Cameron’s “conservatism”: what’s new?

Richard Seymour has spent a good deal of time dedicated to working David Cameron out. And there is a lot to do, since he is not like the other right wing politicians who have led the Conservative party; Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard.

Seymour in a blog entry back in February of this year, asking what is progressive about David Cameron, notes that:

Will Hutton likes Cameron’s ideas. The current editor of the New Statesman says he takes Cameron’s claim to progressivism seriously. The centre-left Prospect magazine has been carrying puff-pieces for Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’, the bland mood music for Cameron’s leadership. Some liberals really want to believe the best about Cameron’s conservatives.

For a while I thought I knew what the problem was. What made Cameron a progressive was his pursuit of compassion. When Cameron told us he cared about this or that, you could almost believe him. After all, he didn’t seem like a rage-ridden, xenophobic moral right winger like had occupied the Tory party before, but was somewhat consumed by the politics of day, of liberal democracy, multiculturalism and welfare (or the concerted attempts of).

I once wrote in a blog entry, for all Cameron’s faults, what he did display was the process whereby the establishment had accepted what the left knew about crime all along; that there is a moral equivalence to a street robber robbing a person’s handbag on the street as there is to, in Cameron’s own words, “the highest executive in the biggest firm who’s been swindling the books.”

To look at that today, you would think it went without saying that there is an equivalence in these two, and that even the latter has some part to play in causing the former crime. But you don’t have to look too far to find views that moral decay is the sum total of crime at street level.

Of course Cameron had his faults, but I felt at least a sea change had been occurring in politics today which largely vindicated the view of the left and the severity of white collar crime.

But I can see the error of my ways now. I retain the opinion that the very right wing and moral conservatism of say Tebbitt is perhaps even slightly embarrassing for this and the next generation of conservatives (at least in public, not forgetting Don’t Panic Magazine’s and Laurie Penny’s outings) but Cameron doesn’t seem to be significantly different politically to his predecessors. I suspect those people who Seymour mentions at the beginning of the aforementioned blog entry are confusing a sea change in the political landscape with a Tory leader who has said he cares and looks like he means it. In other words, some of our best political commentators, reaching their peak in the era of Blair, have been consumed by image and are confused thus.

Throw in a Cameron speech about caring for hooded young people and calling for those, like himself, in suits making more of an effort to understand why young people commit crime, then it’s hardly surprising that the Will Hutton’s of the world are going to get themselves in a bit of a kerfuffle.

But when you consider how similar Cameron’s views on poverty and obesity are to views of mainstream Victorian society we start to see a very different picture to the one held on to by those happy to refer to Cameron as progressive.

Cameron to an audience in Glasgow East during a by-election campaign in July 2008 spoke despairingly about the way in which:

We talk about people being ‘at risk of obesity’ instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being ‘at risk of poverty, or social exclusion’: it’s as if these things – obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction – are purely external events like a plague or bad weather … Social problems are often the consequences of the choices that people make.

These aren’t the words of a progressive, or of someone who wants to dig a little deeper and ‘understand’ the reasons why there is social decay, but someone who believes only appearances and not reality.

(Coming back for a moment to a recent topic of my interest, the type of people this speech might appeal to can be loosely defined as right wing without, strictly speaking, being conservative, those who restrict how conservative the Conservative party can be while being electorally relevant – a product of what I have called the Conservative party’s epistemic closure.)

In his essay An Unjust Law, Jon Trickett, MP for Hemsworth, likened the views expressed by Cameron in the above speech with those of the Board of Guardians, the authority that administered the Poor Law from 1835 to 1930.

Trickett notes that: “…the Guardians who were charged with mitigating against poverty set their faces from the start to the end of the struggle against assisting the poor.”

This necessitated the need for a government based upon welfare and was the impetus for the socialism of the Labour party.

Trickett recalls a case in the history of his constituency when the Guardians refused to hand out relief for out of work miners, deciding that the workers were voluntarily out of work, despite the fact that the pits had been closed off. The establishment, so to speak, composed of magistrates, landowners, the mine company, the Guardians, the police and, according to Trickett, even some parts of the church, “stood by whilst men, women and children were left to their own devices”.

The crossover between Cameron’s speech and, as Trickett calls it, the “Victorian idea that the poor were responsible for their own poverty because of moral failure” is quite clear, and should not be ignored.

One cannot help sometimes think that the cuts agenda by the Tories, juxtaposed with an idealistic idea of a booming voluntary sector, is Cameron testing the thesis that the poor can help themselves. The cuts, which have fallen upon the poorest in society hardest, appear like an experiment where we are all guinea pigs; the issue here is that this might have been Cameron’s philosophy the whole time, even when people were unapologetically observing his “progressive” credentials.