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Constructing a new conservatism? Ideology and values



Following three severe election defeats, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader on an explicitly modernising platform. His agenda for change encompassed revitalising the party image through a concerted effort to rebrand the party, an extensive review of policy, and ideological repositioning towards the centre-ground. While these three strands are of course intertwined this chapter will focus on the latter, namely the attempt to distance the Conservatives from the legacy of Thatcherism and cultivate a new form of conservatism with wider electoral appeal. This is examined in relation to the period of opposition under Cameron’s leadership (2005-10) and during his tenure as Prime Minister as leader of the Coalition government between 2010 and 2015. The chapter argues that despite some rhetorical distancing from the Thatcher era, Cameron largely failed to alter the trajectory of contemporary conservatism, which remains essentially neo-Thatcherite. Ultimately this has undermined the modernisation project that he hoped would define his leadership, limiting the effectiveness of his rebranding strategy and shaping the policy agenda that his government has been able to pursue. While forming the Coalition provided the Conservative leader with significant freedom of manoeuvre in statecraft terms (Hayton, 2014) it conversely limited his scope to radically alter his party’s ideological core, as he increasingly needed to balance the demands of his Coalition partners with those of the right of his own party. While significant political capital was expended on the totemic issue of equal marriage for gay couples, few other issues have pushed the boundaries of conservatism beyond its Thatcherite comfort zone. In short, after a decade of Cameronite leadership the construction of a coherent new conservatism remains largely unfulfilled.
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
Constructing a new conservatism? Ideology and values
Richard Hayton
Following three severe election defeats, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader on an
explicitly modernising platform. His agenda for change encompassed revitalising the party image
through a concerted effort to rebrand the party, an extensive review of policy, and ideological
repositioning towards the centre-ground. While these three strands are of course intertwined this
chapter will focus on the latter, namely the attempt to distance the Conservatives from the legacy of
Thatcherism and cultivate a new form of conservatism with wider electoral appeal. It argues that
despite some rhetorical distancing from the Thatcher era, Cameron largely failed to alter the trajectory
of contemporary conservatism, which remains essentially neo-Thatcherite. Ultimately this has
undermined the modernisation project that he hoped would define his leadership, limiting the
effectiveness of his rebranding strategy and shaping the policy agenda that the Coalition government
was able to pursue.
The chapter begins with a discussion of the Thatcherite ideological inheritance that shaped
Conservative Party politics following the rout suffered at the 1997 general election. It then focuses on
the attempts made by Cameron to reposition the party ideologically as Leader of the Opposition from
2005, and critically appraises the germane academic literature on Conservative modernisation. The
chapter then moves on to examine Conservative Party ideology in office since 2010, suggesting that
although forming the Coalition provided the Conservative leader with significant freedom of
manoeuvre in statecraft terms (Hayton, 2014), conversely it limited Cameron’s scope to radically alter
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
his party’s ideological core. Finally, the chapter offers an assessment of some of the contemporary
ideological debates within the party, and speculates about the future direction of conservatism in the
light of the 2015 election result.
The Thatcherite inheritance
There was a time when it was common to regard the Conservative Party as non-ideological (Hayton,
2012: 7). This pretence was conclusively displaced by the Thatcher era, when the party ‘became noted
for its attachment to ideology’ (Gamble, 1996: 20). By the mid-1990s it was clear that a radical and
enduring ideological shift had occurred in the Conservative Party, with Thatcherism assuming a
position of hegemonic dominance. The main features of the Thatcherite outlook are well known: a
neo-liberal approach to economic issues; a moralistic social authoritarianism; and a commitment to a
rather narrow conception of national sovereignty, manifested particularly as Euro-scepticism
(Gamble, 1994; Heppell, 2002). Thatcherism was more than an ideological viewpoint however. It was
also a successful electoral statecraft strategy (Bulpitt, 1986) and a style of leadership associated
closely with Thatcher herself (King, 1985). It was this potent mixture of ideological vigour,
formidable leadership and electoral success that, following her eviction from office by the party,
fuelled the Thatcher myth and the Conservatives’ fixation with Thatcherism. Somewhat ironically, the
ascension of Thatcherite thinking within the Parliamentary Conservative Party (PCP) consequently
occurred following Thatcher’s removal from power, reaching a position of dominance after the 1997
landslide defeat of the Major government. Analysing the PCP towards the end of her tenure Philip
Norton found that ‘Mrs Thatcher has not crafted a party that is inherently Thatcherite in terms of
attitude and composition’ (1990: 58). By contrast a study of the 2010 intake of MPs found the party to
be predominantly Thatcherite (Heppell, 2013).
Some analysts have argued that the effect of this ideological transformation has been to render the
Conservative Party essentially un-conservative. Mark Garnett, for example, has suggested that it has
become ‘a liberal organisation, with a nationalistic twist’ (2003: 112), and more recently that the
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
Conservative Party ‘has been shorn even of residual elements of conservative ideology, as
traditionally understood’ (2015: 159). The interpretation of Thatcherism as an ideological creed alien
to conservatism is characteristic of the One Nation ‘Wets’ who fought against Thatcher within the
party (Hayton, 2012: 27-31). However, as I have discussed elsewhere (2012, 2015) Thatcherism is
more accurately conceived as an ideological position that is part of conservatism more broadly
understood. The New Right (encompassing Thatcherism) is a school of thought within conservatism,
which remains a distinctive ideological family committed to a limited form of politics (O’Sullivan,
2013). As such it is worth noting that the word ‘conservatism’ is used here primarily in reference to
the Conservative Party, but that is not to say that that conservatism is simply shorthand for the
positions taken by the party rather it is to suggest that ‘the two are intimately linked’ (Norton, 2008:
324). Philip Norton has argued that: ‘the Conservative party has a set of beliefs that comprise British
Conservatism and those beliefs have been moulded and developed over time by Conservative
politicians and thinkers, as well as by some who are not Conservatives’ (2008: 324), and the focus of
this chapter is on conservatism in this sense.
