Will we notice when the Tories have won?

Ross McKibbin

With both the government and the Labour Party in terminal condition and little time for either to do much about it, our thoughts inevitably turn to the Conservatives, and to what they might do after May 2010. In a very general sense we know what they would like to do: cut public expenditure so as to restore ‘order’ to the state’s finances. But everyone else would do that too, with more or less enthusiasm. More difficult to predict is the detail of Conservative policies, especially in the domestic sphere. Cameron and Osborne have been evasive and there has been a marked reluctance to specify where the cuts might fall – both in expenditure and, if there are to be any, in taxation. We have heard more about what is to be ‘ring-fenced’ – health, defence, perhaps education, almost certainly law and order – than what is to go, and more about taxes that won’t be cut than those that will.

Given what the Conservatives did between 1979 and 1997 we tend to assume that taking an axe to spending is what they really like doing, which is why they will do it. Historically, however, the Conservative Party hasn’t always been penny-pinching; and even when it has, the pinching was often more apparent than real. The financial crisis, undoubtedly seen by many Tories as an opportunity to wield the axe, has been an embarrassment for Cameron. Previously, his fiscal policies had hardly been different from Brown’s. His aim was to keep government spending at high levels, especially on health and education, and not to make dangerous promises on tax. He had been firm on that, even in the face of a good deal of unease within his party. What happened cut the ground from under his feet as much as Brown’s. He simply hadn’t been thinking in terms of cuts; waste and red tape yes, but not cuts. To make things more complicated, he obviously still believes that any significant ‘attack’ on the NHS is politically impossible. The increasingly bizarre criticisms of the NHS in the United States have also compelled him, out of a sense of national loyalty if nothing else, to reaffirm this commitment: hence the promise not only to maintain current levels of spending but to raise them above the rate of inflation in the next parliament. This is a promise probably a majority of Tory MPs regret and most (privately or publicly) think impossible to fulfil.

Cameron’s position is shaky. He leads a party with warring fiscal traditions and he doesn’t currently represent the predominant Thatcherite one. He has made commitments on spending which, if maintained, will limit his and Osborne’s freedom to manoeuvre. Within the party the usual attempts are being made to argue that you can make ‘safe’ cuts by spending more effectively. Michael Gove, the education spokesman, is particularly strong on this. But one thing the Thatcher governments did demonstrate is that there are no ‘safe’ cuts to be found in the public services – or, if there are, no one has yet found where to make them. Cameron knows that. Yet everyone agrees that there will have to be cuts, and if health, education, defence and the Home Office are ring-fenced they will have to fall very heavily on a small number of programmes.

Cameron will find protecting defence spending particularly limiting. Historically, when British governments have got into trouble, defence is where they made cuts. In a sense, nearly all our defence expenditure is waste: defence procurement is notoriously profligate and much of what is bought is useless. Not only that, it encourages British governments to undertake military adventures which are usually futile, self-defeating and morally questionable. Some Conservatives have doubted the value of the ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent so light-heartedly renewed by Gordon Brown and to which, Downing Street tells us, he remains committed. But given what the deterrent means to the country’s political class – the international standing they imagine it gives them – it is unlikely that a Cameron government would do away with it, whatever the expense.

If value for money is the concern, Cameron could easily take an axe to the whole Home Office apparatus, whose costs have risen so rapidly under Labour, and with little return except in moral obloquy. The Tories are committed to cancelling the introduction of ID cards but whether, so much having already been spent, there will be savings when (and if) they do so is questionable. What about law and order and immigration, Tory territory par excellence? Tory MPs will surrender almost anything before they make cuts here and the Conservative press can be relied on to make sure they don’t. Nor, in present circumstances, is any reduction in ‘anti-terrorism’ spending politically practicable. It seems clear, then, that cuts will fall disproportionately on social services and benefits (including social housing) and transport. Theresa May, the shadow work and pensions secretary, and one of the more sensible Tories, is already working up a campaign against the cost of the ‘dependency culture’. So the poor, the ill-housed and commuters are in for a bad time; or rather, a worse time. But probably little worse than they would have had under a re-elected Labour government.

So far, so predictable. We don’t know, however, whether Cameron and Osborne have any idea of what precisely the state of the economy – and especially the financial system – is. Although the conditions that led to the collapse were aggravated by Labour they were created by the previous Conservative governments, and by an ideology to which Cameron adhered. Cameron and Osborne have said nothing – except to take a strong line on City bonuses – about the behaviour of the banks, or the way the housing market has been distorted for political purposes by successive governments, or about the relationship between financial services and the rest of the economy. Yet, as political questions, these are as important as deciding how much we should be spending. The difficulty for Cameron is that the modern Conservative Party is unquestionably the party of the City and of finance, anti-bonus rhetoric notwithstanding. It believes in them, whereas Labour became their apologist only because it thought there was no alternative. The Tory Party does have a protectionist tradition where industry is concerned, but it is now desperately weak and neither Cameron nor Osborne has direct experience of it. Cameron will be under heavy pressure to rehabilitate the old housing market, credit bubbles and all, which is one reason he is keeping mum. To be fair to him, his silence on housing and finance is shared by the whole political class. There is little evidence that Labour currently has any clearer a sense of what might be done, as its extraordinary passivity towards the banks it now owns suggests.

