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No conservative alternative

For many British voters, including those who helped Margaret Thatcher to three successive majorities, no good result could be expected from Thursday’s election. They had, as it were, no dog in that race.

Gordon Brown’s governing Labour party cried out to be defeated, but the “Nu Conservatives” under David Cameron could barely inspire them to vote. They were certainly not a “conservative” alternative, for on every issue over which actually conservative people become viscerally engaged, Cameron’s outlook is indistinguishable from Brown’s.

From what I can see, Cameron is an intelligent and cunning man, but lacking character and judgment. He is a “preener”—one of my more livid insults for a politician. That is not to say he is insupportably vain, in the direct personal sense, but that he takes political stands that are gutless and showy.

They are for show to the usual masters of media and academia, to the urbane and sophisticated “image minders.” He is assiduously “politically correct.” He filled his shadow cabinet and candidate lists with the sort of well-dressed vacuums they call “Cameron’s cuties” in the Daily Telegraph: people who in fact lost a number of tight constituency races, where a more robust candidate appealing to those “viscerals” might easily have won.

But Cameron’s “message” was through the media at large. It was: “Look, I am the sort of Conservative you can live with. I am really a very cool, sophisticated person, just like you. I would never do embarrassing uncool things as prime minister. Indeed, I’ll never do anything of significance at all. You can trust me on that. It would pain me to lose your approbation.”

Perhaps I am exaggerating for effect; but in every public flash I have seen of him, I could read this preening, cowardly background signboard.

Moreover, it was and remains his overt policy. His “theory of electoral success,” and that of the many public-relations advisers with whom he is surrounded, was always that success would come to a “Tory Blair”—to the Conservative who emulated the achievements of “New Labour.”

It may be recalled that Tony Blair, en route to national power, did something quite substantial within his own party. He persuaded members to rewrite Clause IV of the party constitution, which had been from its beginnings the “holy grail.”

This was the clause that committed the party to advancing socialism—literally to “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.” This was replaced by harmless blather about creating “for each of us the means to realize our true potential.” In order to perform this emasculation, Blair had to face down the old party guard.

Cameron had no such challenge. His Tories have never been an ideological party, even though he has himself implicitly accepted the media characterization of “Thatcherism” as an ideology to be shunned. For Thatcher herself, “more enterprise and less Nanny State” involved unprecedented increases in social spending, and over her three terms, a net cut in real spending on defence. By getting the State mostly out of the housing business, and other areas of public ownership, and smoothing the regulatory apparatus, she was able to generate the revenues to pay for this welfare boondoggle.

Her great significance was instead rhetorical. Like Reagan, she changed, for a generation, the tone of politics and government. She left people with the impression that they should work for a living; that even bureaucrats should work. She made people think decline was not inevitable.

There was real leadership in that, and Britain was spared, for a generation, from the spectre of economic and social collapse. (I lived there in the 1970s: I got to see what such a collapse might look like.) The spectre is back, from governments that have once again taxed-and-spent themselves into perdition. Britain today is only a couple of steps ahead of Greece and Portugal, in the march to moral and fiscal meltdown.

The pound took its beating in world currency markets at the prospect of a “hung parliament.” This is because the people holding the debt know that big bold changes are required—deep spending cuts, or vertiginous new taxes, or both—to restore solvency. They know a minority government can’t deliver such goods, and they are now looking hard at lethal violence in response to mere half-measures in Greece. The financiers may not have a very nuanced picture, but they do get the gist.

Economy and society are of a piece. Decline happens in both of them together. The Britain that weathered the Luftwaffe is obviously long dead, and Cameron, if he succeeds in cutting the debilitating deal with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, to put himself plumply in No. 10 Downing, may quickly replace Brown as the symbol of a Britain with no hope.

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