservatism”, in which state agencies are dressed-up with a conservative agenda, but what Montgomerie calls “‘And” theory Conservatism: traditional, small-government conservatism that values gentleness, neighbourly behaviour and conservation through citizen action.
The irony of true conservatism – advocating as a political platform that the state should do less – today requires the demonstration that civil society can make the world a better place. Montgomerie understands this, and he understands the people and the technology that can make it happen. His columns express his frustration at a party that finally has a charismatic leader, but lacks the courage of its convictions and the tireless energy that victory requires. It is time that he brought both back to Conservative campaign headquarters.