Comprehending Thatcherism as part of an essentially conservative intellectual tradition is not to deny
the profound impact that it has had on the Conservative Party. For the conservative philosopher Roger
Scruton, ‘Thatcherism can be seen as the first attempt to modernise British conservatism, by
discarding the Butskellite consensus and acting from a consistent philosophical foundation’ (2007:
686). The effect on thinking within the party was thrown into stark relief after the crushing 1997
general election defeat, as the Conservatives struggled to come to terms with either the scale of this
loss or the extent of the changes that would be needed to challenge New Labour’s capture of the
centre-ground of British politics. The grip Thatcherism retained over intraparty deliberations was
illustrated by the way in which successive Conservative leaders reverted almost by default to policy
positions and electoral tactics designed to appeal to the party’s core vote. William Hague (1997-
2001), Iain Duncan Smith (2001-3) and Michael Howard (2003-5) all made preliminary and
somewhat tentative efforts to renew the ideational basis of contemporary conservatism, but proved
unable to formulate a cogent new narrative for their party (Hayton, 2012). A number of factors
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
contributed to this pattern, including their own unease over the potential costs of a more radical
approach, dissent amongst shadow ministers and backbenchers, pressure from party members and
parts of the media, and an apparent lack of responsiveness from the electorate. Most importantly
however, the essentially Thatcherite outlook that prevailed throughout most of the PCP limited the
parameters of debate thereby restricting the party leadership to one tributary of conservative thought.
This manifested itself in underdeveloped policy statements that exhibited the main traits of
Thatcherite ideology identified above, notably a firmly Euro-sceptic defence of national sovereignty;
a traditionalist stance on social policy questions related to welfare, criminal justice, equal rights and
marriage; and commitments to tax-cuts and a smaller state. The extent to which the party under David
Cameron reappraised these positions is assessed in the following sections.
Transcending Thatcherism? Modernisation and ideological repositioning, 2005-2010
The election of David Cameron in December 2005 was widely greeted as the moment the
Conservative Party finally stepped out of the shadow of Thatcherism. As the leader column in one
national newspaper noted the day after his election, Cameron’s claim that ‘there is such a thing as
society… crucially and symbolically draws a line between his Toryism and that of Margaret Thatcher
(The Guardian, 2005). Academic analysis of the leadership election suggested that Cameron had
transcended ideological divisions to secure support from across the PCP, including from ‘wets and
dries, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, and social liberals and social conservatives’ (Heppell and Hill,
2009: 399). This marked a break from the pattern established in previous leadership elections since
Thatcher’s departure, in which the PCP had voted more noticeably along ideological lines. Cameron’s
ability to overcome this trend was attributed by Timothy Heppell and Michael Hill to his personal
charisma and perceived ‘electability’ (ibid.), indicating that Conservative MPs had elevated their
desire to win the next general election over their preference for a leader who necessarily reflected
their own political beliefs.
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
While it is undoubtedly the case that Cameron succeeded in cultivating a cross-party appeal, part of
his strategy for doing so involved courting the more strongly Thatcherite elements of the PCP by
offering them reassurances on a number of key issues. Most notably on the issue of European
integration, which remained a touchstone question for many Conservative MPs, Cameron pledged
during his leadership election campaign that he would pull his party’s MEPs out of the European
People’s Party (EPP). Many Conservative MPs had voiced unhappiness with the party’s affiliation to
what they regarded as a federalist grouping, and both Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard had
looked to renegotiate the terms of membership during their tenures as party leader. In the 2005
leadership campaign Liam Fox vowed to leave the group if elected, and Cameron moved to match this
undertaking, which ‘helped him secure sufficient support from the right of the party (e.g. from much
of the Cornerstone Group) to see off the challenge of Fox and then David Davis’ (Lynch and
Whitaker, 2008: 34).
Cameron also moved to offer reassurance to the PCP’s traditionalist wing in relation to social
morality, through an emphasis on the importance of marriage. Cameron deliberately presented himself
as a ‘family man’ and stressed the value he placed on marriage as a societal institution, and as the
most desirable environment for raising children (Hayton, 2010). In one of the few other specific
commitments he made during the leadership election campaign, he announced that a future
Conservative government under his leadership would introduce a new allowance to recognise
marriage in the tax system. This helped bolster his support across the party, and alleviate doubts about
Cameron from those who do not share his inclination towards social liberalism.
In spite of these carefully crafted signals during the leadership election, the central message of
Cameron’s campaign was that his candidature represented change, and that the Conservative Party
must change to win. He explicitly embraced the notion of modernisation, and in doing so advocated
making a break with the past. In ideological terms this meant detaching himself from the legacy of
Thatcherism, which his predecessors had all been unable to do. As Stuart McAnulla has argued,
Cameron ‘sought to distance himself from the perceived excessive individualism of Thatcherism,
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through stressing repeatedly that “there is such a thing as society”… [and] he also drew upon the “one
nation” theme within conservatism that Thatcher had arguably eschewed’ (McAnulla, 2012: 168).
