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The end of Conservative oppositionism?

Something extremely interesting has just been reported on Newsnight.

David Cameron has apparently been saying for some time now (but I missed it until now) that he is against “opposition for opposition’s sake” and that the Conservatives may well be voting for the Government’s latest education reforms. David Cameron is and has for some time been the Conservative spokesman on education, and he seems to be handling the Conservative response to these proposals.

Yesterday I did a posting concerning Cameron, and the consensus among the Samizdata commentariat was that nobody knew what Cameron stood for, or what any of his ideas might be. But I think what we have here is an idea of great importance. Maybe not an especially original one, and long overdue, but extremely potent mevertheless.

The Conservative Opposition has spent the last decade opposing everything that the Government has done, a process which I particularly associate with William Hague, but which his successors have not fundamentally altered. And since the Government has been relentlessly “triangulating” – i.e. stealing whichever Conservative policies they think are popular or which they think will eventually prove popular because they think that they will in the meantime work – this has meant the Conservatives suffering from a permanent, yet self-imposed, philosophical incoherence.

One moment the Conservatives would be saying that something or other that the Government was talking about should be more market-oriented. A moment later, some other Government initiative that was more market-oriented would be complained about. Complained about, as Cameron has apparently said, for the sake of complaining. One moment the Government was being not tough enough on terrorists, the next moment too tough, for doing pretty much what the Conservatives had just said they should do in another context. This is not opposition, so much as opposition-ism. It says: whatever they do is wrong! Never mind why. Never mind what we would do, or what we really think of it. Denounce it! We just scrape up whatever mud we can find on the floor and chuck it at them. No wonder the Conservatives have won parliamentary battle after parliamentary battle, but have been slaughtered again and again in the electoral war.

What would the Conservatives do, if they were the Government? For the last ten years, they have offered no sort of answer. And for this reason, there has been, in the competitive sense, no opposition, because no alternative Government that it made sense to even consider voting for. All anyone knew about the Conservatives was that they did not like the Government. Big surprise. But that is not a policy; it is a mere emotion. It has condemned the Conservatives to relentless irrelevance and unending public ridicule.

Now, if this “Cameron doctrine” is what it appears to be, and more to the point, if it goes into action right across the board, with David Cameron imposing it across the board in his capacity as Conservative Leader, New Labour will finally face what you might call a New Nightmare.

Take these education reforms. Blair says they are intended to make schools more independent and self-governed, and less controlled by local authorities. This is very Conservative friendly stuff, and not at all Labour friendly. There is a good chance that the massed ranks of Labour MPs will not vote for these reforms in nearly sufficient numbers, but that a more unified Conservative Party will see the reforms through nevertheless. This will split the Labour Party from top to bottom. We are doing Conservative policy! And with Conservative help! And in spite of our core beliefs!

Repeat that procedure every time Blair presents one of his reforms, but oppose ferociously when they resort to old fashioned, Old Labour, collectivism, and suddenly it is a new Parliamentary ball game.

It gets worse for Labour. In the electorate as a whole, the question will start to be asked: if we already have a Government that does Conservative things, despite its own supporters, and if that is what that nice Mr Blair thinks should be done, then does it not make sense to vote for the real thing, and vote in a real Conservative Government?

This is a tactical switch that the Conservatives should, from the purely political and competitive point of view, have done years ago. Finally, they have done it.

Or then again, maybe they have not. Cameron might not win the Conservative Leadership. Davies might go back to crass oppositionism. Cameron may win, but it may turn out that “opposition for opposition’s sake” was just a nice sounding phrase to win him the job, and he will then forget about it and carry on with the mud slinging.

But, this might just be a political turning point.

18 comments to The end of Conservative oppositionism?

  • “But, this might just be a political turning point.”

    Maybe so, but from a libertarian point of view, one has to ask “so what?”. The policy in question will not lead to any perceptible shrinkage of the grotesque multi-billion dollar edifice that is State Education. To the contrary, like so many of these initiatives, it will probably lead to yet further taxation to pay for it – as well as drawing the private sector more closely into the embrace of the State.

