Friday, September 28, 2007

Polly on Conservatism

Well, since I had my go at determining what it is to be a Conservative, I suppose it's only fair that Polly Toynbee should have a go as well. I think, however, she has misunderstood to a significant extent what precisely a Conservative is. The first thing she doesn't get is Boris Johnson.
Between now and next May, he [Boris] risks becoming David Cameron's nightmare shadow, a buffoonish parody of the Conservative leader: same generation, same school, same kind of charm - but all done in pantomime....He [Cameron] knows the centre ground of politics has shifted far in the last decade from anti-gay Section 28 and Boris Johnson calling black people "piccaninnies".
This is continuation of a depressingly tedious line of attack that Boris is i) a clown; and ii) a bigot. He is neither. What he is, and one of the reasons for his popularity is due to this, is a personification of a very old British stereotype. In World War II, it is said, the Americans would describe a situation as being 'serious, but not fatal'. The British would describe them as 'fatal, but not serious'. The urge to make a joke out of everything, even while remaining serious on the subject, is not buffoonish, nor is it lightweight. To underestimate Boris Johnson is an error - and one I suspect that the Labour Party and its emanations will regret. However, on from Boris.
No, what upset the party was his [Daid Willetts's] well-argued factual paper explaining precisely why grammar schools fail to promote social mobility. It confronted Conservatives with unpalatable truths about class and education. It demolished the comfortable view that poor children have the same chance at school as everyone else, if only their parents had "aspiration". They could not and would not face the fact that class and income predestine school results long before school, and that school itself drives deeper class divisions.

Willetts paid the price for telling inconvenient truths about social injustice that run to the heart of all social policy. It takes a few intellectual somersaults to accept his undeniable class analysis and yet stay a Conservative. (Time Willetts crossed the floor?)
Willetts's argument was, essentially, that a grammar school system does not help social mobility for the overwhelming majority of children. As such a Conservative Party should be looking for alternatives. The Tory activist opinion was that, for many of them, the grammar school had been their personal ticket into social mobility, and they didn't see why their children shouldn't have the same opportunity. Both a rearguing for social mobility coming about through the ability of the children, rather than by state diktat. They simply disagree on the best method to provide it. Contrast that with the Socialist idea that what is important is equality of outcome - that every child receives the same education, and you can see that Willetts is a very long way indeed from crossing the floor.
It matters not just to Conservatives, but for the politics of the country that Cameron is not dragged back by his something-of-the-night tendency. There are always genuine arguments to be had between right and left about the proper size of the state, how high taxes should be, the balance between punishment and prevention, the balance between nationalism and internationalism.
The thing is that Polly, having identified that there are conflicting arguments over the role the state should play, goes on to say that Cameron should, effectively, side with the Government. That's a rather odd position - there are two arguments, and both parties should articulate mine.
For the sake of progressive politics, the Conservatives need to move with the moving times and stay intimately concerned with the everyday running of schools, hospitals and social programmes, so that they too can see that money must be raised and spent, that the state must be strong, and that capitalism only works when it is robustly regulated for its own good
I hate the word 'progressive': it's dishonest and glib at the same time. And Toynbee's argument is merely that the Tories must not, under any circumstances, articulate any need for political change, still less any new ideas. But 'progressive' is not a Tory word. 'Radical', on the other hand, has been. What Cameron needs to do is not maintain the current orthodoxies on public finance, on the role of the state and on education. He needs to articulate change. He also needs not to listen to Polly Toynbee. No more caravans!

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That WWII comment sounds like a corruption of Karl Kraus' remark contrasting the sensibilities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Kaiser Wilhelm II's Germany. In the latter the pre-1914 situation was considered 'serious, but not hopeless', in the former 'hopeless but not serious'.

4:15 pm  

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