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