Cameron pursued this strategy of rhetorical distancing consistently and effectively, and academic
interpretations of the early years of his leadership in particular consequently emphasised the degree to
which he had apparently repositioned the Conservatives ideologically. Kieron O’Hara (2007: 315) for
example, saw the Cameron project as ‘a leftward move to the post-Blair centre’. Peter Dorey, whilst
cautioning that the Conservative leader would face an uphill battle with the right of his party to
accomplish his modernisation agenda in full and meet the expectations it had raised about ‘a new
mode of conservatism for the early 21st century’ (2007: 164), observed that:
David Cameron has toiled tirelessly during his first year as Conservative leader to reposition
the Party ideologically, and revive the ‘one nation’ strand which atrophied during the 1980s
and 1990s. In so doing, he has explicitly eschewed Thatcherism, and effectively apologized
for many aspects of it, while explicitly abandoning many of the policies implemented during
the Thatcher-Major premierships. (Dorey, 2007: 162)
Cameron’s basic strategy when he assumed the party leadership was, as Heppell (2014: 138) noted,
‘to make the Conservatives appear more centrist and position them close to the location of the median
voter’. However, whether this strategic relocation was underpinned by a fundamental ideological shift
is more questionable. Downplaying certain issues, for instance, does not necessitate any modification
of the underlying position, even though it may help create the impression that it has changed, or at
least that those issues are no longer regarded as so important to the party’s identity. So Cameron’s
plan to ‘move away from prioritizing the issues associated with Thatcherism that is taxation,
immigration and Euroscepticism’ (Heppell, 2014: 139) in fact emulated that which Iain Duncan
Smith had attempted to pursue (albeit without a great deal of success) four years earlier (Hayton and
Heppell, 2010: 430). Similarly, changing the way in which certain issues are discussed, for example
through the moderation of language and tone, does not require policy positions to be greatly revised.
One case in point is immigration, which had been the centrepiece of some sustained negative
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
campaigning by the Conservatives at the 2005 election. Cameron chose instead to speak positively
about the benefits immigration can bring, but did not noticeably shift Conservative policy in practice,
which remained to substantially reduce net inward migration (Hayton, 2012: 99).
Relatedly, spending more time talking about issues not closely associated with your party might help
to broaden its electoral appeal and improve its image, but may not require a change of ideological
approach even if one is implied. According to Neil Carter, Cameron’s embrace of the environment
as his ‘signature issue’ was primarily a tactical manoeuvre, but also one of ‘great symbolic
importance’ that suggested the party ‘would not (always) prioritise business interests over the wider
public good’ (Carter, 2009: 233-4). Climate change became a particular focus of attention and in 2006
Cameron made a highly publicised visit to a Norwegian glacier to observe the effects of global
warming, resulting in a memorable photo opportunity with a pack of huskies. However, as Ben
Glasson (2012) has argued, the notion of ecological modernisation adopted by Cameron and others:
‘transforms the threat of climate change into an opportunity, a new motor of neoliberal legitimacy’
and professes ‘no contradiction between sustainability and the present socioeconomic order’. As such,
although the ‘vote blue, go green’ agenda was not one universally welcomed in Conservative circles it
has not (in the way Cameron has pursued it) represented a threat to the party’s core ideological
This brings us to the heart of the Conservative Party’s ideology in terms of its commitment to a neo-
liberal political economy and a limited state. At no point during his tenure as Leader of the Opposition
did Cameron seek to loosen the hold of the neo-Thatcherite perspective on the party’s approach to
economic questions, with Conservative hostility to Labour’s neo-Keynesian response to the global
financial crisis soon being made explicit as events unfolded (Hayton, 2012: 119-135). Martin Smith
(2010: 818) has argued that the crisis laid bare the ‘fundamental differences between the parties over
the role of the state and the relationship between the state and the market’, with the Conservatives
promulgating the idea of the ‘big society’ as an alternative to the public sector. Prior to the financial
crisis the Conservatives had pledged to match Labour’s spending plans in an effort to persuade voters
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
they could be trusted with the public services, particularly the NHS (Smith, 2010: 827). Cameron had
also been seen to shift his party’s position on the issue of poverty, moving to accept that it could not
simply be defined in absolute terms, but that relative measures (as preferred by New Labour) were
necessary (Heppell, 2014: 141). For Hickson (2009: 360) this shift on inequality suggested something
of a revival of the one nation tradition, but still one tempered by ‘a strong anti-state attitude’.
Taken together, this apparent change of stance on poverty and the promise to protect the public
services could have been seen as evidence that Cameron was returning to a form of one nation
conservatism, which appreciated the positive role the state could play in society. Whatever the
motivation, wooing public sector workers and their families certainly seemed like an astute electoral
strategy, given that in 2005 this group represented ‘over 40 percent of the electorate’ and a key
segment for the Conservatives to target (Sanders, 2006: 172). The plan to shield the public services
was discarded however in the light of the financial crash, which the Conservatives presented as a debt
crisis with big government’ the primary culprit (Conservative Party, 2010: vii). This line of reasoning
suggested that the solution lay in a dose of fiscal conservatism and a Thatcherite retrenchment of the
state. As Peter Dorey discusses at length in the following chapter, in the run-up to the general election
Cameron attempted to present this as a reimagining of the relationship between the state, society and
individuals, rather than a crude austerity-driven onslaught on the public sector. The ‘big society’
narrative consequently became central to the Conservatives’ electoral strategy and was presented as
something of an ideological middle way between Thatcherism and New Labour, and envisaged a
flourishing of non-state actors (see Chapter 5).
