When even staunch New Labour grandee and columnist John McTernan thinks the Tories are behaving like a weaker version of the Labour Party, British conservatism is in real trouble
As the RMT union’s strike on Southern Rail enters its third consecutive day, inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of commuters while a dithering Tory-lite government watches on, wringing its hands, former New Labour political adviser John McTernan uses his Telegraph column to tear into the Conservative Party.
We are in the middle of a five-day rail strike on Southern Rail. Commuters are being massively disrupted. And this is just the latest stage in a dispute in which the Luddite RMT union has made it clear that it is fully committed to fighting against the future.
What about the Government? Where are they in this dispute. It is a crystallisation if all their key themes: investment, modernisation, innovation and productivity. But they are silent.
Well not quite. What we have actually seen is the resignation of the then rail minister Claire Perry, who said: “I am often ashamed to be the Rail Minister.” And so she should have been – just for her pathetic capitulation to the RMT. This, of course, is just what you would have expected from a Miliband government; but this is a Tory government, with a majority.
There is a famous scene in The West Wing episode about President Bartlet appointing a member of the Supreme Court. He meets Justice Joseph Crouch, whose retirement creates the vacancy, and is angrily addressed by Crouch: “I wanted to retire five years ago. Five years. But I waited for a Democrat. Instead I got you.” The Southern Rail dispute is just like that. Commuters in the Home Counties could be forgiven for thinking: “I waited 23 years for a majority Tory government. Instead I got you.” Where are the core Tory values? Where is the support for management’s right to manage?
This is utterly stunning criticism – shocking not only because it is self-evidently true (the Conservatives in government are a shadow of their glorious best under Margaret Thatcher) but because they are now so bad at governing in a conservative fashion that it has fallen to a former New Labour apparatchik to set them straight.
Why on earth has it fallen to a Labour Party grandee to inveigh against the more militant trades union? Where is the useless europhile Greg Clark, supposedly Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy during this whole dispute? Where is Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary? Have they all taken lessons from their new boss in the art of disappearing and avoiding the media during scandals affecting their ministerial briefs?
This criticism is particularly damning:
Where are the core Tory values? Where is the support for management’s right to manage?
Where indeed. This blog has wondered the same thing, as the Tories in government behaved like centralising statists, presided over an unprecedented weakening of our national defence, dithered over the housing crisis, failed to get to grips with the nation’s finances, alienated principled conservatives, and as the leader of a supposedly eurosceptic party did all he could to cheat his way to victory for the Remain camp in the EU referendum. Where are the core Tory values?
A Thatcherite government would have stood boldly on the side of consumers over producers, and thus would have been unafraid to plant its flag squarely in the same corner as Southern Rail’s unfortunate commuters. And unlike the Cameron approach to industrial disputes (seemingly applying maximum pressure on businesses to capitulate to union demands, as seen with the London Tube strikes) a Thatcherite government would have recognised the offensive absurdity of the union demands and unashamedly sided against them.
Needless to say, we do not have a Thatcherite government – despite all of the ingredients being in place for another properly ideological right wing government to flourish. The left-wing opposition is hopelessly divided. The Conservatives are under new leadership for the first time in a decade. Boundary review looks set to help the Tories by correcting decades-old biases in favour of Labour, potentially gifting the Tories tens of additional seats. All of these factors stand ready and waiting to be exploited by a radical Conservative government which understands that it has a duty to do more than hold power for the sake of it.
And yet at every turn, the Tories triangulate and tack to the centre. They did so under coalition government (when they had a modicum of an excuse) and they continue to do so now, when they have none. Right now, there is effectively no opposition. A conservative government right now could make a fair stab at privatising pensions and the NHS, and still not be forced out of office so long as the Corbynite and centrist wings of the Labour Party continue their childish tussle for power. The political landscape is ripe for a radical conservative reduction and reshaping of the state, yet there is almost zero evidence that Theresa May’s government intends to attempt any such bold enterprise.
And for what? Will being a centrist clone of New Labour win the Tories any new fans? Of course not. The swivel-eyed Left have long ago convinced themselves that all Tories are “evil” and “vermin”, no matter what they actually do in government.
We shall win no new fans by trying to adopt the cuddly persona of a young Tony Blair. We will never be liked. Therefore we should focus on being effective, without giving a second thought to winning over the admiration and votes of people who have been raised since birth to despise us. That’s what Margaret Thatcher taught us. And that is the lesson which we seem determined to cast aside in our feverish pursuit of the focus group’s favour.
John McTernan’s quote from The West Wing is very apt. Many conservatives have indeed been waiting for years – since Margaret Thatcher was forced from office, in fact – for another strong Tory leader; somebody committed to conservative, small government principles and willing to fight for them.
Conservatives waited thirteen long years of New Labour government only to get David Cameron. We then endured six years of Cameronism before being presented with the authoritarian Theresa May, foisted on the party in the confused wake of the EU referendum. And whatever electoral success Theresa May enjoys, she may well end up being every bit as much of an ideological disappointment as her predecessor.
But maybe this criticism is premature. Maybe the autumn Conservative Party conference will give birth to a conservative policy platform actually worth voting for. And to be fair to the new prime minister, even Margaret Thatcher bottled her first confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers, staging a tactical retreat before coming back to finish the job in 1984-85.
But right now, British conservatives are in the ludicrous and humiliating position of being upbraided by a Labour Party grandee – someone from the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, for heaven’s sake – for being insufficiently dedicated to conservative principles.
And when it falls to Tony Blair’s right hand man to tell the Tories how to get tough with the unions, something is clearly rotten with the state of British conservatism.
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I’m going to try to refrain from commenting on the mention of Thatcher and the NUM, coming as I do from a mining family in a town that was utterly devastated by the Tory handling of the decline of its industrial base, leading to a spate of suicides, horrendous unemployment and dismal prospects for anyone wanting to remain close to the place where they grew up…
Instead, here is an alternative perspective which avoids the clichés of Power-Hungry Unions vs. Ordinary Working People, or Good Socialist Comrades vs. Evil Tories. Southern Rail provide a shockingly bad service for the prices they charge, and have done for years. The arguments in favour of privatization – increased competitiveness encouraged by the market, which benefits of consumers and reduced the burden on the state – are not, on the whole, borne out by reality. Perhaps the government should be standing up to the rail companies, as much as to RMT – at least the railway staff generally care about the passengers on their trains, beyond how much profit can be gleaned from them. Southern are providing more than just a consumer service, they are operating a vital part of this country’s infrastructure, and it is right that they should be held to account by elected representatives of all flavours, Parliamentary and otherwise.
A little unfair to say that Thatcher “bottled” the first encounter with the NUM, although you are right to describe the retreat as “tactical”. She knew this was a battle that had to be fought and won, but it couldn’t be be fought until the military might necessary to win had been assembled. Back in 1981, when the very survival of Thatcher was widely doubted, the government simply wasn’t ready; the memories of 1973/74 were still raw and the defeat of Scargill could not be assured. But this was the beginning of the slow, but deliberate, stockpiling of huge amounts of coal to enable a lengthy NUM siege to be survived when the day eventually came in 1984. The story is fascinatingly described by Nigel Lawson in his View from No 11 and by Charles Moore in his biography of Lady T.
I have no faith however that the present government has had strategic plan to take on and defeat the RMT, which is the modern day equivalent of the NUM. For our long term benefit, the public will need to endure the short term inconvenience of the bloody battle with the RMT that is necessary to establish sanity to the railways. The Ronald Reagan solution is probably required; there will be plenty of other people able and willing to operate the railway in a modern fashion.