16 June

Election Reflection I: The Conservatives and the Reification of Rhetoric

This is the first in a 3-part series of reflections on the 2017 UK General Election.

Only eleven months ago, Theresa May delivered a much-lauded opening address just outside 10 Downing Street, in which she extolled the virtues of ‘One Nation’ conservatism. Whilst a passing mention was made of her predecessor, her firm pledge to ‘fight against the burning injustices’ of our day was clearly intended to denote a sharp break with the bland managerialism of Cameronism. The commentariat saw at least some of the roots of her Red Tory rhetoric in her vicar’s daughter backstory. They noted, however, the special influence of Nick Timothy, her brash and brilliant then joint chief-of-staff.

Now, after a snap election which saw the Conservatives squander double-digit poll leads and their precious parliamentary majority, inevitable recriminations began with this very same Nick Timothy who, along with fellow top aide Fiona Hill, was forced to resign soon after the election. One element in their supposed culpability was abrasiveness towards colleagues which, combined with Theresa May’s overreliance on them, was said to have led to a ‘toxic’ atmosphere in Downing Street. But critics stressed above all the influence of Nick Timothy on the social care policy, which was widely claimed to have ‘torpedoed’ the campaign.

A presumption is that the policy was fundamentally wrong in principle. The irony, though, is that when reviewed carefully, the manifesto’s approach to social care was the clearest example of an attempt to flesh out the Prime Minister’s opening rhetoric about protecting those who ‘just about manage’ in a fiscally responsible way. The raising of the state’s ring-fencing of assets from around £23,000 to £100,000 for those in receipt of social care, was designed to protect the poorest 50% of the elderly who have assets below £150,000. The simultaneous removal of the ring-fencing of housing assets for those who receive only home care sought to equalise their contributions with those too frail to remain in their homes. Finally, the initial suggestion that the cap on social care contributions would be removed for once made social care financially sustainable precisely because it sought that those with the broadest shoulders make the largest contribution to their care. All alternate proposals required additional taxation schemes and a universalisation of benefits which would establish a presumption of state dependency contrary to traditional conservatism.

Now, legitimate criticism can be made of poor communication of the policy, the unacknowledged U-turn concerning a social care cap, the lack of broader political coherence in the manifesto (fox hunting is oft-cited as a jarring inclusion) and even of Red Toryism itself, but the central problem presented by most critiques is that they demonstrate a growing divide between the public’s support of political rhetoric and appraisals of any later concretization or lack thereof.

Following on from Blairism, David Cameron was more than willing to work this divide between presentation and policy to his electoral advantage even if it disadvantaged the country. He, for example, promised more localised governmental structures as part of a ‘Big Society’, but actually used the concept to devolve cuts disproportionately to local authorities, whose budgets were reduced by 37% during his tenure. This, in turn, meant that promised budget protections for the NHS were nullified by the forced reductions in social care provision. Which consequently made the bed-blocking crisis in hospitals inevitable. Such examples can be multiplied almost ad infinitum.

Many who support the residual ideology of any given government see such bifurcations between what is said and done as a necessary evil, but the degree to which they corrode civil discourse can hardly be overstated. Just as the process of commodification in the economic sphere increasingly severs a product’s exchange value from its intrinsic value, thereby creating further distortions in the market and an inefficient emphasis on marketisation, our politics is becoming ever more opaque and obsessed about outward appearances. The political fallout of such gamesmanship brings increased public distrust in what is being offered which, in the long run, will be to the Conservative’s electoral disadvantage, just as it proved to be for the post-New Labour Party.

More fundamentally, however, a civil society which does not resist such tendencies will soon enough become, as Adorno put it, one in which ‘everything has value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself’; thereby reducing politics to an almost Nietzschean will to power. And we have already seen the effects of such reductionism.

Firstly, it hollows out our collective political imagination. As Michael Portillo said of the Conservatives under Cameron:

‘After 23 years of careful thought about what they would like to do in power, the answer is nothing … because the only thing that matters to the government now is … the Prime Minister’s career’.

But then, out of this vacuum there emerge frenetic and unprincipled attempts to extend and consolidate power which destabilise the foundations of our democracy. This can be seen in the divisive speech on the West Lothian question, which David Cameron delivered for party-political reasons in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish referendum. Likewise, it is found in his mass centralisation of public sector jobs, which has established unprecedented control of the national government over local affairs. Most notably, this destabilisation is demonstrated by the promise of a referendum on EU membership that David Cameron never expected to deliver and which proved to be ‘a dangerous short cut’ for the parliamentary system given the non-binary nature of Brexit and the absence, even today, of a single major party leader who campaigned for Leave.

Of course, Theresa May has rightly been subject to similar criticism both for the opportunistic decision to call for a premature election, which has now thrown the country into political turmoil just as Brexit negotiations are set to commence, and for the rush to seek parliamentary support from the Democratic Unionist Party, which certainly risks opening up old wounds in Northern Ireland. However, first and foremost this election illustrated CCHQ’s false attempt to reconcile Theresa May’s vision of a Conservative party that reaches out to those disillusioned by social and economic liberalism with the Sir Lynton Crosby campaign’s policy-thin pre-packaged model of standoffish presidentialism. They failed because they were caught between two stools.

It is critical, then, that the government does not now give way to those calling for a return to bad habits and is instead brave enough to deal transparently and intelligently in their communications with the country and in the legislation that they choose to put before the House. But even more importantly, we need to strive to become an ever more discerning and virtuous polity that is ready to criticise those who, whatever their motivation, fail to speak in and to the Truth.

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