The notion of the big society has proved to be flimsy at best, and vulnerable to the charge that it is a
Trojan horse for cuts to public services (Kisby, 2010: 490). However, it is worth briefly reflecting on
the development of the concept here as it is indicative of the debate about the ideological direction of
conservatism after Thatcher. Dorey and Garnett (2012) trace the intellectual roots of the big society
narrative to the work of a number of Conservative figures in the 1990s and 2000s, notably Douglas
Hurd, David Willetts, Ferdinand Mount, Damian Green, Oliver Letwin, Iain Duncan Smith, and Philip
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
Blond. Kevin Hickson (2010) also identified Duncan Smith, Willetts, Letwin, and Blond as key
influences on conservatism under Cameron. What links these individuals is their concern with re-
engaging conservatism with civil society and overcoming the perception that the party has little to say
or offer beyond a commitment to individualism and free markets. The neo-Thatcherite position
adopted by Cameron essentially echoes that outlined by Willetts in his work on civic conservatism in
the early-1990s (Hayton, 2012: 31-5). It does not entail a rejection of Thatcherism, but emphasises
that ‘there is more to conservatism than the free market’ (Willetts, 1994: 9), even if a particular stress
on the latter was a necessary response to the problems faced by the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. For
Willetts, markets and communities should not be seen as incompatible, but post-Thatcher the
Conservatives needed to find new language to explain how they can support each other (ibid.).
This contrasts somewhat with the ‘Red Toryism’ of Phillip Blond, which offered a more radical
critique of what another prominent proponent of the big society, Jesse Norman, called the market
fundamentalism of the last three decades’ (Norman, quoted in Dorey and Garnett, 2012: 290). Blond’s
target is modern liberalism as a whole, which he blames for producing ‘both state authoritarianism
and atomised individualism’ in the post-war era (Blond, 2009). In Cameron’s advocacy of a big
society Blond detected the potential for a socially conservative ‘new communitarian Tory settlement’
built on a radical localism, involving much greater community ownership of assets (ibid.). As
discussed in what follows on the big society in the next section, Blond (2012) has since lambasted
Cameron for failing to pursue the red Tory agenda in office. However, it was a hopeless misreading of
Cameron’s positioning as leader of the opposition to ever think he would embark on an anti-liberal
crusade in government. In promising to be ‘as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an
economic reformer’ David Cameron (quoted in Jones, 2008: 315) was never suggesting undoing the
Thatcherite economic reform programme. Rather, his position was premised on the notion that with
the advent of New Labour the Conservatives had essentially won the argument on the economy, so
needed to find a new way to define themselves on social issues (Hayton, 2012: 102-3).
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
In summary, in the 2005 to 2010 period in ideological terms the Conservatives under Cameron did not
transcend Thatcherism in a significant way. A number of steps were taken to signal change and to
rhetorically distance the party from the Thatcher era, including moving onto territory associated with
New Labour and downplaying traditional Thatcherite themes. However, the ideological parameters of
conservatism remained essentially Thatcherite and were not fundamentally challenged, and
consequently reasserted themselves in the light of the economic downturn from 2008 onwards.
Liberal conservatism and the politics of Coalition, 2010-15
If Cameron’s modernisation project had only been partially delivered in opposition, some of its
proponents hoped that the formation of the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats would facilitate its
completion in office, with one MP Nick Boles quickly proposing the two parties adopt an electoral
pact in 2015 (Hayton, 2014: 10). He later explained that: ‘I believed that if we could get the Liberal
Democrats to yoke themselves to us for a full two terms in government, we would in time be able to
persuade most of them to merge their party into a truly liberal Conservative Party’ (Boles, 2013). For
Boles and other ‘Cameroons’, modernising the Conservative Party was therefore essentially about
shifting its ideological core firmly in a liberal direction. Such a strategy, they believed, would widen
the party’s electoral appeal by capturing more centrist voters.
As I have noted elsewhere (Hayton, 2014: 11), a number of analysts have highlighted the presence of
ideological common ground between the two Coalition parties, and this certainly appears to have been
a factor in the successful conclusion of the coalition negotiations following the general election
(Beech, 2011; McAnulla, 2012). This convergence reflected movement not only by Cameron and the
Conservative leadership in a socially liberal direction, but also amongst key Liberal Democrats
towards a firmer economic liberalism. In their foreword to the Coalition Agreement, the new Prime
Minister and Deputy Prime Minister felt able to declare that: ‘We share a conviction that the days of
big government are over; that centralization and top-down control have proved a failure (quoted in
Beech, 2011: 267). Writing soon after its formation, Matt Beech suggested that the shared outlook
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
and values’ of the Cameron-Clegg Coalition were ‘neoliberal political economy and an attitude of
social liberalism’ while the ‘common enemies’ were ‘economic egalitarians and social conservatives’
(2011: 270).
