A very strange thing is happening in London. Political experts are once again talking of the possibility of a Conservative government. There is something close to excitement about the new Tory leader, David Cameron.
On the face of it, this is absurd. Millions of British voters would rather barbecue their grandmothers than ever vote again for the Conservative Party. Irrational—and rational—loathing for the Tories has already kept them out of office for almost 10 years, and the normal cycle of politics in England appears to have been suspended. Mathematically and in other ways, a Tory victory is still most unlikely in 2009, the expected year for the next election
Seduced by modern propaganda skills, soothed by apparent national prosperity and easy credit, or simply not interested in the old subjects of controversy anymore, a complacent electorate has confirmed Anthony Blair in office twice since he dispatched the last Conservative government in 1997.
This is not as startling a change as you might think. Britain has for some time had two left-wing parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, which long divided the radical vote and so allowed the Conservatives to win most elections under the first-past-the-post system. In 1997, their supporters discovered how to vote tactically for each other in close-fought districts, thus costing the Tories a significant number of seats in the House of Commons.
This is not all. Because of the cultural, educational, and moral changes they failed to resist in the 1960s and 1970s, Tories stopped passing on their values to their own children. Traditional conservatism as a disposition and a habit of the mind is disappearing among the British. Local party organizations are kept going by increasingly elderly survivors, and voters are dying faster than they can be replaced. In Scotland and Wales, meanwhile, the party of Margaret Thatcher has virtually ceased to exist as the old United Kingdom crumbles and Toryism is increasingly viewed as an English peculiarity.
Despite all this, new hope of a return to office is gathering round Cameron, a wealthy professional public-relations man who recently took up a career in politics.
This revival is an entirely managerial, professional phenomenon, devoid of any serious conservative political element. In fact, it is worse than that. It is based on a belief that conservative policies are a liability and that office can be obtained nowadays only by embracing the supposed center ground.
Cameron and his allies specifically and often brutally reject positions once closely associated with their party, and they deliberately stress their passion for causes their party once disliked or mistrusted. The Union flag, once waved with rather un-British enthusiasm at Tory conventions, was not even displayed on the platform of the most recent gathering. (Labour’s convention, by contrast, happily placed the national standard on its podium.) Mass immigration, an issue of great urgency, cannot be mentioned. Cameron has talked of his sympathy with “hoodies,” menacing young men who lope around the streets of British cities in hooded jackets, looking like junior horsemen of the Apocalypse and creating justified unease among the respectable. He has adorned his expensive London home with a windmill to symbolize his love for the environment. And he recently affirmed his support for civil partnerships, a form of virtual marriage open only to homosexual couples.
There is also the matter of style. Cameron makes speeches that are indistinguishable from Blair’s. Games are played in which the contestants try to guess which of the two has emitted a particular cloud of vapid platitudes. He has even spoken to friends of his desire to be “the heir to Blair.”
Now 40, Cameron has been a member of Parliament for only five years. During that time he has supported the invasion of Iraq, urged the weakening of Britain’s already feeble laws against narcotics, and done little else of note except refuse to answer questions about his own past drug use. He also appeared on the TV show “Friday Night With Jonathan Ross,” a crude and witless interview program that—if shown in the U.S.—would disabuse Americans of any remaining illusions they may have about the supposed majesty and quality of the BBC. During his encounter with Ross, the leader of the party of William Pitt, Robert Peel, and Winston Churchill submitted without protest to smutty, puerile questioning on whether he had teenage sexual fantasies about Margaret Thatcher.
A recent speech on foreign policy, in which he appeared to distance himself from the neoconservative stance embraced by his party some time ago, was cunningly nuanced—like much that Cameron does—to give a false impression of his true position. He knows that the neocon association is a liability. But the speech did not alter the party’s ongoing support for the Iraq War or the increasingly questionable British intervention in Afghanistan. The prominent British neoconservative Michael Gove continues to be one of Cameron’s closest advisers on this and other matters and appears quite undisturbed by his leader’s behavior. Danny Finkelstein, a commentator for Rupert Murdoch’s generally neoconservative Times, concluded rather cleverly that the speech “may be seen as distancing conservatives from neoconservatives. In fact it does nothing of the sort. Instead it was endorsing neoconservatism and then trying to distance it from the conduct of foreign policy by George Bush and Tony Blair.”
In his former career as a corporate spokesman for a rather undistinguished commercial TV company, Cameron obtained a reputation for slipperiness in a world of very slippery people. Jeff Randall, one of London’s leading business journalists, recently recalled, “To describe Cameron’s approach to corporate PR as unhelpful and evasive overstates by a widish margin the clarity and plain-speaking that he brought to the job. … In my experience Cameron never gave a straight answer when dissemblance was a plausible alternative, which probably makes him perfectly suited for the role he now seeks: the next Tony Blair.”
The story of how this curious individual became the great hope of British political conservatism has yet to be properly told. During the contest for the Tory leadership last year, Cameron was not—at least to begin with—seen as a serious contestant. He had no important political experience. Yet he somehow acquired the significant support of many in the British media, who greatly over-praised a speech he made and were excessively cruel about a speech made by his main rival, the more traditional conservative David Davies. Space does not permit me to speculate here on the reasons for this, interesting as they are.
Some attribute Cameron’s success to the operation of a still potent old-boy network. The son of a wealthy stockbroker, he had been educated at Eton College, an expensive school so closely associated with toffee-nosed aristocratic languor that its very name can inflame ancient passions of class hatred among Britons. Since the cultural revolution of the 1960s, such a background has generally been seen as a drawback in a political career—not that he had shown very much interest in politics at the age when such things usually appear, while he was a student at Oxford University.
In this Cameron is again very like Blair, who has always been thought to have had no political affiliations during his time at Oxford. But while Blair used up his energies as the Mick Jaggeresque lead singer in a rock band, Cameron joined the Bullingdon, a rich boys’ drinking club once satirized by Evelyn Waugh as the “Bollinger” in Decline and Fall and still trying to keep alive a pathetic fantasy of pre-1914 aristocratic rakehell behavior. Its braying, landed founders were in fact even worse than their modern imitators. They would have scorned a stockbroker’s son as “trade” and thrown him into the nearest fountain after depriving him of his trousers.
And while Blair took a rather poor law qualification—we are not allowed to know his official grade—Cameron stayed sober enough to win a first class degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. I should say that Cameron is by far the brighter and much more knowledgeable about history. This shows when the two have their weekly verbal pillow-fight in the House of Commons. There, Cameron often does well—but not always. He was wholly useless a few weeks ago when the British army’s distinguished and decorated chief of staff, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, openly suggested that it was time for British troops to leave Iraq and added that Britain needed to rediscover its Christian roots if it wanted to resist militant Islam. The unelected, nonpolitical general had suddenly articulated national feeling better than the official leader of the opposition.
Cameron was quite unable to take advantage because of his own past support for the war. The Tories, ashamed as they are of having delivered the country bound and gagged to rule by the European Union, are often anxious to appear noisily patriotic when the guns begin to shoot and believed the feeble rubbish about Saddam’s weapons because they wanted to. Thanks to their inability to escape from this mistake, Cameron missed one of the great Parliamentary opportunities of his life. The general, who under any previous government would have been fired on the spot for interfering in politics, has kept his job because he is so obviously right and because Blair is now too weak to get rid of him.
Yet that weakness has not benefited the Conservatives all that much. Before the Tory collapse, when Britain had a proper two-party system, Blair’s troubles would have resulted in a surge of support for the opposition party. But all opinion surveys show that around 35 percent of voters are now so disaffected that they either refuse to say which way they will vote, don’t know, or have given their backing to minority parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, which has taken up almost all the policies once associated with the Tories but now dumped by them.
The poll summaries tend to leave out the army of the disgusted and so overstate what appears to be a modest Tory lead, nothing near enough to guarantee office in 2009. But even these figures may exaggerate Cameron’s advance and may underestimate his problem in mobilizing his own side while wooing those who despise his party. At a recent special election to replace a deceased Tory member of Parliament, the Conservative vote shriveled so badly that the party almost lost one of its safest House of Commons seats. What a strange nation Britain has become, in which—under one of the worst governments and worst prime ministers in living memory—the voters register a protest against the main opposition party and its leader.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday. He is the author of The Abolition of Britain.