Between the end of the war and the age of Thatcher, the guiding ideal of conservatism was One Nation toryism with a patrician flavour – based on the belief, popularly if perhaps mistakenly attributed to Disraeli, that Conservatives should govern in the interests of the whole country, “the rich and the poor”.
After Edward Heath’s defeats in 1974, a conviction grew among many Tories that the One Nation tradition had become decadent: that those running the Party had come to confuse appeasing trade union bosses with caring for the working class. Margaret Thatcher took a special interest in “our people” – that’s to say, the council tenants who were empowered to buy their own homes; “Essex Man” and his equivalents elsewhere who were encouraged to buy shares in “Tell Sid” privatisations; union members who had become disillusioned with their leaders.
After Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, the view got about that Thatcher had strayed too far from the Party’s One Nation roots, and that the Conservatives had been seen to become “uncaring”. The most famous illustration of this belief was her often misinterpreted declaration that “there is no such thing as society”.
One reaction to this was what Tim Montgomerie called “Easterhouse modernisation” – Iain Duncan Smith’s interest in the very poorest in society, and the modern “five giants” that held them and others back: “failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, child poverty and insecurity in old age”. Under Duncan Smith’s leadership, Conservatives began to take a new interest in social justice.
Another reaction was what Tim labelled “Soho modernisation” – the stress of David Cameron in his opposition years on liberal opinion, and the electoral penalty that the Party had supposedly paid by alienating it. This was the early Steve Hilton period of voting blue and going green, a new commitment to international aid, and (so the new Tory leader’s critics argued) “hugging a hoodie”. “Let sunshine win the day,” Cameron once declared in a Hilton-crafted line.
Later, in Government, Cameron began to take a renewed interest in social mobility – partly because of his interest in it, partly because it is widely believed to have stalled (though this is disputed), and partly because his team had become nervous that voters believed his Government to be led by “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”. His “Party Conference speech of 2012 stressed “aspiration”. In the wake of his 2015 election victory came his Life Chances Strategy.
As Theresa May’s new team begins to get its feet under desks in Downing Street and government departments, I have been trying to assess how it wants to be the same, and how it wants to be different, from these previous approaches to what Conservatives in government should do. I have been guided by the key texts – her speech to ConservativeHome in 2013; and her two leadership campaign launch speeches (see here and here) and by talking to Government and Party sources. The new Government –
What might this mean in practice? Here are three guesses.
All this feels to me like Thatcherism, but with a difference. May shares her predecessor’s interest in “ordinary working people” – but without the overarching aim of shrinking the role of the state (remember that yet-to-be-unveiled industrial strategy). She is in many ways unlike the man who ran the successful Conservative election campaign last year, with his concentration on “ordinary people who play by the rules”, but perhaps the question should be asked: is our new Minister the thinking woman’s Lynton Crosby?