Shortly after the general election the new Prime Minister outlined this ‘liberal conservatism’ in a
television interview with the BBC journalist Andrew Marr. He said: ‘I've always described myself as
a Liberal Conservative. I'm Liberal because I believe in freedom and human rights, but Conservative -
I'm sceptical of great schemes to remake the world.’ In the same interview he went on to describe the
Coalition as a ‘progressive alliance’ (BBC, 2010). In opposition and in office Cameron consistently
linked his ‘liberal conservative’ outlook to the notions of progress and modernity, juxtaposing it
against reactionary and traditionalist viewpoints. Nonetheless to interpret this as a wholesale
abandonment of conservatism, as some observers such as Garnett (2015) have done, would be
mistaken. Cameron elucidated his philosophy at greater length in a 2007 speech, and was keen to
underline that it drew mutually from both the ideological traditions of its moniker. He stated that he
was a liberal as he is ‘sceptical of the state’ and trusts in the freedom of individuals to pursue their
own happiness, with the minimum of interference from government’; but also a Conservative as he
believes ‘that there is a historical understanding between past, present and future generations, and that
we have a social responsibility to play an active part in the community we live in’ (quoted in Beech,
2011: 269).
This equation of conservatism with social responsibility implies a critique of Thatcherism for not
delivering sufficiently on the latter, suggesting that the social authoritarianism of the Thatcher era had
failed in its objectives and is incompatible with a liberally-inclined twenty-first century society. To
the extent that liberal conservatism contains a critique of Thatcherism it is in relation to these themes,
although its intensity is checked by the fact that it is framed against what many Conservatives would
regard as a ‘crass caricature’ (McAnulla, 2012: 167) of Thatcherism. In a 2006 speech to Demos,
David Cameron had in fact argued that Thatcher had ‘increasingly worried that the new, open
economy was not tackling problems of family breakdown, crime, poor schooling, drug dependency
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
and the decline of respect in parts of our inner cities’, and that she ‘made a famous speech invoking
religion as a means of enriching our sense of social obligation’ (2006). The parallels with the rhetoric
of the big society and the stated need to ‘mend our broken society’ (Conservative Party, 2010: iii) are
obvious. As such, it is clear that Cameron regarded his liberal conservatism as consistent with the
Conservative Party’s ideological inheritance from Thatcher, even if the specific policies required had
evolved with time.
Ryan Shorthouse, director of the Bright Blue think-tank which has been a vocal supporter of
Cameron’s modernisation agenda, has sought to highlight the intellectual roots of liberal
conservatism. Shorthouse (2013) rejects the charge that liberal conservatism is ‘simply political
triangulation’ driven by electoral expediency. For him, it is a liberal philosophy with a positive view
of human nature: a belief that ‘people are fundamentally good’. It is also a progressive one that holds
‘that the future will be better than the past’. Nonetheless, it draws on ‘rich Conservative traditions’
and retains a ‘Burkean’ scepticism that is wary of ‘definitive dogmatism’. The timing of Shorthouse’s
intervention, in February 2013, is significant. At that point in time the Coalition’s public standing was
at a low ebb as the economy remained in the doldrums and George Osborne’s programme of fiscal
austerity was increasingly being blamed for exacerbating rather than solving the deficit problem,
while other aspects of the government’s agenda associated with modernisation (such as equal
marriage for gay couples) were proving unpopular with more traditionalist Conservative members and
supporters, some of whom were turning towards the UK Independence Party. Shorthouse therefore
sought to argue that liberal conservatism (and by implication modernisation) had an enduring
relevance that has survived the economic crash and the onset of the politics of austerity.
The austerity agenda was driven as much by politics as by economic considerations. As Andrew
Gamble (2015: 42) has argued, austerity was a key feature of the Conservative Party’s statecraft after
the 2010 general election, and was used to ‘redefine the terms of the debate on economic policy,
enabling the Coalition to blame the recession on Labour and to create a new narrative to bolster its
claim to economic competence’. In some ways this proved to be an astute political strategy which co-
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
opted the Liberal Democrats in the Conservative agenda, created a dividing line with the opposition,
and provided an over-arching framework within which many other policy debates could be framed
(Hayton, 2014). However, by exposing the Conservatives’ attachment to neo-liberal political
economy to full view it brought into question the sincerity of their commitment to modernisation and
liberal conservatism. With deficit reduction through fiscal retrenchment established as the number one
priority for the Coalition, perhaps inevitably the language adopted by Conservative politicians become
rather more hard-edged than during the earlier years of the Cameron leadership, emphasising the
‘tough choices’ the government had to make. On welfare policy for instance, which had been
identified by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as an area that could be targeted for significant
spending cuts (ostensibly to help protect spending in other areas), Osborne and other Coalition
ministers deployed rhetoric redolent of the Thatcher era. As an example, framing the issue in terms of
‘workers versus shirkers’ and ‘strivers versus skivers’ was an attempt to inflame a sense of perceived
injustice or even outrage about benefit claimants, in contrast to the more understanding and moderate
language the party had used in opposition (Hayton and McEnhill, 2014: 107).
In the chapter that follows Peter Dorey argues that the policy agenda pursued by the Conservatives in
Coalition not only in relation to welfare, but also notably in terms of economic management and
public sector reform represents a reversion to Thatcherite type, and that this amounts to an
‘abandonment’ (Chapter 5, pp. ???) of the modernisation strategy Cameron had earlier pursued. While
I do not diverge from the thrust of his assessment of the Conservative policy programme in office,
which carries a number of clear Thatcherite hallmarks, the case advanced here is that this does not
mark a deep rupture with the notion of modernisation the Conservative leadership promulgated in
opposition, particularly if this is conceived in terms of its ideological underpinnings, namely liberal
conservatism. Returning to O’Sullivan’s (2013) definition of conservatism as a limited form of
politics, we can locate Cameron’s ideology within this designation, at the same time as
acknowledging (as the Conservative leader has) the considerable influence of liberal ideas on his
outlook. Some aspects of the modernisation strategy have been undermined by the politics of
austerity, notably the effort to re-brand the party as concerned with more than economics and to
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
rhetorically distance it from Thatcherism. However, there is no fundamental inconsistency in
ideological terms between the liberal conservatism of the Coalition and that pursued by Cameron in
office. The core Conservative commitment to a neo-liberal political economy was never challenged in
opposition (Hayton, 2012), so it’s reassertion following an economic downturn was to be fully
expected. Given the Conservatives’ success in dominating the Coalition’s statecraft (Hayton, 2014)
we can view it’s ideology as derived essentially from conservative ideas (Lakin, 2013: 476).
