You can't say 'Compassionate Conservatism' without baring your teeth, but I wanted so badly to believe - so I went to the Comment is Free/Soundings debate on Monday with an open mind. It was titled 'Is the Future Conservative?', and my mind was as open as a field, as open as the sky. As open as my jacket pocket, from which I lost £2.55 and my student bus pass on the way home, which just shows what you get for trusting people.
What you get is a distinct lack of policies and a lot of airy discussion, rousing but abstract, most of which centred around a return to something Philip Blond called 'The Social'. I like to imagine The Social as an ageing superhero, dressed in fading red spandex and cowering trussed up with lady Thatcher's pearls whilst senior members of government and opposition struggle vainly to negotiate a rescue strategy.
Just how this return to The Social is meant to be achieved was not discussed, because it’s never discussed. Just how this spanking new Tory strategy of slashing taxes, raising benefits, returning the unskilled to work and jump-starting the economy all at the same time is going to work was not discussed, because it’s never discussed, because the conservatives have no plan. They have no policies. They have, in fact, no ideology at all apart from the conviction that they are the ones who should be in power, and they’re prepared to mouth any concession in order to get there.
Jesse Norman, the man who quite literally wrote the book on Compassionate Conservatism, was free with his name-checking of ‘fairness’ before informing me after the event that there are certain things – like the benefits system – that ‘you just can’t fix’. The Tories aren’t offering any real solutions to poverty, to inequality, to injustice. What they’re offering is merely what Norman called ‘a different way of getting things slightly wrong.’ There isn’t a jot of consensus in the message, because – yes, that’s right – there is no message. Norman sweepingly denounced his co-Tory apologist’s gestures towards ‘increasing the flat-rate of benefits’ before sweeping off with a wink and an email address. Smooth.
And yet, and yet, and yet. For all this, it’s possible that some of them might really believe that they want to move towards a society of fairness, a society where the poor are lifted out of poverty and wealth redistributed to the needy. If so, then this represents a staggering about-face, a change in policy so profound that the lack of an official fanfare is curious. Where, for example, is the apology to the thousands of communities destroyed by Thatcherism’s approach to heavy industry? Where is the abandonment of the old market-facing dogma, an acknowledgement that when they worked on the basis that there was ‘no such thing as society’, they were wrong? Is a retraction coming? Or will the Tories simply slink back into office in two years’ time with their tails between their legs, blaming Brown’s recession for every piece of empty rhetoric? Let’s have them put their policies on the table and measure.