The Tory party: idealists welcome

by Kevin Meagher

For JS Mill, the Tories were famously the stupid party. By the 1980s they were definitely the ideological party. But under David Cameron are they are becoming something else: the home for political idealists?

We casually think of idealism as the preserve of the Left, but the lodestar of this government is to reshape the state in as profound a way as Attlee or Thatcher managed.

From the NHS reforms to free schools. From academies to police commissioners. From the big society to big city mayors. Austerity cuts through to the massive welfare shake-ups; there is an abundance of idealism. Or ‘tip-up-the-apple-cart-ism.’

Much of it is to be regretted of course; a lot of it feels impractical, even reckless, but idealism it most definitely is. As is George Osborne’s “faith based” economic policy. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he presses on.

It’s like watching one of those old bits of film of a man flapping giant cardboard wings and jumping off a pier, expecting to fly. The chancellor is the ultimate expression of optimism over reason.

But what a comparison to the New Labour years. Remember the lobotomised backbenchers? The servile ministers? The groupthink that told us the third way was the apotheosis of progressive politics?

Labour was only ever “prudent with a purpose”. As for Robin Cook, well he never lived down his claim that there could be an “ethical dimension” to foreign policy; the poor deluded fool!

Labour is still coming out of a period of hard-edged pragmatic-minimailism. Many of us remain gimlet-eyed political ultra-realists. Idealism is positively frowned upon.

But idealism matters. In the immediate aftermath of Labour’s election defeat everyone seemed to concede that part of the last government’s problem was that its ministers had become too technocratic; and indeed they had. Politics is surely a destination, not a journey.

But back to the Tories. Their idealism is not confined to their ministerial class. The backbenches are febrile, with free-thinking popping up in a way that would be unimaginable during the New Labour years. Tory MPs dream of the politically desirable, not the mundanely practical.

What would Lord Kilmuir think? The Tory grandee sagely recorded that “loyalty is the Conservative party’s secret weapon”. It seems a sentiment from a bygone age.

So by ‘idealism’ do I simply mean ‘indiscipline?’ No, although rebellion and idealism are symbiotic. The former usually a manifestation of the latter. Refusing to be hemmed in by received opinion – even when it casts a shadow as large as the government’s burly chief whip, the no-nonsense Patrick McLaughlin – requires genuine idealism.

This is, of course, then usually inimical to a vertically-upward political career.

Still, it didn’t stop David Davis from resigning from Cameron’s shadow cabinet – and from parliament itself – to mount a one-man referendum over the erosion of our civil liberties in 2008. Davis’ is now the most impressive voice in parliament when it comes to defending liberty and due process. A former Tory home affairs spokesman. How the gods mock the left.

Meanwhile the equally impressive Douglas Carswell gets slapped down by his own leader at Prime Minister’s Questions for showing his independent streak. While his skewering of the MoD over its monumental waste makes him a one-man public service.

But idealism of the truest kind strikes Cameron closer to home. His departing chief strategist, Steve Hilton, is a quintessential idealist. His run-ins with Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood about whether it is permissible to ignore EU legislation are a joy to behold.

‘No we can’t’, finds Heywood, ‘it’s the law.’

‘Ah’, says Steve, ‘but who made it?’ Apparently Tony Benn’s Arguments for Democracy is book of the week in the Number Ten inner sanctum.

However deleterious the government’s programme may be (in parts), the brio with which David Cameron embarks on wholesale reform is a lesson in governing with idealism.

He will not get everything through (thank god), but a lot of his programme will stick and leave an indelible imprint on Britain – and surely that is the purpose of winning elections and governing?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Tags: , ,

5 Responses to “The Tory party: idealists welcome”

  1. aragon says:

    The Tories are no idealists, with occasional exceptions like David Davis on civil liberties, but slaves to the Gods of Neo-liberalism (therefore still stupid) and continuing the work of Thatcher, and yes Blair in this respect.

    Trust me I am an idealist.

  2. Kevin says:

    But that’s the point isn’t it? Many Tories still cling to ideology, which is fairly prescriptive and provides a ‘do’s’ and ‘don’t’s when in government.

    Labour talks the language of ‘values’ which is hopelessly elastic, which means you get buffeted about in government.

  3. Rallan says:

    “Trust me I am an idealist.”

    Possibly. But much more importantly you are an obviously blinkered tribalist who simply denies the possibility of integrity or decency in people with opposing views. And I’m pretty sure you’re proud of yourself because of that.

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    No, they are not (mostly) idealists and they are not pragamtists either. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming to any king of change that is n’t in the immediate interests of their pals. Labour is not always any better – remember the sacking of Professor Nutt to suck up to the daily mail? Look how well that worked.
    Both parties – and the glib dumbs too if anyone really cares – do silly things. Right now they are now entenching themselves into stupid positions over Scotland. If the two main parties adopted FFA (which is by far the most popular option in Scotland and politcally sound to English voters too) as an absloutely solid policy position they could sweep the gnats away at the referendum, but they are miles behind the curve on this and the gnats are increasingly likely to win. As Lord Foulkes put it ‘the SNP are only popular beause they keep doing things that people like’.
    Cameron and Milliband (and Clegg and Osborne and Balls and Lansley and Cooper and Harman and Cable) do share a certain someting – they can’t wake up and smell the coffee, they wake up and smell the cappucino, the eggs benedict and the warm croissants. It not that they’ve ‘lost touch’; they were never really in touch in rthe first place.

  5. aragon says:


    I don’t know how you can determine that I am a blinkered tribalist from my comment. (or are you just a Troll).

    I acknowledged David Davis actions on Civil Liberties and included Blair as a Neoliberal – a strange tribalist.

    Cameron’s Government is is no idealist but dogmatic, and suffers from cognitive dissonance, when their beliefs meet reality, like the economy.

    Don’t get me started on Beecroft,.

Leave a Reply