Dorey (Chapter 5) also suggests that the ideological make-up of the PCP was a key factor influencing
the policy positions of the Cameron-Clegg government. As noted earlier, research has demonstrated
that the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs was largely Thatcherite (Heppell, 2013) and some of the
most intellectually active elements of the PCP have been characterised as forming a ‘new New Right’
movement (Lakin, 2014). The 2010 parliament has also witnessed unprecedented levels of backbench
dissent, with the fact that the government is a Coalition seemingly been taken by some MPs as a
licence to rebel frequently (Cowley and Stuart, 2012). The Conservative leadership therefore has
appeared mindful of ‘the perceived need to pacify the party’s more right-wing MPs, members and
supporters, particularly in the light of a noteworthy rise in support for the UK Independence Party’ on
their right flank (Hayton, 2014: 16). This factor has consequently limited Cameron’s scope to
radically alter his party’s ideological core and embark on a genuinely far-reaching modernisation of
conservatism. While significant political capital was expended on the totemic issue of equal marriage
for gay couples, few other issues have pushed the boundaries of conservatism beyond its Thatcherite
comfort zone. The analysis offered here of Cameron’s liberal conservatism indicates that this was
never his intention, premised as it was on building on, rather than critiquing, the Thatcherite legacy.
Conclusion: twenty-first century conservatism
This chapter has made a number of key claims. The first is that Thatcherism is best understood as part
of the conservative tradition of limited politics, so while radical and transformative in a number of
important ways it remains part of the intellectual family of conservatism. The second is that the
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
ideological legacy of Thatcherism has continued to animate and define the Conservative Party’s
ideational debates since the 1990s, including in the period from 2005 onwards that has been the focus
of this chapter. As such, the principal claim of the chapter is that the liberal conservatism advanced by
David Cameron remains essentially neo-Thatcherite, and that the modernisation agenda pursued since
2005 has not pushed contemporary conservatism beyond these parameters. The novel element in neo-
Thatcherism is its recognition of the need for the Conservative Party to stress the fact that it has
concerns beyond the economic sphere and the deployment of a more civic-orientated language to
express these. However, this has not involved challenging the core tenets of the Thatcherite
ideological inheritance, and arguably helps justify and buttress the continued primacy of neo-
liberalism. In this sense the modernisation of the party is incomplete, if modernisation is understood
to include a reorientation of ideological outlook. While in opposition (and to a lesser extent in office)
Cameron engaged in rhetorical distancing from Thatcherism, notably consistently declining to
describe himself as a Thatcherite, this has not amounted to ideological repositioning. It was largely
premised on the claim that Thatcherism was right for its time, but that circumstances have moved on
and created new demands for the Conservatives to respond to.
The core facets of Thatcherism were identified at the outset as a neo-liberal approach to economic
issues; a moralistic social authoritarianism; and a commitment to a rather narrow conception of
national sovereignty, manifested particularly as Euro-scepticism. Each of these elements remains
clearly visible in the Conservative Party after a term of Coalition government. The reassertion of a
neo-liberal political economy has been discussed above in relation to the politics of austerity. The
hold Euro-scepticism retains over the PCP has been illustrated both by Cameron’s veto of a putative
EU treaty at the European Council of December 2011, and by the pledge to renegotiate UK
membership of the European Union and hold an in-out referendum in 2017 (Goes, 2014). And while
in some ways the authoritarianism of Thatcherism appears to have been abandoned in the face of new
social norms (for example in relation to equal rights for gay people) a moralistic tone is still very
much a feature of Conservative rhetoric on issues such as welfare and marriage. In short, after almost
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
a decade of Cameronite leadership the construction of a coherent and qualitatively new conservatism
remains largely unfulfilled.
This chapter consequently rejects the thesis advanced by Beech (2015: 3) that ‘Cameron’s political
thought is essentially a form of liberalism albeit communicated to the electorate as liberal
Conservatism’. Rather, Cameron’s liberal conservatism, like Thatcherism, should be located within
the conservative ideological tradition of a limited form of politics. In contrast Beech (2015: 4) argues
that: ‘While Cameron’s Conservatives exhibit some traditional conservative attitudes, compared in
relation to a sizable portion of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and many grassroots activists,
they are consistently liberal… The politics of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition is
essentially a right-wing liberalism’ (Beech, 2015: 4). This view contains echoes of the One Nation
critique of the Thatcher era, which identified an un-conservative (neo)-liberal ideology and coterie as
somehow capturing the Conservative Party so that it was no longer the vehicle for conservatism, as
they saw it. The irony of course is that the ‘conservative’ parliamentarians and activists that
Cameron’s liberal project is contrasted with by Beech are, by and large, traditionalist Thatcherites
the group being defined as un-conservative by One Nation Tories a generation earlier.
