Thursday, May 06, 2010

David Cameron and the Puzzle of Progressive Conservatism

David Frum weighs costs, benefits, or ideological reform

Less than one year ago, David Cameron and the Conservative Party of Britain were poised to win an overwhelming majority government.

Less than a year later, on election day, the Tories have come up just short.

Considering how promising things once looked, many British conservatives -- and conservatives around the world -- many will be wondering precisely what went wrong.

Many will surmise that the British citizenry, having bequeathed majority governments to Tony Blair and Labour for as long as many Britons will remember, perhaps they've simply gotten cold feet.

As David Frum and John O'Sullivan point out, however, it may not be Britons who have fotten cold feet. Perhaps it's British small-c conservatives. O'Sullivan writes:
"The Tory party used to win about a third of the working-class vote with its conservative social values and patriotic instincts. For the Tory modernizers, however, these Labour voters are the wrong kind of voters too. David Cameron has spent most of the last few years resolutely refusing to highlight the issues of immigration, Europe, and national solidarity that appeal to them, lest such brutish policies alienate “soft center” votes. Just recently, the Tories have begun to talk about such things, but too little and maybe too late. Cameron will probably get a boost from these voters — and probably a larger boost than that going to the Lib-Dems — but still below what the Thatcherite Tories got in the despised 1980s."
O'Sullivan insists that the Tories have fallen short of a Thatcher-ish majority because they took too much time pandering to non-conservatives, and not enough time pleasing their base. Now, many of the conservatives who feel spurned by Cameron's public rejection of Thatcherism are either going to vote for more conservative fringe parties, or perhaps stay home altogether.

But Allan Massie begs to differ. Rather, he insists that the results of Cameron's leadership has been triumphal compared to previous electoral results:
"The assumption that an unreformed conservatism could prevail in Britain is questionable at best. After all, how did the Tories do in 2001 and 2005? Perhaps conditions were tricky for them then but while that’s true it’s also the case that the public has shown precious little enthusiasm for that kind of Toryism.

Indeed, it’s the failures of the past and that he inherited that make Dave’s task so difficult. If 2005 hadn’t been such a ghastly failure perhaps the Tories wouldn’t need to win an extra 130 seats to win a majority. In other words, they essentially need a landslide just to win a small victory. That’s what Cameron inherited and his critics might care to remember the abject failure of their kind of Toryism. If three thumping defeats don’t demonstrate that the Tories 'own original and successful coalition' has disappeared then I don’t know what does.


The anti-reform crew won’t let Dave win, regardless of the election result. If the Tories win a landslide they’ll say that they’d have won without reform anyway; if they eke out a small majority or simply end as the largest party then the reformers are to blame for failing to win a more handsome, sweeping victory.
As Frum points out, both John O'Sullivan and Allan Massie are speaking elements of truth. The situation currently confronting the Brtish Conservative Party demonstrates the risks associated with the ideological reform of a political party -- it's always a gamble.

One is far from guaranteed attracting new supporters under such reform, and runs the risks of almost certainly alienating existing supporters.

Cameron has famously referred to himself as a "progressive conservative". It's a feat that has been attempted before, particularly when John Bracken, the former Progressive Party Premier of Manitoba, insisted that the party change its name to the Progressive Conservative Party before he would agree to assume its leadership.

In the case of the Canadian PC Party, the experiment was arguably a failure. The party would govern for merely 14 of 74 years during which the party would carry that name before merging with the Canadian Alliance to become the Conservative Party of Canada.

In Canada, the gamble ultimately failed. In Britain, it could potentially be successful -- if only individuals like John O'Sullivan are willing to give it the opportunity.

1 comment:

  1. I completely share your views on David Cameron. Actually I just blogged about him myself.

    Blog title:
    "Fresh faced Cameron makes the rest of us sweat"
    at -

    Hayley x


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