“Modernizing” the Conservative party is like shaving a monkey - you don't create a human being, merely an uglier monkey. That’s the message I got from David Cameron’s speech to Policy Exchange yesterday. It had much in common with New Labour. There’s this:
So these are our goals.
A dynamic economy. A decent society. A strong self-confident nation.
In both style (no sentences) and substance, such as it is, this is pure New Labour.
Then there’s the use of the p-word:
The Conservative party is and will always be passionately concerned….
(You don’t need to know what it’s passionately concerned with – it’ll be something else next week).
And this could have come straight from Tony Blair circa 1996:
We've fallen down the international competitiveness league.
It is also the purest drivel. Countries don’t compete in international markets. Companies do. Cameron is just fostering an ancient mercantilist illusion that trade, like sport, is a zero-sum game.
There are more unpleasant comparisons with New Labour. There’s a sinister pseudo totalitarianism in the idea that we have a “shared responsibility” for common goals:
We have a shared responsibility for creating a dynamic economy. We are all in this together…
And so we have a shared responsibility to do something about [family breakdown]. We're all in this together…
We have a shared responsibility for our shared future…
Include me out, chummy. Whatever happened to the Oakeshottian idea that government should merely allow people to pursue different activities?
Another New Labour trope is Cameron’s use of the word “modernizing:”
Real modernisation is about your approach to politics. And I think it means it means three things. The first is to stick to your beliefs and principles…The second thing I mean by real modernisation is thinking for the long term…And third, real modernisation means evaluating ideas and policies on the basis of how they would actually work in practice.
Taken literally, this is nonsense. Did any past Conservative party really boast about not sticking to principles, thinking for the short-term or not “evaluating ideas and policies on the basis of how they would actually work in practice”?
Of course not. What Cameron is doing here is what Blair did in the mid-90s. He’s claiming that his vision, and his alone, is “modern” and is traducing is predcessors to exaggerate his break with them. He’s presuming that “modernity” is self-evidently good; ideas are good because they are modern, not vice versa. And he’s trying to replace a debate among competing ideas with a single vision of a future. As David Marquand said of New Labour (The Progressive Dilemma p226), the myth is that:
The world is new, the past has no echoes, modernity is unproblematic, the path to the future is linear. There is one modern condition, which all rational people would embrace if they knew what it was.
There’s yet another New Labour trick Cameron is borrowing. It’s using evidence-based policy-making - “evaluating ideas and policies on the basis of how they would actually work in practice” – as a thin justification for policies they would favour anyway.
We should use the law, the tax and benefits system and other mechanisms to encourage families to get together and stay together.
Now, a true evidence-based policy maker would ask questions here. How many families would stick together (who would otherwise break up) under my proposed tax and benefit system? What is the financial benefit of this greater stability? Does it outweigh the deadweight costs of redistributing towards families who would have stayed together anyway?
Cameron doesn’t raise these questions, still less answer them. It seems he wants to redistribute income to his favoured clients, and the evidence for doing so will have to come later.
All this, I think, is quintessential managerialism. You might object that I would say that, as I’m just a one-note player. But could it be that I see managerialism everywhere because it is everywhere?
For me, the clinching evidence of Cameron’s managerialism is this:
We must never be limited in our aspirations for government.
This is just asinine. Has he learnt the Hayekian lesson that government agencies (even devolved ones) just lack the knowledge to achieve ambitious goals? Has he learnt the lessons of public choice economics, which shows that bureaucrats and lobbyists capture government for its own ends? Has he learnt from millennia of history, that the state is the most evil institution ever devised? Can he point to a single thing the British state does better than the private sector, where comparisons are possible?
Conservatives, traditionally have had only one good idea – a scepticism about the state. And Cameron wants to get rid of it.