    So whilst the fact that the Tories have jumped on this bandwagon is of some interest as a matter of political comment, it is not something that merits any particular welcome in libertarian circles.

  • Noel Cooper

    Why aren’t Cameron and the Conservatives banging on about school vouchers which will provide real choice and freedom in education? Blair’s new education plan is so obviously a combination of PR spin and bonkers “blue skies” thinking that it should be shot out of the water. Where does parent choice come in when your child’s educational curriculum will be set by whichever religious group splashes the most cash? My fear is that the Tories have identified the proposals as superficially popular with voters and are backing it for that rather than discovering a happy ideological coincidence. It is ID cards all over again and I fear Brian’s apparent optimism to be misplaced.

  • I seem not to have made it clear enough what this posting was about and was not about. Perhaps I should have omitted “education” as a classification of it. It is about parliamentary and oppositional tactics. I spent little time discussing the actual “reforms” themselves, and the criticisms of them which are already accumulating are no doubt very good.

    As a libertarian I favour a total free market in education.

    But I don’t think every posting I do here should be about my libertarian opinions. There is surely a place for reporting what might prove to be a significant event, whether I or anyone else here welcomes it or not.

    I think this tactical switch away from kneejerk Conservative oppositionism is of interest not because it may soon usher in a free market in education. I’m sure it won’t. It is interesting because it may alter the parliamentary balance of power, and hence, maybe, spell the eventual end of New Labour, which is based on an uneasy coalition between believers in socialism in its entirety, and people who believe in approximate socialist ends, but who are more pragmatic about their methods. Which in some ways, as is constantly pointed out here, makes them more dangerous enemies of liberty than Old Labourites.

    What this change in the parliamentary balance of power, if it happens (which I do not assume – I merely speculate that it might), will in its turn do for the overall story of libertarianism and its eventual, I hope, triumph, in education as in all things, I have no idea. That is not what my posting was about.

  • Mary Contrary

    There is an alternative theory that the job of an Opposition is to oppose. Done properly, that means picking out the bits that the government has got wrong, holding them up in full public view, and saying “Look, this ain’t right”.

    On a thoroughly rotten measure, that gets done to the whole Bill. On a basically reasonable measure, you say instead “OK, basically right, but what about this half-baked compromise or that linguistically opaque subclause?” Don’t worry that the government might get a proposal 100% right, that falls into the same category as worrying about whether it would be a bad thing to live forever: it’s theoretically possible, but nobody has yet.

    Of course, this isn’t what the Tories have been doing for the last near-decade, on which Brian has it spot-on.

    My own view on Cameron is somewhat suspicious though, even in terms of whether he’ll turn out to be good for the Tory party, never mind my own philosophy. Sure, he seems to appeal to the Beeb and to the Guardian as the acceptable face of Conservatism, but is that really the target market?

  • Tim Stevens

    Brian is on to something with this article. Unlike some Samizdatistas – I mean certain of the editors and the principal contributors, not us commenters – I’m not such a purist libertarian that I’ll eschew voting at all because the Conservatives are at their best Labour-Lite. If you vote the Tories into government, at the very worst you’ll get a watered-down version of Blairism. At best, you’ll get a moderately pro-liberty regime which will still buttress an essentially state-run education and health system. If you’re a dreamer, like me, you’ll have a governing State in which at least some of its members, perhaps even its Prime Minister, hold fundamentally libertarian views.

    If Cameron is indeed more freedom-orientated than he explicitly states – and I have a feeling he is, even though I can’t provide much evidence to support this, though Brian’s post is helpful in this regard – then he deserves to get into power, and I don’t care if he has to soft-pedal his ideals or even lie to the electorate to do so. Freedom is more important than democracy. If I were a politician and were faced with a basically statist-supporting electorate, I would do what I could to get elected and promote the cause of individual freedom, even if I had to spin my constituency a yarn in order to do so.

  • Verity

    Mary Contrary has expressed what I would have written myself. Cameron, with this wordy obfuscation, seems to be another smoke and mirrors guy. I am suspicious of this man.