Then there is the sad story of ‘choice’, from which the Tory leadership has learned little over the last 30 years. Much of the energy of recent governments has been expended on trying to create markets where markets cannot operate – particularly in education and health. One perverse consequence of this has been a huge increase in managerial bureaucracy in every sphere where ‘markets’ have been devised. Another has been to encourage a free-for-all, which favours, as one would expect, the well-connected and the well-to-do. ‘Choice’ has consistently undermined both the efficiency of the Labour government’s high levels of social expenditure and its worthy attempts to eliminate inherited disadvantages. How far a Cameron government would attempt to further marketise the NHS we don’t know, since Cameron is clearly nervous about upsetting the status quo. When it comes to education, however, Gove has been extolling choice and diversity (every man his own school). If carried out, this policy would probably wreck the state education system by shifting resources to the most energetic and best-placed parents. Since resources are finite, the result of ‘choice’ is that one parent’s gain is another parent’s loss. But the Labour Party has been almost as reluctant to admit this as the Tories. It is unlikely, therefore, that a Cameron government would make much difference. It will simply make the same mistakes; and perhaps a few new ones.

How far our constitution and our liberties would be affected by a Cameron government is again hard to say, partly because the present government’s record is so mixed. In constitutional terms, what has happened in the last decade has few precedents in modern British history. The devolution of government to Scotland and Wales and the restoration of municipal government to London have been the most far-reaching constitutional changes since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. That may sound good, but between 1922 and devolution there were no constitutional changes at all, other than a slight weakening of the powers of the House of Lords in 1949. Besides, devolution was bequeathed by Old Labour to Blair as a way of holding off Scottish and Welsh nationalism, not because it was desirable in itself.

Still, it happened and the Conservatives opposed it. Under Thatcher and Major the Conservative Party’s constitutional record was lamentable: neither devolution nor the restoration of London local government would have occurred had they remained in office. They have accepted the changes – in London they have actually benefited from them – and there is no reason to think they will reverse them. But they will make no more reforms. The existing constitutional structure of the UK (and thus England) is entirely acceptable to them. Those who might be interested in reform of the Westminster Parliament – in the relationship of the executive to MPs, in the way MPs are elected or where England fits into all this – can put it out of their minds. Only those who worry about the future of the House of Lords, the least and safest of potential reforms, might get something, but even that is improbable. The announcement by Jack Straw (who else?) that the government would propose an 80 per cent or 100 per cent elected House of Lords, which might be achieved in 12 to 15 years, indicates just how little importance is attached to constitutional reform. The unforgivable failure of the Labour Party to legislate for any of this – even measures, like voting reform, which are in its own interest – means that further serious reform is almost impossible in the foreseeable, or indeed unforeseeable future.

What will happen to our liberties under the Conservatives? On balance, they will probably be further infringed; but probably not by much. Again, that is because the government’s record is so mixed. Early in its period of office Labour introduced two important measures – the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act – which expanded our liberties and upheld one of the party’s historic traditions. Since then, the government has acted as if it regretted both. In its law and order mode it has been entirely cynical and has shown little regard for what were once thought to be the liberties of the free-born Englishman. Even the anti-terror legislation, some of which was probably necessary, was cast with an eye as much to the Conservative press and electoral opportunism as to the public’s safety.

The Conservatives have behaved little differently. They hate the Human Rights Act and will almost certainly replace it with legislation that emphasises our ‘responsibilities’ rather than our rights. On the other hand, they are opposed to ID cards and they defeated the government’s latest attempt to extend the period for which suspects can be imprisoned without charge. They probably dislike the Freedom of Information Act, but the Tory press doesn’t and I doubt that any Tory would now risk the wrath of the Daily Telegraph – which means they will probably leave it alone. (In any case, classified material is so easily leaked or bought that it hardly matters what they do.) The Conservative Party does have a libertarian tradition and some belief in the free-born Englishman, whom David Davis surprisingly and quixotically left the front bench to defend. But it’s a tradition more likely to protect people’s pleasures than their rights, and Thatcherism, which was anything but libertarian, almost killed it off. Where these conflicting pressures will lead a Conservative government is anyone’s guess.

In no sphere has New Labour’s failure been more complete than in foreign policy. But that failure has been shared by the country’s political elite as a whole: there is little evidence that a Cameron government would do any better, and much evidence that it would do even worse. At no point has the Conservative Party been critical of the present government’s policies and frequently (see Iraq) it has actually egged it on. Cameron has, it’s true, implied that the Conservatives might get out of Afghanistan as soon as they could manage it without losing face. In practice, however, they will stay as long as the Americans want them to.

