23 May 2018

Ruth Davidson is right, the Tories need to let some sunshine in


“Sometimes as Tories we look a bit dour” says Ruth Davidson. “We look a bit joyless, to be fair. A bit authoritarian, sometimes”.

As a matter of temperament and sensibility Conservatism — or, rather, Toryism — has always run to pessimism. The future is a greater threat than it is an opportunity; actions have consequences and most of them are miserable, inconvenient, or fraught with danger in one form or another. Decline is unavoidable. Toryism, then, can sometimes seem to live in a perpetual autumn.

Davidson understands the peril of this thinking. She may be comfortable, in a cultural sense, with a Scottish brand of Presbyterianism that is sometimes, and not always unfairly, characterised as dour, joyless and authoritarian but she recognises that, politically-speaking, the Conservative Party must offer something different.

The first of her insights, when she became leader of the Scottish Conservatives, was that the party needed to cease apologising for itself. For years the Scottish Tories had adopted a sheepish tone, pleading for a measure of mercy from an ungrateful electorate. “We’re awfully sorry”, the party implied, “but we’re Conservatives. Please don’t kick us.” Decline, or irrelevance, seemed locked-in for the foreseeable future.

Davidson’s approach would necessarily be different. If she received a helping hand from Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, who reoriented Scottish politics to a constitutional battleground on which the Tories were both comfortable and happy to fight, she still appreciated that the party needed to sell its message in a more muscular fashion. We think these things are important, Davidson would say, and if you think they’re important too then perhaps you’re a Tory. Come and join us.

Lurking behind this lies the appreciation that David Cameron was right. “Let sunshine win the day” proved more optimistic than reality could bear, crashing on the rocks of the great financial crisis. Cameron’s government would be forced into austerity, demanding that the country eat — and be grateful for — its muesli. Fixing the roof, it turned out, was a decade long project that is still, even now, incomplete.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s initial diagnosis upon taking over the leadership of his party was correct. “Let optimism beat pessimism” he said, keenly aware that the Conservative party needed an image update. The hugging of hoodies and Eskimos had a purpose to it: saying you’d changed wasn’t enough, you have to show it too.

No wonder that Michael Gove – still, despite everything, a Cameroon at heart – is perhaps the only cabinet minister who has, at least in terms of his ministerial responsibilities, enhanced his reputation in the last year. The Environment department, hitherto considered a backwater in Tory circles, has become the government’s most energetic ministry. This is necessary on policy grounds but also in terms of politics: younger voters tend to think the environment is a top five concern.

Meanwhile, in response to Davidson’s suggestion the Conservative party could do with a few more Tiggers and slightly fewer Eeyores, Theresa May says she too so can be “positive and uplifting”. This is an oblique way of saying Davidson is right. But it also not likely to prove persuasive, not least because Sunny Theresa is a rebranding exercise that will persuade no-one.

All political strengths are the flip side of political weaknesses. May’s great virtue was her provincial stolidity; she would be a “bloody difficult woman” who would get things done. No tears but plenty of sweat. Her dullness was her selling point; her primness her strength. She wasn’t a posh boy.

You can, though, have too much of even a good thing. “Fields of wheat” was the moment, I think, when May’s provincialism collapsed in on itself. Prime Ministers should not, as a rule, advertise their ridiculousness.

But then this is a joyless administration with much to be sad about. Brexit is not just tortuous, it also occupies almost the entirety of the Government’s bandwidth. Coupled with the lack of a secure majority this at least means some foolish policies – such as the reintroduction of grammar schools – have had to be abandoned, but it also means even better ideas are going nowhere.

Complaints that the Government lacks a sunshine agenda are really complaints that it lacks any kind of agenda at all. It is in the business of Just About Managing. But if governments do not always rise to heroic challenges, you can be sure that a government just trying to get by will never do much more than survive on a day by day basis. That too is the position in which May’s government finds itself.

That reflects the lack of unity in the party but also the manner in which the lessons of the last election have been learned too thoroughly. Nick Timothy’s manifesto was too much in love with its own virtue, but it was at least an attempt to address some of the larger issues that will shape and define the next twenty years of British political life. Its failure means the Government gives the impression of thinking all and any ideas suspect. Better to do without such dangerous things.

As always, a balance must be struck. The Conservative temperament does not always naturally run to optimism but, after a decade of public spending restraint and now in the midst of constitutional upheaval, there is a healthy case for a Conservatism that actually makes a plausible fist of seeming to like the country and, in  particular, its young people.

They, priced out of the housing market and, if they are graduates, paying higher taxes for most of their working lives, not unreasonably feel they have been let down. Making matters worse, the Conservatives are unavoidably the party of Brexit; a policy voted for, generally speaking, by the old and rejected by the young. That too spells long-term trouble for the Tories. Once formed political allegiances are hard to shift; inertia is a powerful force.

The only saving grace the Tories can count on right now is that they have the good fortune to be facing a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. A more plausible opposition leader would – and should – be fifteen points ahead in the polls. That no such leader exists is one more reason to decry the present fractured state of British politics. And a reminder, frankly, that calls for sunshine and optimism are both necessary and wildly out of keeping with the temper of the times.

At some point, however, the clouds will clear. At that point it will also be obvious that a new prime minister will be required to make the case for a refreshed and more optimistic politics.

Alex Massie is a political commentator