Cameron’s liberal ideology, Beech contends, has three main strands: economic liberalism, social
liberalism, and liberal interventionism (in foreign policy). As such he accepts that Thatcherism forms
the central basis of the Cameronite approach to economic issues, suggesting that the Coalition has
‘arguably gone further in rolling-back Britain’s welfare capitalism’ (Beech, 2015: 5) but following
the One Nation interpretation for him this reinforces its liberal, rather than conservative, basis. The
central thrust of Beech’s argument rests, however, on the divide between modernisers and
traditionalists on social and moral issues, where notable divisions in the PCP (and wider party) have
been apparent for quite some time (Hayton, 2010). The particular focus of his attention here is the
issue of equal marriage for same-sex couples, for which he can ascertain no ‘reason to embark upon
such a divisive, controversial and un-conservative policy’ apart from a desire ‘to change a key aspect
of British society the definition of marriage in line with their liberal ideology’ (Beech, 2015: 9).
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
As such this view gives no credence to the justification offered by Cameron himself, namely that he
believed that Conservatives should seek to strengthen the institution of marriage, and that equalising
the rights of same-sex couples would have that effect (for an extended discussion of this issue, see
Hayton and McEnhill, 2015: 136-9). Moreover, a wider assessment of the Coalition’s social policies,
for example in relation to welfare, makes it difficult to sustain the case that the approach was not
strongly informed by conservative ideas (McEnhill, 2015).
What then, can we say about the future trajectory of conservatism in the UK, in the light of the 2015
general election result? Winning the election with an overall majority was a triumph of Conservative
Party statecraft the acme of the successful exploitation of the Liberal Democrats as a junior
governing partner. Not only was this a vindication of David Cameron and George Osborne personally,
but also of the liberal conservatism they promulgated, which proved to me more electorally resilient
in the face of the rise of UKIP than many on the right of their party had feared. Yet, an assessment of
the fate of Cameron’s modernisation strategy cannot but conclude that across a range of defining
policy areas it was either abandoned or significantly curtailed (Kerr and Hayton, 2015; Dorey,
Chapter 5). As Steve Buckler and David Dolowitz (2012) have explored, ideological repositioning
does not take place in a vacuum but is a highly contextualised process, dependent upon interpretations
and calculations by political actors who find themselves in ever-evolving circumstances. As discussed
above, Conservative modernisation did not fundamentally challenge the ideological legacy of
Thatcherism within the party, so in the context of the financial crisis, fiscal retrenchment, and the
demands of party management as part of a coalition government, its failure to secure far-reaching
change is unsurprising (Dommett, 2015). What remains is a liberal conservatism in which the liberal
element is derived from Thatcherite individualism, underscoring the importance of individual self-
reliance across both economic and social policy spheres.
The election of the first majority Conservative government since 1992 provides David Cameron with
the opportunity to define his liberal conservatism free of the constraints of Coalition. He may well
find, however, that the challenge of governing with a small parliamentary majority is as much of a
Chapter for the volume Modernizing Conservatism, edited by Gillian Peele and John Francis (Manchester University Press, 2016).
restraint on his freedom of action as the need to compromise with the Liberal Democrats between
2010 and 2015. The commitments the Conservative Party made during the general election campaign
to hold a referendum on membership of the European Union, scrap the Human Rights Act, reduce net
migration to the tens of thousands, cut a further £12 billion per annum from the working-age welfare
bill, extend the right to buy’ to housing association tenants, and reduce income tax whilst also not
increasing other taxes such as VAT, hardly suggested a party leadership beholden to liberal, rather
than conservative, ideals. To the extent that the Conservative election campaign contained a positive
message, this focused on individual aspiration, for example in relation to home ownership; and
families, for example in relation to childcare provision, rather than grander visions about society as a
whole. The brief section of the manifesto that discussed the ‘big society’ concentrated on volunteering
by individuals and the offer to give teenagers a chance to improve their skills by undertaking
‘National Citizen Service’ (Conservative Party, 2015: 45). The conservatism advanced by the party
over the coming years will therefore be one that is a broadly consistent with the Thatcherite legacy on
which it rests. At heart, rather unsurprisingly, the Conservative Party remains a conservative one.
I am very grateful to Matthew Lakin, Libby McEnhill, Paul Webb and the editors of this volume for
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Full-text available
David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservatives took as its starting point the assumption that the party needed to modernise, requiring a move towards the political ‘centre ground’. This shift presented the party leadership with a series of challenges, including brand detoxification, party management, and policy renewal. Modernisation also implied ideological change, to distance the Conservatives from the legacy of Thatcherism and realign conservatism with the values of a wider section of the electorate. In this respect Cameronite modernisation can be judged a failure. This article suggests that ontological contradictions inherent in central elements of Cameron’s conservatism, specifically the ‘Big Society’ and the ‘social justice agenda’ fatally undermined its ideological coherence. It argues that this is an important and hitherto overlooked part of the explanation for the shortcomings of Conservative Party modernisation as a political project. Although this is only one part in a wider explanation for the failure of Conservative modernisation, this case study demonstrates that ontological assumptions matter in political practice.