    Tim Stevens writes: “Freedom is more important than democracy.” A very interesting observation. Worthy of an entire thread of its own.

  • “he seems to appeal to the Beeb and to the Guardian as the acceptable face of Conservatism”

    Would that be the same Guardian which published: Cameron is no moderate?

  • Cameron has failed the first test,the government has a genius for mendacity and doublespeak,the Tories will support this and labour will stitch them up.
    The first thing Cameron needs to learn is that ZanuLab is not a party for governing, it is a party for winning elections. Come the next election as the voters view the wasteland that Zanulab legislation produces after it has been fudged to accomodate special interest groups, and they will think, well what is the point the Tories supported this,they will stay away from the ballot boxes in droves.

  • Tim Stevens

    Verity wrote:

    “Freedom is more important than democracy.” A very interesting observation. Worthy of an entire thread of its own.

    Thanks, Verity, but I’m not being especially original here. Of course the majority isn’t always right. Even leftists (the ones I’ve discussed this with, anyway) agree that the electorate got it wrong in Germany in 1933, and that it would have been preferable to stand as a liar in such a circumstance in order to save the country from catastrophe. We’re a long, long way off the situation in L. Neil Smith’s novel The Probability Broach in which an alternative history of the early United States throws up a Presidential election result where the voters choose ‘none of the above’ and America is without a President for four years as a result. That’s why I’d choose a lying pro-freedom schemer over a noble, impeccably honest statist every time. The end would, for once, justify the means. It’s a hazardous tactic, admittedly – the liar might well turn out to have less than pure motives.

  • Verity

    Tim Stevens – Yes, I would support a liar who lied to institute democracy, but everyone would support a liar to institute a philosphy of which they approve. So that’s not the question.

    The interesting question is, “is freedom more important than democracy?”

    Peter – I agree that Cameron has failed the first test. In fact, I’d go further and say that he hasn’t a clue what this mighty battle for Britain is all about. He is totally separated.

    Za-NuLab is indeed not a political party – never has been – but a machine for winning elections. Tory voters will regard the wasteland that “David Cameron’s Tories” are busy finding a middle ground on with Labour and think, “Why the hell bother. No one understands.”

    This is what will happen with the charming Cameron. He is another loser.

    He does not speak to the middle of Conservatived Britain because he has never been there. He doesn’t know the people. David Davis does. Cameron would be another Conservative disaster and would, as Perry hopes with such steely lack of emotion, be the end of the Conservative party.

    There can be no common cause, no matter how cleverly engineered, with the Za-Nu Labs. They will eat Cameron’s lunch. But the Sancerre will have been chilled exactly right.

    My god! When are these people going to get the point?

  • mike

    “This will split the Labour Party from top to bottom. We are doing Conservative policy! And with Conservative help! And in spite of our core beliefs!”

    Yes but from the perspective of many lefties this has been happening for some time now anyway (as with tuition fees), so, although recognising the often disorganised nature of Tory opposition, I’d question the newness of this ‘tactical switch’.

  • Sandy P

    OT but fun!

    Just because you’re British don’t think you’re protected, Phil.

    Or are you just reliving your youth thumbing your nose at US?

    If you have such a belief in Hugo’s socialism for the 21st century, move there. Act on your beliefs. It would be a refreshing change from someone on the left instead of expending more hot air to justify Kyoto.

    hot off the US presses:

    Malevolent British political panderer George Galloway may be facing legal trouble over his appearance before a Congressional committee: Galloway lied about Iraqi oil payments, says Congress report. (Hat tip: Robert.)

  • pommygranate


    Doesn’t the fact that Jonny Prescott supposedly “blew a gasket” on hearing of the reforms mean that there must be quality stuff in there?

    I’m not sure this marks a turning point – how could any self respecting lover of free markets oppose

    – a reduction in power of the (near communist) LEAs
    – a reduction in power of the appeals councils (like the ones that recently awarded £15,000 to a boy carrying a knife to school)
    – an increase in the power of the schools to select pupils

    I think Cameron is merely learning from the torrent of abuse that met Howard’s disgraceful decision to oppose tuition fees.

