From the archive: Tories the destroyers, not the builders

Michael Harris /   October 8, 2015 at 9:44 PM 3,490 views


The mainstream media’s view of the Conservative Party conference was that they had a good week – one in which they tried to present themselves as both the nice and the nasty party. I’m not so sure.

On the ‘nasty’ side, James Kirkup in the Telegraph wasn’t alone in giving Theresa May’s “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible speech” a kicking:

“[I] wish that politicians like Mrs May would celebrate that success (and sound like they actually like modern Britain) instead of talking up tensions. …If, as Mrs May argues, immigration makes British society less cohesive, leaves groups of people less unable to get along, isn’t that at least partly the result of politicians pandering to ignorance and prejudice and wilfully distorting the evidence to persuade people to be angry and afraid? The Home Secretary says she’s worried about immigration social cohesion. If she really wants to help, she could start by abandoning this cheap and nasty speech and the politics behind it.”

Jeremy Hunt also blundered into his defence of the Tory cuts in tax credits by claiming that they were about promoting a ‘culture change’ to make us as hungry as Chinese people (perhaps literally). This is a familiar (and age-old) conservative argument of course: the only way to make the rich work harder is to give them even more, but the only way to make the poor work harder is to give them even less. For the record, Hunt is a multi-millionaire.

On the ‘nicer’ side, Justice Secretary Michael Gove presented himself as a prison reformer. Gove pointed out that many prisoners have had tough childhoods and argued that “the best criminal justice policies are good welfare, social work and child protection policies.” Whether the Tory agenda on prison reform is brave new world or false dawn remains to be seen, especially if they’re unwilling to invest in t (or the political will to see off the Tory tabloids).

These contradictions and tensions came together in David Cameron’s speech, which was both nice (gay people are okay, discrimination is bad) and nasty (Jeremy Corbyn likes terrorists and hates Britain).

The fact that making some vague utterances on the former is still regarded as daring for a Tory leader might tell you something about the perceived common culture in the party (famously commented on by the current Home Secretary of course). The fact that Cameron and his speech writers thought it was necessary to cynically twist the truth on the latter is also perhaps illuminating: why do they want to finish Corbyn off quickly if, as they claim, he’s so obviously disastrous for Labour and so obviously unappealing to the voters?

But the nice elements in particular seemed to persuade parts of the mainstream media that Cameron had somehow positioned the Conservatives on the centre ground – as if merely saying that you want to address ‘entrenched social problems’ (before you quit in a couple of years) is somehow akin to actually doing something about them.

As some commentators noted, the most substantive speech came from George “we are the builders” Osborne, who continued his attempt to take over opposition territory, including his claim that the Tories are “only true party of labour”. Both claims are easily disproven. Osborne has ensured that public investment has more than halved as a result of his austerity measures, from 3.2% of GDP in 2009-10 to just 1.5% this year. And at the start of the week, Murdoch’s Sun came out against the ‘bonkers’ cut in tax credits that hits lower-paid households, suggesting that there are limits to Tory spin (I suggested at the time of the Budget that the related ‘National Living Wage’ was ‘good economics but bad politics’, and I think this is now coming to pass).

Of course, the Conservative’s problem is shifting gear from the mantra that the ‘country can’t afford it…’ to something, anything, more positive. We’ve had the ‘post-bureaucratic age’, ‘we’re all in it together’, the Big Society, and now a ‘greater Britain’. Meanwhile, the Lord Chief Justice has suggested that the Tories’ increases in criminal and civil court fees are putting access to justice beyond the reach of most people and “imperilling a core principle of Magna Carta”. So much for the Conservative’s love of country.

There is a real love of country, one that is not abstract but is rooted in how you respect its people. This week I read an article about how Iceland recovered from its financial crisis through a very different philosophy to that of the Tories’ (Iceland has become the model how to respond to such crises among progressive economists such as Paul Krugman). I’ll leave you with a quote from Magnús Sveinn Helgason, a financial journalist and member of Iceland’s Althing Special Investigative Commission on the Collapse of the Financial System (Helgason also gives ‘Walk The Crash’ tours of Reykjavík, where he helps visitors understand how the banks went down and how the country got back up again):

“The basis of Iceland’s prosperity has always been our human, social and cultural capital. That was not destroyed in the crash. You could have destroyed that if you had ripped apart the social contract and imposed brutal austerity measures. Icelanders got through because we really did feel that we were all in it together. That’s what other countries should learn from this recovery: the importance of society. If you’re in it together, you can get through it together.”

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