Comment: The reform of the Tory soul

A cross-party alliance and Labour’s costly authoritarianism are genuinely changing the Tory party.

By Ian Dunt

It’s slow but it is genuine. The Tories are changing.

They are, for a start, no longer falling asleep in the conference hall in such substantial numbers. Many of them even appear youthful enough to survive the next five winters. And, on more fundamental matters, there is something softening in the Tory heart.

Identity is always the subject of circumstance, and the Tory identity is no different. Daily cooperation with a responsible Liberal Democrat party has surely had an effect. There is also a useful quality to authoritarianism which has helped nudge the party towards liberalism. Namely, that it is expensive. Ken Clarke’s prison programme and the decision to scrap ID cards were sold as primarily economic policies, with the moral and social considerations coming afterwards. There is also David Cameron’s concerted effort to make the party more palatable, and general societal trends. It’s a fortunate little mixture.

Today I watched the Conservative party applaud a speech admonishing the prison-industrial complex. It didn’t even come from Clarke, whose status as justice secretary pretty much guarantees a baseline level of support. It came from an American education reformer – a close friend of Barack Obama apparently – who described the use of prison building in the States as a semi-conscious side-effect of a failure to properly educate inner-city kids. That’s quite evidently true, but it would be anathema to the ‘take responsibility for your actions’ simplicity of the Tories of the 1980s.

Later, Theresa May delivered a silly speech. She made a big deal of tearing up Labour’s Licensing Act. She’s never really held that view in the past. She always lobbied for more community control, which is fair enough really and something she’s now about to implement. This morning she got rather carried away and ended up saying a bunch of stuff she didn’t really mean. The Home Office was quick to clear up the damage, as it did after Nick Clegg stood in for Cameron at PMQs.

The home secretary then attacked Labour for not challenging extremist ideology. I was a firm critic of Labour counter-terrorism policy in office, but that’s an irresponsible and inaccurate charge to level at the party. When May said she would stop extremists entering Britain, anyone who enjoys the dual ability to read newspapers and retain information would have known that this was an identical policy to that executed by the previous government.

But behind all the bluster, misinformation and party-politics there was an intellectually and rhetorically respectable speech, which quite consciously did not engage in the sort of angry, right-wing primitivism of Michael Howard and his predecessors as home secretary.

Earlier, Clarke had come on and in his own inimitable, conversational way, extolling the virtues of a sensible prisons policy. He did it with the well-fed air of someone waxing lyrical while chomping on an after-dinner cigar, but the content was logical and reassuring. Locking people up for trivial offences, cramming Britain with prisons, ignoring mountains of statistical evidence that it was doing no good – this has firmly come to an end. Clarke won the most applause when he attacked Labour, branding the Milibands a “fleeting music hall act”. But he received decent, respectable support for his other comments too. Even where red meat was thrown to the rank-and-file, it was sensible, not ignorant. Making prisoners work an eight-hour day, complete with training and skills, is not draconian. Ensuring they get the minimum wage on one hand and that they pay recompense to their victim on the other is fair and decent. We’ve come a long way away from Howard’s demand that female inmates give birth in chains.

The central thing to remember about the Tories is that their economics haven’t changed. No matter how furiously they avoid the designation, Osborne’s economic prescriptions are really no different to Thatcher’s. Actually, they are probably more severe. In a way, the Tory process of reform has been characteristically different to Labour’s.Blair changed only his party’s economic attitude. Cameron tried to change everything but.

The Tory leader started this project a long time ago, and many of us doubted him. I did too. The Conservatives never went through anything like a ‘Clause 4 moment’. Cameron’s efforts remain ultimately unimpressive. And yet, they were a necessary but insufficient cause when combined with general societal changes, for instance in the way homosexuality was perceived. That slow process was then completed by the psychological effects of daily cooperation with the Liberal Democrats, who were no longer treated like comic relief, but as serious political players with respectable ideas. The political effects of the deficit then offered the ideal excuse to get rid of expensive draconian policies.

The Conservative rank and file is becoming more engaged with the decent parts of its party’s philosophy: moderation and pragmatic, even-handed policy making. It is moving further away from the darker elements: xenophobia, authoritarianism and lack of compassion.

Those who want to fight the deficit reduction programme with accusations of ‘same old Tories’ need to refine their arguments. The economic are the same, but these Tories aren’t.

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