British politics is now dominated by two related phenomena – Atlanticism and Europhobia – and these influence the whole range of government policy, domestic as well as international. The Labour Party is strongly Atlanticist and weakly Europhobic. It believes in the ideological and international superiority of the United States and its centrality to Britain’s relations with the world. Its Europhobia consists largely in an aversion to defending the EU and a tepid hostility to the extension of the authority of EU institutions. It is not a gut hostility, but often a matter merely of perceived electoral prudence. But it is enough for Labour always to put the apparent interests of the US ahead of those of the EU and, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, against those of Britain itself.

The Conservatives are more extreme: they are very Atlanticist and very Europhobic. Whereas to Conservatives of Heath’s generation Europe was to be the salvation of Britain’s economy and prestige, to many contemporary Conservatives it spells Britain’s ruin. To concede superiority to EU institutions is to write off a Tory version of British history – Britain as the saviour of Europe – in order to admit that those whom we defeated (or saved) might now actually have won the day. It is the relationship with the US that alone preserves this version of history; a relationship which would have seemed very strange to most Conservatives before 1939. Whether Cameron holds to this notion of history, or whether it is rather a preoccupation of William Hague’s, is a matter of speculation. It was Cameron who negotiated the party’s departure from the quasi-Christian Democratic bloc in the European Parliament into the reactionary rag-bag where the Tory MEPs now nestle. (Though to judge by the opinions of some of them, that is where they always belonged.) But it may be that he did it to buy off the mad Europhobes in his parliamentary party. Whatever his motives, the Atlanticism of the party, and of Hague not least, is unquestionable. Unless Cameron’s brush with the American healthcare debate has enlightened him, his will be a very Atlantic government. The only occasions when Atlanticism – of either the Labour or Conservative kind – might come under strain is when British business interests are thought to conflict with American wishes.

Yet here too the difference between Labour and Tory is more a matter of emphasis than of principle. Neither recognises just how damaging Britain’s relationship with the US has been at every level – economic, ideological and political-military. Since it is almost wholly one-sided it has also encouraged forms of power-worship. As a policy, it has borrowed not American dynamism and high spirits but American illusions and incompetence. The borrowings are not just ideological. The extent to which British governments have, for example, encouraged BAE to become an American defence contractor (among other things by selling its 20 per cent holding in Airbus Industrie) is a marker of how far we are now entangled in US defence and foreign policy. What is most likely to stop the Conservatives from doing something really foolish is the degree to which Britain’s economy, social life and legal-administrative system are now, willy-nilly, inextricably part of ‘Europe’ – that, and the benign effects Europe has had on Britain. The reason we can eat our food, drink our water and swim in our seas with confidence in their safety is entirely to do with the EU, but that is something British ministers are understandably reluctant to admit and Tory Europhobes probably don’t even realise.

If or when the Tories win the next election we will notice the difference, but it will be a difference only in tendency or bias. Both Conservatives and Labour now operate within very narrow ideological boundaries; both, but particularly Labour, very much around what is thought to be the centre. The received wisdom of modern electoral competition is that the electorate is unmoved ideologically and that success is won through the presentation of detail and by concealment, not through broad policies openly presented; this belief has been encouraged in both parties by a young political class which has an interest in its being true, or being thought to be true. The left of the Labour Party, such as it is, does not accept this wisdom, and nor does the Tory right, but the party leaderships do. The consequence is that the parties themselves no longer represent organised political differences. These are now more likely to occur within rather than between parties. In 1997, for instance, the real electoral competition was not between Conservative and Labour but between the very moderate Europhiles and the extreme Europhobes in the Conservative Party.

Labour is further paralysed by a fear of being thought Old Labour. Brown especially fears it – probably more even than the Blairites, and certainly more than the electorate. In the 1980s he wrote very perceptive critiques of Thatcherism and its likely results. Although what he predicted then has largely happened he would now no more repeat that critique than he would agree the Iraq war was a terrible mistake or tell the banks to behave in a socially responsible manner. He has as a result been reduced to the most embarrassing forms of political gesturing, which have served to make a once substantial political figure look vaguely ridiculous. Fear of Old Labour has also paralysed Labour electorally. It is almost impossible for it to win a majority at the next election. It could deprive the Conservatives of one, but that would require the kind of political rhetoric that Brown won’t and now can’t use.

That the Labour Party has a fundamentally Tory conception of the state also diminishes partisan politics. It was not inevitable that Labour would adopt such a conception; but the fact is that having done so, it has maintained it for most of its history. Labour and the Conservatives do not always agree about what the state might do, but they agree about its institutions and hierarchies. That is why Labour has never been able to free itself from the inherited institutions of the British state: king-in-Parliament, a state church, a semi-medieval constitution, an overblown defence and security apparatus. And when it has tinkered with the state, even on important issues like devolution or the new supreme court, that has served only to make the whole system even more incoherent. Rather than challenging the Tory idea of the state, New Labour has entrenched it: to its cost.

On the London Review Blog: Deathbed Conversions