The title of this book by five newly-elected Conservative MPs seems to have misled some commentators into thinking it represents a growing restlessness on the Conservative backbenches about the Coalition and David Cameron’s leadership. Iain Martin, writing in the Mail back in April, suggested that After the Coalition promised to be an attempt by a group of younger Conservative MPs who lean towards the Thatcherite, Eurosceptic right of the party to undermine Cameron’s watered-down Conservatism. If that was the intention of the book’s authors, then they’ve failed.
As it happens, a book that almost exactly matches Martin’s description has come out this summer, but it’s called The Future of Conservatism: Values Revisited – the so-called ‘Blue Book’. Its tenor is unmistakably Thatcherite. Taxes, regulation, green policies, trade unions, comprehensive schools, the EU = bad. Competition, de-regulation, civil liberties, Trident = good. You could be forgiven for thinking the word “future” in the title of the book is somewhat misleading. In fact, were it not for a chapter by Red Tory Philip Blond, the entire book could have been written 25 years ago.
After the Coalition on the other hand is clearly the product of a group of young MPs whose politics has been informed more by Cameronism than Thatcherism. If the nasty party is lurking anywhere in this book, it’s very well hidden indeed behind a convincing veneer of compassionate, pragmatic, and, dare I say it, progressive conservatism. I mean the cover of the book is green and has a picture of David Cameron on it. What more do you need to know?
The main theme of the book is an authentically post-Lehman Brothers Cameroon one: responsibility.
First of all, fiscal responsibility: Gordon Brown was onto something with his so-called “Golden Rule” that “over the economic cycle, the government will borrow only to invest and not to fund current spending,” they argue. Unlike Brown though, they promise to stick to it and be stricter about what constitutes investment rather than just spending.
A welfare system that promotes and rewards individual responsibility rather than creating a ‘hand out’ culture is at the heart of the book. But far from rubbishing the whole idea of the welfare state, the tone here is measured and realistic: “The State cannot do everything,” they declare, stating the obvious somewhat you might think. “While the government can help, it can never fully solve any individual’s problems. The NHS can’t keep you healthy if you don’t exercise or eat properly. No teacher can get you the right grades if you aren’t prepared to work. The Benefits office can’t find you a job if you aren’t prepared to write a CV.”
Responsibility seems to be one of the most popular buzzwords in British politics at the moment. The trouble with responsibility is that everyone’s in favour of it, but nobody really knows how you make individuals or society more responsible. After the Coalition comes as close as any book though to outlining a reasonable system of sticks and carrots: a welfare system that encourages the jobless back into work, a tax system that creates incentives for people to save more, sooner for their retirement, and a justice system that is “firm but fair”.
It’s not until the very last chapter of the book that the authors get onto Europe. And although they certainly don’t try to conceal their basic euroscepticism, again their tone seems reasonable and forward-thinking compared to the sense of hysteria that Peter Oborne and co have been trying to inject back into the Europe debate this summer with their “Guilty Men” pamphlet. Instead After the Coalition exhorts its eurosceptic fellow-travellers to stop whinging and start coming up with a positive contribution to the debate. They make the case for a looser “two-speed” union that would basically leave the Common Market intact, but which would give Britain the freedom to opt out of social, justice and foreign policy decisions made in Brussels if it wished to. I suspect there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who’d think that sounds pretty sensible.
After the Coalition is evidence that Cameron really has changed the Conservative Party, and unlike the ‘Blue Book’ which seems to be full of a poorly-disguised nostalgia for the 1980s, it represents the real future of Conservatism.
After the Coalition is published by Biteback, priced £9.99. Order your copy here.