Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sensible approach (October 6, 2006)

David Cameron coul break Labour's dream run in government

By Swapan Dasgupta

For many years, a truly agreeable meal in London meant only one thing for me: lunch at the Grill Room in The Connaught. A combination of what a friend used to call a “honest meal”, a not too outrageously-priced wine list and a charming ambience made this restaurant my enduring favourite.

Of course that was before nouvelle cuisine and celebrity chefs made their appearance. Confronted with the onslaught of fashion and the image of being of being a fuddy-duddy establishment, the Grill Room effected a radical makeover. The new “Angela Hartnett at The Connaught” was plain different. It was definitely more “contemporary”—whatever that means—and the fare was more healthy than “honest”. A visit to The Connaught these days means an opulent working lunch, not the earlier over-indulgence that preceded the brandy and cigar, and the mandatory snooze in the oh-so-comfortable chesterfield in the club.

In this age of global warming and carbon gas emission, Western civilisation seems intent on snatching away some of the more simple pleasures of life. Courting the Green vote, governments are contemplating punitive taxes on petrol and cheap air travel; smoking has been deemed an act of deviancy; and Britain has even appointed a minister to curb obesity. The nanny state has indeed made life a trifle oppressive in Britain. Thanks to a campaign by Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef whose showmanship is more gripping than his recipes, the education authorities have tried to make school dinners healthy. Mars Bars, sausage rolls and bags of potato chips have been outlawed from the tuck shops and replaced with fruit, milk and cereal. The ubiquitous sausage and chips with cabbage, or liver and chips with cabbage, or pasty and chips with cabbage—food that made the Empire—have been replaced by salads with oodles of rocket leaves and pasta with locally sourced turkey.

Some of us who can’t imagine Britain without fry-up breakfasts on cold, overcast mornings and the unmistakable smell of boiled cabbage have reason to thank the Conservative shadow higher education minister Boris Johnson for upholding the principle of free choice. At a fringe meeting during the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth this week, Johnson damned the “over-priced, low-fat rubbish” being served in school canteens: “I say let people eat what they like… If I was in charge, I would get rid of Jamie Oliver…”

The incorrigible Johnson didn’t stop at school dinners. Responding to the Conservative demand for maximum local autonomy to counter the Labour Government’s over-centralisation, he argued that “localism” could pose unforeseen problems in areas with a large Muslim population. Supposing, he asked, “Tower Hamlets or parts of Bradford were to become governed by religious zealots believing in that system. Are we ready for complete local autonomy if it means sharia law?”

These are questions politicians are not meant to ask. But Johnson’s awkward aside can well be seen in the context of a spirited debate in Britain on the relationship between “core beliefs” and a viable electoral strategy. Ever since Tony Blair discarded the socialist certitudes of the Labour Party, abandoned the trades unions for the spin doctors and won three consecutive general elections, the Conservatives have been grappling with the problems of internal change. Having discarded four leaders in quick succession since 1997, it has settled for the 40-year-old David Cameron who, if the opinion polls are any guide, has the potential of breaking Labour’s dream run in government.

It is not merely Cameron’s kindly youthful looks that gives him an edge over the post-Blair Labour leaders. For the past year, Cameron has lost no opportunity telling the Tory faithful that they were roundly beaten by Blair because they lacked credibility. The post-Thatcher Conservative Party, according to him, was out of tune with the Cool Britannia that warmed up to New Labour. The pet obsessions of Conservatives, he felt, bred an astonishing insularity. The party devoted more time banging on about the hobby horses of its activists than attending to the concerns of voters.

Built on the twin pillars of “change” and “social responsibility”, Cameron has forged a vision of “compassionate” conservatism which is very different from anything the Tories have ever known. He has formally added Green to the Tory blue and made the protection of the environment a key policy concern; he has robustly committed the party to institutions of the welfare state such as the health service; and he has badgered local constituency parties into adopting more women and members of ethnic minorities as prospective parliamentary candidates.

The change of tack has begun yielding dividends. In the local elections in England, the Conservatives beat Labour quite convincingly and polled nearly 40 per cent of the vote. Even his worst critics admit that Cameron has succeeded in persuading a significant number of people to at least start viewing the Conservatives as a possible alternative to Labour. In particular, he has nullified the blind hatred of Conservatives which was a feature of young, urban voters of a culturally confused Britain.

At the heart of the Cameron strategy is the belief that for any party to be win elections, it must first capture the middle ground. Just as Blair shifted Labour from the Left to the Centre, Cameron is nudging the Conservatives into capturing the Centre ground and jettisoning the remains of Thatcherism. The Conservatives have, for example, lessened their traditional preoccupation with tax cuts, fox hunting, immigration and Europe. Instead, the party talks more about community action, Green issues and bolstering social services.

Cameron has conveniently interpreted the Centre to mean anything which preoccupies the popular mind space. It’s a clever ploy because the implication is that while he is addressing voters’ concerns, the ideologues of the Left and Right are loftily detached from the grassroots. The Centre, in Cameron-speak, listens and responds; the ideologues pontificate and lecture.

Labour has attacked Cameron as a PR invention and lacking substance. However, within the Conservative Party, the “sour Right”—Douglas Hurd’s carping description of the old Thatcherites—has charged Cameron with abandoning the party’s “core” concerns—the political equivalent of griping over the loss of the Grill Room. This attack in turn has prompted a larger question: is politics about governance or spreading ideology?

As the oldest political party in the democratic world, the modern Conservative Party has an interesting history. Lacking any doctrinal basis and, instead, flaunting a very English incoherence, the party has nevertheless endured for the past 150 years on the basis of self-renewal. From the repeal of the corn laws under Robert Peel, disputes over tariff reform and imperial preference in the early 20th century, the contrived genuflections before the Welfare State after World War II, to Thatcherism, the Conservatives have not confused policies with principles. The party has kept ideological certitudes to a bare minimum—individual liberty, respect for Crown and country and a non-intrusive state. Within these parameters, there has been a vigorous interplay of ideas and, when in grave doubt, Conservatives have taken refuge behind pragmatism and common sense—what Cameron calls “sensible” policies.

The definition of sensible has, like walking shoes, evolved. Last year, an enterprising journalist wrote a book entitled The Strange Death of Tory England. Like me, he was taken in by appearances. What matters is not that the old Grill Room clientele hasn’t moved into the new celebrity chef’s orbit. The important thing is that both sets of people—separated by age, collective memory, tastes and even outlook—will still, in all probability, be voting Conservative. What matters is that the baton has been passed on to another generation.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 6, 2006)

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