TCS Daily

Tony the Triumphant

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - January 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Tony Blair, take a bow.

Whatever the political problems you have faced personally with your support of the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, whatever the degree to which you have fallen out of favor with Labour Party activists thanks to your "Third Way" approach to politics, however anxious British pundits and politicians may be to have The Age of Tony give way to The Age of Gordon, now is your time to soak in some well-deserved applause. Most politicians just try to win re-election as often as they can. Some succeed in changing the political landscape. But few politicians in recent memory have been responsible for the kind of change that you, Tony Blair, have brought about.

The Conservatives have recently elected -- in lopsided fashion -- their new Party leader, David Cameron. Cameron's ascendance follows a recent national election that saw the Conservatives make noticeable gains in the House of Commons. Instead of working to consolidate the Conservatives' ideological base and then trying to occupy the center and forcing Labour to leftist extremes on the ideological spectrum, Cameron has begun the process of turning the Conservatives into a neo-leftist party in response to three successive electoral victories by Blair and New Labour's continuing dominance of the political environment.

Consider the following:

  • The new Conservative Party policy chief, Oliver Letwin, has come out in favor of income redistribution. Yes indeed; a right-of-center political party in the Western world has been forced by electoral events to propose taking from the rich to give to the poor. As the story notes, "Many members of the Labour Party are disappointed that Tony Blair has consistently refused to say he wants to narrow the gap between rich and poor." These ideologues would appear to be more comfortable with the Conservative Party's emerging stance on this issue. If that possibility does not boggle your mind, what will?

  • Well, perhaps the new Conservative tactic of class warfare will be more successful at boggling minds. According to the Telegraph:

David Cameron, the new Tory leader, announced a dramatic break with the party's past yesterday as he promised to ditch the ideology of Margaret Thatcher and place the interests of the poor above those of the rich. [. . .]

Risking a clash with traditionalists, Mr. Cameron suggested that Thatcherite policies had little or no relevance in modern Britain and that he would not be bound in any way by her thinking. The world was changing so fast that strict ideologies should be shunned in favour of a flexible approach to politics.

In a warning to the traditional Right, he said: "There has been a tendency for some Conservatives to treat Britain, particularly our public services, as an ideological laboratory. But today, in a world that is constantly changing, we need open minds.

At the next election a whole generation of people will be voting who were born after Mrs Thatcher left office. So when it comes to tackling the big challenges our society faces, I will not be the prisoner of an ideological past."

Presumably, this aversion to being "the prisoner of an ideological past" and to "Thatcherite policies" includes a bizarre dislike of free market and small government proposals -- the kind that have defined conservatism in both Britain and the United States. And the excuse given for this aversion is laughable; Cameron will have us believe that we should shun "strict ideologies" because "the world was changing so fast."

But the world was changing rather quickly while Margaret Thatcher was in power as well. Why is it that her policies -- which transformed Britain into an economic force with which to be reckoned and which won Thatcher three straight election victories -- are now antiquated? Doesn't David Cameron have any better excuses for consigning Thatcherite policies to the attic than the ones he has seen fit to provide?

  • The Cameron regime is re-making the Conservatives into a big government party in other ways as well; namely, through the introduction of the kind of nannyism that should drive libertarians and small-government conservatives to the brink of madness. According to the FT:

David Cameron, Conservative leader, on Wednesday launched an outspoken attack on retailers, singling out WH Smith for offering cut-price chocolate oranges. He accused it of irresponsible marketing that made people fat.

His remarks, in a speech on health policy, sparked concern that the Tories had embarked on a campaign against big business to win votes from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Cameron said the consumer industries could do more to promote healthy lifestyles. "Try to buy a newspaper at the train station and, as you queue to pay, you're surrounded by cut-price offers for giant chocolate bars... As Smith promotes half-price chocolate Britain faces an obesity crisis, why does WH oranges at its checkouts instead of real oranges?" he said.

The comments caused bemusement at the retailer and embarrassment among senior Tories with City links, one of whom said it was a mistake to target WH Smith in this way. The company denied acting irresponsibly, saying it also sold dried fruit. "I am not quite sure why he picked on us. We offer customers a whole range of products so they have a choice," it said.

Perhaps this campaign against gustatory commercial choice is an indication that the Cameron-dominated Conservative Party has now decided to embrace the idea of libertarian paternalism. If so, it is yet another indication that the Conservatives are no longer adherents of their past principles. Rather, they are in the process of being born again; this time as "New Labour Lite."

Conservatives may argue that they are doing what is necessary to win a general election -- something they last did in 1992. They may point to stories like this one, which observes that David Cameron is making remarkable progress in claiming the center ground in British politics and that the Conservatives' newfound success in the polls serves as a vindication of the revamping of their policies. But an open question exists as to whether the Conservatives' poll success has more to do with the fact that David Cameron is a fresh face and whether the current polling strength of the Conservatives will dissipate when the fresh face becomes a more familiar one. It is worth noting, of course, that the repositioning of political parties is not new in and of itself. Margaret Thatcher forced Tony Blair to take Labour to the middle and Ronald Reagan forced Bill Clinton and the New Democrats to launch an American version of the Third Way that helped inspire Blair. But we are not seeing a mere repositioning here. What we are seeing instead is that the now-inaptly named Conservative Party is trying to beat New Labour by seeking to outflank Labour on the left.

Whoever saw that coming?

The current polls notwithstanding, it will be some time before the next general election in Britain. By the time that election rolls around, we may very well see that the struggle is framed as New Labour taking on a pale imitation of New Labour. In such a situation, British voters will likely feel that there is no point in voting for a pale imitation when they could have the real thing.

So Tony Blair, take a bow. Few political leaders can take credit for having engineered so dramatic a realignment. And no serious student of politics can help but be left slackjawed in both disbelief and admiration at the skill it took to bring that realignment about.


1 Comment

Cameron came to power on the grounds that he wasn't responsible for previous Tory decisions & could thus plausibly pose as a new broom. The downside of that is that he has never made a decision of any kind & is now making all the touchy feely noises you expect from the PC brigade.

Before entering politics he was a managerial suit at Carlton TV which I think explains much of his media savvy & lack of depth.

TCS Daily Archives