  • Yeah PG: they actually believed that vote would help em’ with the yuff vote. What a load of hoey.

    I agree that is daft to oppose just for the sake of it. The Conservatives to oppose Labour on things like ID cards and the banning of everything the Islington set loath.

    They also need to boot any MP who slags off his or her own party.

  • Andrew Duffin

    “The Conservative Opposition has spent the last decade opposing everything that the Government has done”

    I must have missed the bit where they opposed ID cards.

  • Paul Marks

    Brian is correct. “The duty of the opposition is to oppose” is nonsense.

    The duty of any political party (in office or out of office) is to think “what should be done?”.

    If the government of the day agrees with you on what should be done (or not done) on a particular question, then it is correct to support it on that question.

    Otherwise you get the contradictory mess that “opposing for opposing’s sake” creates – and the opposition becomes a joke.

    However, one then faces the question of how one decides “what should be done?”

    Should this matter be thought out on a “pragmatic”, “case by case” basis, which (for reasons we all know well) must lead to ever greater statism and radical harm to civil society. Or should “what should be done” be thought out in terms of “dogma” i.e. principle, and (if so) which set of principles?

    Marxism like Lenin? Or some other set of principles?

    Even those who say that Conservatism is “nonideological” or a “disposition” (such as M.J. Oakeshott) find they can do without a wicked “ideology” (i.e. a set of principles) in practice.

    For Oakeshott this meant a choice between a “enterprise association” and a “civil association” – and the line of policy must faithful to a civil association (society as a man like Edmund Burke would have understood the term) is that of minimal state libertarianism (the argument that a pure civil society would not have a state at all is not something Oakeshott would have considered – he was familiar with only the collectivist tradition of anarchism in which “the people” is just a code term for the new state and private property is to be crushed).

    Now some people may reject civil association or hold that it should be mixed with the concept of the enterprise association. But certainly the Oakeshott of “Rationalism in Politics” (as opposed to the Oakeshott of “On Human Conduct”) has nothing to say – for “habit” “disposition” are no guide to policy in a society where tradition has been corrupted.

    Certainly one may not need a set of principles (the evil rationalism) in a society where the tradition is one of civil association (one simply governs the way that the nation has always been governed), but for modern society (where, again, tradition has either been currupted or is not held in respect) one must have a set of principles (an “ideology”) that one is prepared to defend.

    M. Thatcher (for all her faults) had “a system of ordered liberty” (from Adam Smith). One hopes that Mr Cameron has something on the same lines in order to judge policy.

    For without a set of principles there is no guide to policy – certainly “case by case” late 19th century American pragmatism will not do.

  • Euan Gray

    For without a set of principles there is no guide to policy

    The Conservative party has generally been ideology-free for most of its life, which is probably a major factor in why it has had such a long life. Principle and ideology are not the same things.

    If you take as principles: the idea that the capitalist market is generally preferable to a command economy; free trade is usually beneficial; there should be a presumption against infringing individual rights in most cases, and a stable economy in an settled society is a good idea, then a pragmatic world-view enables you to choose freely from different methods of achieving and maintaining these ends, sometimes even sacrificing one for another greater one.

    An ideological view, on the other hand, commits you to doing things in a prescribed way. You may have the same ends in sight, but ideology constrains the means you can use to achieve them, and frequently means you are at a loss for explanation when the ideology turns out to be flawed – as it almost certainly will. This is of highly dubious value, and the record of history clearly shows that a preference for pragmatic as opposed to ideological policy works far better. This may be why most nations for most of their history have been more pragmatic than ideological – it just works better.

    Furthemore, we can plainly see the destruction that a focus on ideology causes within both states and parties. Consider the USSR, trapped in Leninist ideology. Consider the Labour party of the 1980s, trapped by socialist ideology and condemned to nearly two decades in opposition. Consider the Conservative party in the late 1990s to date, trapped by a conflict between pragmatic instinct and neo-liberal ideology, and thus condemned to opposition.

    Isn’t ideology wonderful?


  • Sandy P

    OOPS! Sorry, part of my post was for a poster at EU Referendum.

    My apologies.