Tage Erlander governed Sweden as prime minister for an uninterrupted 23 years, between 1946 and 1969. In the late 1950s, Hugh Gaitskell, then Labour leader, enquired as to the secret of his astounding electoral success. ‘Don’t ask me,’ replied Erlander. ‘Ask the opposition parties.’
David Cameron is no Tage Erlander: he will only have served a comparatively modest nine years as PM when, as is all but certain, he stands down in 2019. But the two men do have two things in common. First, Mr Cameron’s party is likely to remain in office for a very considerable period; second, he can largely thank the opposition parties for that.
Actually, they share something else. Although Erlander was a father of the modern Swedish social democracy so feted by British Lefties, he was also an arch-pragmatist, both by practice and inclination: even while expanding his country’s public sector he cannily sought to create a ‘big tent’ politics by building up the armed forces and holding down income taxes. Similarly, Mr Cameron’s government is one of the most pragmatic in British history. His favoured successor, George Osborne, is its key strategist.
In Manchester this week, we see both the Conservative opportunity and the Conservative problem. The former was set out by the Prime Minister in an interview yesterday, in response to demands that he use the self-immolation of Labour to shift Tory policy sharply to the Right. ‘That’s not why I decided to try and lead our party and become Prime Minister and everything else,’ he said. ‘That’s not what I spent the last 10 years doing and that’s not what we’re going to do now.’
The party must use the current parliament to show voters ‘we’re not a bunch of ideologues… we’ve got to 37 per cent [of the vote]. I want us to get to 43, 44. I want us to push on into winning over people that we haven’t previously won over on the basis that the alternatives are totally unrealistic and self-obsessed and given up on representing the aspirations of ordinary people and the Conservative Party are right there for you.’
That’s the opportunity. Now for the problem: in Manchester over the next few days the Conservative Party will indeed be right there for us, in all its white-haired, Rotary-tied, twin-set awfulness, with an added dash of toothy, bug-eyed youth. You can be sure that whenever you see the PM or the Chancellor they will be carefully surrounded by attractive young men and women from diverse ethnic backgrounds, but it’s only when the camera pans back that reality comes into shot. It ain’t pretty.
Tory conference remains packed with people who hold what we might call ‘firm views’ on issues such as immigration, Europe and gay marriage. They are as liberal on economics — ‘just bloody well cut our taxes’ — as they are conservative on everything else. It remains an unappealing brew to most of those Mr Cameron would love to ‘win over’.
It is perhaps unfair to single out the Conservatives in this way. Most parties — even, these days, the SNP — have a similar set-up: a pod of reasonable, civilised people at the top who understand the necessary rules of the game and moderate their behaviour accordingly, backed by a loopy army of voluntary activists and supporters who want to hang shoplifters/the rich/Tony Blair/the English (delete as applicable). The exceptions to this are Ukip, which was set up by nutters for nutters, and now, incredibly, Labour, which has been taken over by them.
In Brighton last week the Trots, once deservedly banished to the fringes of Labour’s annual bash in the sun, carried themselves with a swagger, their beards glinting from that morning’s celebratory extra dose of Head and Shoulders: the party’s new ruling class. The moderates were exiled to peripheral bars and restaurants where they could be seen exchanging consoling hugs or staring at their shoes.
In Manchester, there is a feeling that the natural order of things has been restored: an overall majority, a plummy Tory in No 10, Labour once more howling at the moon. The champagne sales always spike when the Conservatives heave into town — but even by those standards this week will be a bumper one for Pol Roger.
I’ve arrived in this great city as a centrist, moderate voter — the kind who still happily describes himself as a Blairite — who has wished my Labour friends a safe journey back to 1983 and is now pondering his future options. I know from many conversations I had in Brighton last week that I’m not alone — as Lord Adonis’s resignation of the Labour whip to run the government’s new infrastructure commission proves. There is much about Mr Cameron’s government that I support. His announcement yesterday of a new contract for GPs that will require seven-day working is exactly the kind of challenge to vested interests that good government is about; his education policy is bold, right and working; the philosophy behind his welfare reforms is admirable; his desire to intervene in Syria at a much earlier stage was, as events have shown us, bang on.
But then there’s the rest. Immigration, for example, which the Tories have horribly allowed to become a toxic, dehumanised issue driven by irrational public sentiment; the genuinely baffling refusal to address the damaging impact that reform of tax credits — not in and of itself a bad thing — will have on the poorest; the weirdly immature scrapping of practically every sensible environmental policy pursued by the Coalition.
And, of course, there is Europe. An almighty scrap looms over the UK’s membership of the EU, which won’t be pleasant and will produce a nail-bitingly close result. ‘For the first time, I think we’re going to win,’ a Tory friend who favours Brexit told me last week. ‘It’s shifting.’ The conference audience in Manchester certainly contains a majority for leaving, and there are plenty in the Cabinet and the wider ministerial team who hold the same view. They hold it in the full knowledge that Brexit would likely mean Scotland leaving the UK, and regard that as a price worth paying.
Let’s be clear: this is an extreme and reckless position to take. It would push pro-EU Unionist Scots like me towards supporting independence; it would have grotesque consequences for Britain’s standing in the world; it would force the Prime Minister to resign; the newly empowered Tory Right would swing against the kind of pragmatism and incrementalism that has been championed by Mr Cameron and that makes for sound and stable government.
This issue, more than any other, sits like a fat bullfrog in the path of Mr Cameron’s ambition to make the Tories a great centrist force. That is a shame, because it is what Britain needs. Instead, we are stuck with a tired and outdated political-party structure that offers little solace to those of us who are after something other than batty.
When the Left fought fascists, not journalists
Denis Healey was everything a politician should be: wise, thoughtful, brave, funny, with a glint in his eye and a vast hinterland. Over the years I’ve returned to his wonderful autobiography, The Time of My Life, repeatedly.
In the 60s, when the Left used to fight fascists rather than defend them, Healey was speaking in support of the Labour candidate at a by-election meeting. The audience was stuffed with National Front members who suddenly launched flour bombs at the stage, which was then invaded by their leader, ‘a repulsive brute called Colin Jordan’. ‘I knocked him off the stage, on to an inoffensive reporter who took years to forgive me for his broken spectacles,’ wrote Healey.
A year later he was speaking at another by-election, where fascists began to beat up the Labour candidate. ‘I jumped from the platform into the melee, and began to lay about me, until the police restored order. Since it was recorded by the television cameras, the incident did wonders for my image. The newspapers called me “Hurricane Healey”; on my next visit to Washington I was solemnly congratulated by the formidable commander of the Marines for laying into those “Commie bastards”!’ Yesterday, the Lefties of 2015 spent the day spitting on journalists in Manchester. He’d be so proud.
Another national treasure is the author Robert Harris. His beautifully written historical thrillers wear their extensive research lightly and allow the reader to yomp through with easy delight. Harris’s completes his greatest achievement this week with the release of the final part of a trilogy about the life of the Roman politician Cicero. Having secured an early copy of ‘Dictator’, I can confirm it is worth the wait (and indeed the weight). Harris’s Cicero is a bit special — a mix of genius and craft, kindness and pomposity, ambition and principle. Even more awesome, though, is his Julius Caesar, both sinisterly feline and terrifyingly tough, and whose limitless capacity for amoral calculation marks him out as one of the great literary villains.
These articles appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on October 5, 2015