Nik Darlington 4.35pm
Rachel Sylvester writes in The Times (£) this morning about the “cult of Blair” and its grip on Cameroonian devotees. At her most coy, she bounces between unnamed Cabinet ministers who “worship at the shrine of St Tony”.
Their holy scripture is A Journey, the memoir that the public and media were so willing to impugn last September but which is still riding high in bestsellers lists. Cameron has “devoured” it. For George Osborne, the printed word is not enough, so he has been communing with the holy one’s gilded tongue by audio tape. I wondered about the identity of the Cabinet minister who takes Blair to bed every night but thought better of it when my list arrived at Eric Pickles. No, I can’t get rid of that image either.
Certainly, we know that the Cameron circle admires the former Prime Minister, who so daringly shifted his party’s ideological centre of gravity, went on to win three general elections (two by historic landslides) and left the stage bowed by his ungrateful party but unbeaten by the voters. So columnist gossip about Cabinet ministers gushing over his legacy is titillating, but nothing more.
Of greater interest is how Blair did it. Evidently he was up against a disunited governing party tired after eighteen years in office (albeit led by a stronger opponent in John Major than most will credit). However, Blair’s greatest asset in 1997 was in moving the Labour party to the centre ground and he did this in no small part by assuming the ‘One Nation’ mantle from the Conservative party - explicitly and proudly so. In a speech in 1994, Blair audaciously proclaimed that the mantle “is draped around our shoulders”. Ten years later, he repeated this claim at a Labour party conference.
Tony Blair tried to run a ‘One Nation’ government that combined compassion with efficiency. It was his ‘Third Way’ but in reality, much of it was a distorted theft of ‘One Nation’ Toryism. He did not, it must be added, succeed. Too willing was he to compromise civil liberties and disregard strong institutions. While his policy thinking tended to be pragmatic, his day-to-day governing was by his own admission driven too much by the media and opinion polls. In that same 2004 party conference speech, Blair uttered his Chancellor’s favourite fallacy, asking, “who talks of boom and bust economics today?” He might have aspired to a One Nation agenda, but he didn’t achieve it - partly because of events (foreign), partly obstruction (party) and partly flaws (personal).
Nevertheless, Blair’s governments did not fail entirely. He wanted to combine the economic efficiency of Thatcherite market reforms with an emphasis on social justice. David Cameron acknowledged, on the steps of Downing Street on 12th May, that “compared with a decade ago, this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad.”
The Conservative party needs to be able to stand before Britain in 2015 and credibly state that the country is a better place than it was in 2010. Voters asked themselves the question in 2001 and 2005 and believed, on balance, yes.
David Cameron also acknowledged, prior to the election, that he was a “One Nation” Conservative who would “govern for all”. To do so means combining compassion with efficiency.
As Danny Finkelstein has written (£), in 2015 the coalition cannot point to having cut the deficit alone. That is the ‘efficiency’ part and the public is very well aware of what it entails.
What is not clear is the ‘compassion’ part. The Government must approach 2015 with the public wanting to vote for more, feeling that the country is a better place and not only because Labour’s public debt crisis has been tackled. The compassionate side to the Government’s programme is there but people have not grasped it (although Francis Maude had not a bad stab at a definition this morning). Essentially, it is a communication problem.
Whether or not it is called the Big Society may not matter (and sources tell me even Steve Hilton is trying to disown the term), but whatever name one ascribes the programme of public service reform, decentralisation and energising the voluntary sector, the strategy must be clearer. Thoughtful members of the Labour party, such as Jon Cruddas, understand very clearly the threat posed by a renewed, centrist form of One Nation Conservatism under David Cameron. To their relief, the Government cannot express it in the way that Blair, perhaps, could.
Compassion and efficiency are the complementary hallmarks of One Nation Conservatism. This Government has coherent plans for both. The public needs to hear them.