‘Radically pragmatic, rather than dogmatic’, is the way Oliver Letwin, Conservative head of policy, described the new Tory approach this week. Speaking at Policy Exchange, Letwin was hoping to ‘rebut’ critics who say they’ve not seen much in the way of substance since David Cameron became leader of the party eighteen months ago. Joking that high intellectual concepts should not be the preserve of Labour politicians such as Gordon Brown and David Miliband, the former shadow chancellor set aside his party’s professed attachment to plain English and couched his argument in language he himself described as ‘ridiculously high-falutin’.
Far from being merely a snazzy re-branding exercise in a bid to make the party re-electable after three successive defeats, ‘Cameron Conservatism’, Mr Letwin stresses, has a ‘specific theoretical agenda (which) aims to achieve two significant paradigm-shifts’. Although it is not entirely clear what an insignificant paradigm-shift would look like, his point seems to be that, given the consensus on the free-market ‘from Beijing to Brussels’, the compass of politics must now move from the economic to the social, or rather, ‘become sociocentric’ rather than ‘econocentric’. The Conservatives, he claims, are the party best placed to guide Britain through this fundamental change in the 21st-century political landscape because they will ‘shift the theory of the State from a provision-based paradigm to a framework-based paradigm.’
Directing his criticism towards Brown, without so much as a mention of Blair, Letwin vilified provision-theory as the ‘essence of Brown’s version of New Labour’. Placing no faith in central direction and control, ‘Cameron Conservatism’ will by contrast establish a ‘framework of support and incentive’ that enables and induces people to ‘internalise externalities’ such as social and environmental responsibility. Brown-style targets and directives, the manifestations of direct government intervention, will disappear in order to make way for human enterprise and initiative.
In theory, that is all well and good. But just how the Conservatives will incentivise individuals and organisations to act responsibly and ensure that national well-being keeps pace with economic growth remains to be seen. When pressed, Letwin admitted that a Cameron government would almost certainly maintain provision for such Blairite initiatives as foundation hospitals and city academies. He even confessed that the ludicrous new ‘framework-paradigm’ terminology needed further work when it became clear that the party would still, essentially, be providers.
The Conservative effort to hit upon a new Big Idea—so redolent of Blair’s Labour party before they adopted the Third Way—is fair enough, but it does not go far enough. Winning 900 seats last week was a boost, but despite the Cameron effect the Tories are still not looking anything like so healthy as Labour did in the mid-1990s. Conceding that the paradigm-shifting new Conservative ideology was only a ‘general sense of direction’ and not necessarily going to win a future battle of ideas, ‘one thing is clear’, Letwin said. ‘Cameron Conservatives have both an analysis of the nature of 21st-century politics and a theory of the role of the modern State.’ The trouble is, they still don’t seem to have any policies.