In it together
It has been a remarkable week for the bright young Tories who worked for John Major in the 1992 election campaign. At the time, David Cameron, Steve Hilton and their friends were young praetorians who, after the Conservatives were returned to office, credited themselves with snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. They nearly did the opposite in May, but there was no sense of disappointment at the Tory party conference in Birmingham. It looked and felt more like a victory parade for the New Establishment.
The word Conservative could hardly be seen inside the conference hall, and the chosen motto, ‘Together in the national interest’‚ suggests coalition rather than party. But Mr Cameron and his lieutenants proudly eschew tribal politics.The proposal to withdraw child benefit from top-rate taxpayers is typical of their style and strategy: it inflicts pain on their core supporters as a means of decontaminating their brand.The aim is to answer the accusation which stings the Cameroons the most: that this group of wealthy political leaders are in politics to protect their own kind. It was a formula used by the Blairites: to seek to rise above party politics, to eschew ideology — and focus on the practical and the politically palatable.
This is why Mr Cameron is so comfortable with coalition government: he and Nick Clegg see politics in broadly the same way, and share the same pedigree.An elite school, then Oxbridge, then politics, public relations or a permutation thereof.
This is why the coalition has been so harmonious, with none of the bickering or sclerosis one might have expected. And there is substance as well as style. The left v. right political axis is being steadily supplanted by liberalism v. state control.This agenda, which divided New Labour when Tony Blair was in power, now binds a coalition with an agenda as radical as any put before a Conservative party conference. School reform, welfare reform, spending reform, NHS reform — all involve unclenching the fist of government.
When Clegg joined the coalition, he innocently asked George Osborne how the Cameroon set all knew each other.The reply took 20 minutes, and would have broadly resembled the graph on page 18. They are a closeknit group, who have worked and holidayed together — and have overlapping friends throughout the political and media classes. The days when Labour were union men and Tories businessmen are long gone. Both parties are run by people who have spent most of their adult lives (and, in Clegg’s case, his school years) in and around Westminster.
The problem is obvious: this globalised elite is a small world. The New Establishment moves in herds from SW1 to W10, then (as Rachel Johnson argues on page 16) down the M4 by Renault Espace to Wiltshire. They are more familiar with the south of France than with Scotland or the north of England — and, judging by the election result, the feeling is reciprocated. They are taken by surprise at just how deeply someone balancing a mortgage and family on £44,000 a year objects to being regarded as rich. Westminster is the worst place from which to detect the mood of the country.
One cannot fault Cameron’s ambition. This Old Etonian is becoming the scourge of old establishments — from the teaching unions to the defence chiefs to the NHS bureaucracy. For a Prime Minister to take on so much, all at once, is remarkable. To do it jointly with the Lib Dems is extraordinary. The gang of 1992 have found that their lack of ideological baggage has allowed a radical agenda to take root in this coalition era. But to transform a country, one needs to fully understand it. Mr Cameron’s lieutenants are undoubtedly astute. But their shallow gene pool remains one of the government’s greatest vulnerabilities.
The wisdom of Pitkin W
hile we mourn the comic actor Sir NormanWisdom, who died on Monday aged 95, we should also celebrate the incurable optimism of his most famous character — Norman Pitkin.
Remembered principally for his trademark stumbles, flailing limbs, and saying ‘Mr Grimsdale!’, Pitkin, played by Wisdom in numerous films during the 1950s and 1960s, was the ultimate ‘little man’
who wouldn’t give up. Pitkin was never downcast for long, he rose to the occasion — any occasion — and battled the odds. Cloth-capped, and wearing a jacket that was two sizes too small, Pitkin, or ‘the Gump’ as his character was affectionately known, was a symbol of dogged resistance to conformity and a champion of individuality. (It is extraordinary that his films were deemed acceptable in the Soviet Union.)
In one memorable scene, Pitkin, fighting against ‘Consolidated Dairies’ in defence of his own dairy, ends up holding onto the ankles of the chairman of Consolidated while they are suspended from a tree. He doesn’t miss his moment: ‘Mr Hunter? While we are hanging about… Do you think it’s fair for the big firms to try to put a little shop out of business?’
In an era of economic gloom, such tenacious opportunism stands as an inspiration to us all.
the spectator | 9 October 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk