David Cameron’s speech was dripping with Blond and Kruger
It was a tour de force in many ways: David Cameron has the mental agility and capacity of a Shakespearean actor to memorise hundreds of lines and thousands of words, and his ability to incarnate his political philosophy and communicate the intense reality of his feelings to an audience is worthy of the applause of Stanislavski himself. He is a consummate actor in the mould of all the political and religious greats: he conceded that he is a ‘salesman’, and found in the term more compliment than shame.
And so he should.
Politics, like religion, needs people who can communicate and enthuse: if you are a tedious dullard, you inspire no-one to enter the kingdom of heaven and guide none to their earthly salvation. Just as Christianity has been corrupted over the centuries through the interference of man, so conservatism has been misrepresented and perverted by politicians and their parties. No pope or archbishop is Jesus, and no Conservative politician is Burke. All we can do is interpret their words and attempt to discern and interpret their teachings in another era and in a different culture.
The conservatism of Disraeli was not that of Churchill, which was not that of Macmillan, which was not that of Thatcher. And the conservatism of Margaret Thatcher is not that of David Cameron.
Yet a common thread courses through the veins of these leaders: the organic mutability of conservatism and the adaptability of the Conservative Party.
David Cameron’s speech was pitched perfectly for postmodernity: there was sufficient conservative meat for the traditional Tories, a few pounds of flesh for the reformist Whigs, a few sinewy morsels for the liberally-inclined and quite a few marrow-filled bones for those who have never before voted Conservative.
There was no overarching coherent theme (‘change’ is a process, not an objective), though the policies which were outlined were cohesive: if David Cameron delivers on his ‘localism’ and co-operatives, his diverse and ‘small’ schools, his commitment to abolish RDAs, his plans to permit referenda and public petitions in Parliament, his devolution of politics to the lowest level possible, he will be one of the greatest reforming prime ministers in British history.
Which is why the Blond ‘Red Tory’ philosophy irks.
‘Compassionate Conservatism’ does not have to be shackled to ‘Christian Democracy’ and Roman Catholic social teaching: indeed, Margaret Thatcher dedicated her entire premiership to liberating the British economy and eradicating corporatism and statism. Yet by embracing the Milbank doctrine of ‘a civil state, a moralised market and an associative society’, Cameron risks rejecting the best of Anglo-Saxon dynamism for the worst of the Continent’s bureaucracy. The moment one moves to control supermarket prices or interfere with sales, the next step is to prohibit the repossession of homes, and then to replace the minimum wage with a ‘living wage’, to control excessive interest rates on bank lending and herald the end of ‘cartel domination’ and a limit to ‘inappropriate speculation’.
This is not a credible economic model: the state gets bigger, bureaucracy becomes bloated, intervention abounds, the cost of government increases and we are all made poorer.
And yet the Kruger ‘fraternity’ theme gives hope.
There is indeed an arid emptiness in Western culture which is caused by the ‘cult of individualism’. Communities are fragmented, families divided, and society disassociated. In his book On Fraternity, Kruger notes in The City of God that Augustine quotes a Briton who says: “The Romans make a desert and they call it peace’. And he suggests the Conservative Party might be said to have made a desert and called it freedom.
And so Cameron has appropriated some body, mind and spirit ‘wholeness’ themes to connect with those individuals and groups who have never before voted Conservative. By talking of children, families, relationships, welfare and community, and by adopting some distinctly socialist ideas (or, rather, adopting some traditionally socialist themes), he conveys a conservatism which cares for the integrity of the natural environment and for people’s harmony with it. His ‘broad church’ approach, through its ‘compassionate’ or ‘progressive’ influence, is actually the approach of any mission-orientated church. Due to the present deep divisions along religious, philosophical and political lines, there is an arguable need to find alternative principles to guide the construction of just institutions which will permit peaceful cohabitation and the pursuit of an overarching common good. Beyond issues of liberty and equality is, as Kruger observes, fraternity, which he defines as ‘the spirit of unofficial cooperation, aimed not at general formulations or national policies but at specific actions and local needs’.
Just as the Church of England is having to justify why it should remain a privileged participant in the political system, so the Conservative Party is having to come to terms with no longer being ‘the natural party of government’. David Cameron is appropriating Blond’s ideas because they sound more compassionate, but the substance has been tried and well-tested, and consistently been found wanting.
But Kruger is far more than mood music. His dialectic latches on to people’s intuitive quest for meaning, for rootedness, for an assurance of identity. By heeding these deepest of human needs, David Cameron is articulating a conservative liberalism for the postmodern era: it is more feeling and intuiting than it is thinking and sensing.
Whether or not it works remains to be seen.