Full-text available
The slow-down in the pace of accumulation has provided the opportunity for a widespread rejection of Keynesian political economy and an onslaught on the policies, values and organizations of social democracy. There has always been an element among British intellectuals which has never required much inducement to join a collective stampede to the right. We are constantly being told that 'intellectuals' are finally losing faith in socialism (this follows their previous final rejection of it in the early 1950s). They have been converted, even at this late hour, to the need to resist totalitarianism and the British Labour Party, and to reject the beliefs in collectivism and equality that were enshrined in the policies and institutions established in the 1940s. Aside from these 'men who have changed their minds', swayed by the populist clamour of the new right, there has also been in recent years a real intellectual change, a remarkable revival of liberal political economy through the elaboration of the doctrine of the social market economy, a doctrine which, under different labels, has made increasing headway within the Conservative party in the last ten years. The Conservative Government elected in 1979 had a group of ministers in the crucial economic ministries (Treasury, Industry, Trade, Energy), who were all adherents of the doctrine and prepared to govern in accordance with its prescriptions. The term social market economy originated in Germany from the neo-liberal ideas that were current there after 1945. In Britain and America similar ideas have been put forward by a number of theorists including F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, and popularized in Britain by organizations like the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies, by lead writers in the Times and Daily Telegraph, by economic commentators such as Peter Jay, Samuel Brittan, and Patrick Hutber, and by Conservative politicians (Enoch Powell at first; more recently, Keith Joseph).
At the time of its formation, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government elevated reducing the deficit in the public finances above all other concerns. The Coalition Agreement signed by both parties in the wake of the 2010 general election argued that this was ‘the most urgent issue facing Britain’ (HM Government, 2010, p. 15). In the subsequent emergency budget, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, outlined his desire to eliminate the structural deficit within one parliament, and to do so largely through spending cuts rather than tax increases. This commitment had severe implications for all aspects of government expenditure, but none more so than welfare. The Department for Work and Pensions had a larger budget than any other government department (£151.6 billion in 2010–2011), and Osborne argued that cuts to welfare were required to help ease the pain of deficit reduction in other areas. In light of this, Hayton (2012a, p. 137) identified Coalition welfare policy as being driven by three main pressures. These are the overriding imperative identified by the politicians involved to reduce the deficit in the public finances; an ideological commitment to reduce the size and role of the state in relation to the wider economy and society; and the internal dynamics of the Coalition, namely the need to negotiate positions acceptable to both parties.
The Conservative-Liberal Government represents a new period in British politics. The Coalition brought to an end 13 years of New Labour rule and reintroduced the idea of inter-party cooperation in government. The United Kingdom has not experienced such politics since the 1940–45 National Government of Winston Churchill. The major policy event of the Coalition’s tenure and most likely of the decade was the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) on 20 October 2010. The CSR sought to radically reduce the national deficit by dramatically cutting public expenditure annually by 14.4 per cent and by 46.4 per cent over the next five years (Crawford, 2010). However, it also had another purpose — to curtail the size and the responsibilities of the central state. Whether Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats as partners in the Coalition endorse the concept of the ‘big society’ is not known; nevertheless, it is the clearest expression of what David Cameron hopes will supplant Labour’s ‘big state’. What the public have in this new era of British politics is an accord between two political parties that espouse two types of liberalism and contain similarities as well as stark differences. And yet, at the heart of this accord is opposition to the social democratic state that has presided at the epicentre of British politics since the premiership of Clement Attlee and an opposition to the organization that has sustained this model of the state, namely the Labour Party.
Many commentators were startled by the formation of the coalition government in May 2010. Surprise was followed by the expectation that a process of ideological compromise would ensue as the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships sought to agree with a common policy platform. In respects, this is indeed what has occurred during their first 15 months of government. However, the task of tracing the ideological character of the coalition is much more complicated than just looking for ways in which the difference has (or has not) been split between competing sets of ideas, or merely highlighting those areas in which the coalition partners share a common vision. For it is clear that both parties are themselves, as ever, ‘coalitions’ of actors with often distinct ideas. Also, in recent years it has arguably become particularly difficult to draw clear ideological dividing-lines between the main political parties. The coalition follows an extended period in office for a Labour government which made a virtue of its ‘post-ideological’ character. Insofar as the Blair administration had a guiding philosophy this was ‘the third way’, which sought to explicitly transcend traditional ideological dividing-lines, and combine a commitment to a ‘dynamic market economy’ with a pledge to pursue ‘social justice’ (Giddens, 1998; Blair, 1998).
Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and resigned in 1990, having served 11 years continuously as Prime Minister. She became leader at a time of crisis for the party. It had lost four of the previous five general elections, its policies were in disarray after an unsuccessful term in government, and its vote in October 1974 was the lowest it had achieved at any election this century. The crisis within the Conservative Party reflected a more general sickness of the political regime which had existed in Britain since the 1940s and within whose parameters governments of both parties had worked. In the two elections of 1974 both main parties had below 40 per cent support. This was the first time either had gone below 40 per cent since 1945. This loss of legitimacy had external and internal causes. The disintegration of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 had caused inflation to accelerate. The quadrupling of oil prices in 1973 had been a trigger for the first generalised world recession in 1974, which sharply raised unemployment, and ushered in an era of restructuring and adaptation to the requirements of a more open and interdependent world economy. All the institutions and organisations which had grown up in the national protectionist era of the previous 50 years now came under scrutiny and challenge.
This book offers a comprehensive and accessible study of the electoral strategies, governing approaches and ideological thought of the British Conservative Party from Winston Churchill to David Cameron. Timothy Heppell integrates a chronological narrative with theoretical evaluation, examining the interplay between the ideology of Conservatism and the political practice of the Conservative Party both in government and in opposition. He considers the ethos of the Party within the context of statecraft theory, looking at the art of winning elections and of governing competently. The book opens with an examination of the triumph and subsequent degeneration of one-nation Conservatism in the 1945 to 1965 period, and closes with an analysis of the party’s re-entry into government as a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and of the developing ideology and approach of the Cameron-led Tory party in government.