Tuesday, January 31, 2006


'Centre Ground' v 'Common Ground'

David Cameron made an interesting speech yesterday in which he defined himself as the true heir of Blair, who in his turn, was the heir of Margaret Thatcher. He dedicated his party to occupying the centre ground in which most elections are won. But not all. And that is the problem so many rightwing Conservatives have with the Etonian wunderkind. They harken back to the 1979 election and the seventies when Sir Keith Joseph explained his idea of the 'common ground'. By this he meant the values which united British people of all classes and which were- if people only realised it- well to the right of the political centre at the time.

I recall being asked by the 'Mad Monk' if such an aproach was 'intellectually respectable' when he came to deliver an address to students at Manchester University in 1975. I replied that I thought he was wrong about the 'commoness' of the common ground; in other words, I thought his idea was wrong. He made some mega mistakes and faded from view while the housewife from Grantham romped home and went on to champion his idea of the common ground to the point when history had been changed. That is the problem for Conservatives. When all signposts indicated left, Mrs T and her cohorts defied convention and carved out a new approach which won power, changed the country and, if we believe the true believers, changed the world.

So now we hear the likes of Norman Tebbitt and Simon Heffer reminding their dishevelled troops that Cameron's Way involves compromise, fudging, tacking to the left. This is not what the glorious Margaret did. She was bold, brave, magnificent and spoke the truth as she saw it. Compared with her Dave is a typical old fashioned politician, testing the wind and calibrating his line accordingly. Why not be true to the real Tory message like the party's lost leader had been? This is what confuses so many died -in- the- wool Conservatives and dims their enthusiasm for this new untested youth whom their party elected with such acclaim.

Surely he doesn't really mean to re-align his party somewhere to the left of Ted Heath? This way lies eventual defeat they predict and sorrowfully turn to their Melanie Phillips' article in the Daily Mail. The problem here is the inaccurate historical parallel. Mrs Thatcher was whistling in the wind during the late seventies and dismissed by many as too far to the right to have any chance of beating that tough old pro, Jim Callaghan. But the thing which transformed her chances, was not the innate strength of her ideas but the implosion of Labour ones.

Their prostration to the unions throughout the decade had sapped the economy and helped nudge it down the slope of uncompetitiveness, bad design and woeful inefficiency. Having weathered the hyper inflation of the middle part of the decade, voters were appalled at the 'winter of discontent' and the apparent crumbling of the economy at the hands of the unions. This is what gave Thatcherism its relevance and edge: the spectacular failure of Labour. As long as the goverment was doing alright, voters were prepared to put up with it- but when chaos engulfed the nation the mood changed- as Callaghan himself noted as he drove to ask the Queen to dissolve parliament in 1979. From being out on the right, Conservatives suddenly seemed to be making the correct diagnoses and offering hopeful, if tough prescriptions for the much needed revival of economy and nation.

Compare that with the present and we find the analogy does not fit. Blair's governments have been disappointing and he has made some major errors- I would include invading Iraq in that list- but the country is not in chaos, the economy is not in free-fall and the 'emergency treatment' that was Thatcherism, is not relevant. Instead, it's back to traditional democratic politics, the steady salami slices of public opinion which have to be won from the opposition until a bid for victory can be mounted. This is the business Cameron is about and he is right to ignore those dinasoars from the eighties.

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