Tories: Revenge of the nasty party
David Cameron once liked to pose as a compassionate Conservative, writes Paul Demarty. But no longer
In 2002, the Conservative Party was still reeling from a second consecutive electoral defeat. As the chaos of the John Major years phased into the banal irrelevance of William Hague’s tenure, Iain Duncan Smith - then the party’s new leader - faced the same problem as all Tory leaders in the Blair era. How to sanitise the brand, after Blair so effectively sanitised his?
The Tory chair at the time, one Theresa May, gave him a few pointed remarks to think about at that year’s conference. “There’s a way to go before we can return to government,” she told a disbelieving audience. “There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us? The Nasty Party.” And after all Maggie Thatcher did for us ...
The perceived ‘nastiness’ of the Tories has swung wildly ever since. IDS lacked the desire or the authority to act on May’s suggestions, and had his lame-duck leadership terminated by his own MPs. His successor, Michael ‘Something of the Night’ Howard, executed a whiplash U-turn from libertarian rhetoric to a gypsy-baiting Mailism, with which he was manifestly more comfortable. There was a burning need for a new face, and a new brand for Toryism. Step forward, David Cameron - the hoodie-hugging, plain-speaking, eco-friendly gent.
That speech, it seems extraordinary to recall, was 10 years ago. Duncan Smith, despite his humiliating exit from the leader’s job, is now a cabinet minister; so is May, at the home office. And, while Cameron’s green guff and nice-guy facade had a plausibility that the creepy and malignant Howard could never hope to match, in government he - along with his colleagues - has reverted to type. The Nasty Party is back - and it’s tightening the thumbscrews.
It was almost possible to feel sorry for Duncan Smith nine years ago, when the self-proclaimed ‘quiet man’ of Tory politics was hounded out by a thoroughly noisy parliamentary bloc of undesirables. Not so today: IDS is the government point man for attacks on welfare - a role he clearly enjoys more than he wants to let on.
This week’s victims are families. Of course, that is not how the sales pitch goes; the sales pitch, after all, is always based on the idea that welfare recipients live in a drab uniformity of self-inflicted economic inactivity. That is the way it is put most politely - as, for example, when Duncan Smith himself suggested to unemployed people all over south Wales that it would be a good idea to go to Cardiff to find work. Normally, the story is less hand-wringing, and is of scroungers and welfare queens, claiming more in benefits than you or I get in wages.
So child benefits and tax credits should be capped after a family has two children. Duncan Smith wants to save £10 billion through this wheeze, and appeals to the usual petty bourgeois gripes to justify it: “Should families expect never-ending amounts of money for every child, when working households must make tough choices about what they can afford?” (And they accuse us of the politics of envy!)
This is an interesting statement, primarily because it implies that child benefits go predominantly to families who are not working. This, to put it mildly, is bunk. Four percent of households in receipt of jobseekers’ allowance have more than two dependent children. A family can claim a whopping £65 extra per child per week through child benefits and tax credits. Add it all up, and that puts the benefits bill up by just £300 million.
To get rid of £10 billion, you would have to knock tax credits off the great many more working families, for most of whom the tax relief is the difference between survival and destitution (two million children would be affected by such a cut). The social consequences would obviously enough be horrible, but, more to the point, they would be deeply ironic from a Tory point of view. A great many more abortions, for a start; and more generally, an assault on the fabric of family life for a decent slice of the British population. Compassionate Conservatism at its best!
The government is also busily engaged in slashing the housing benefit bill, which - again - goes as much to those in work as those on the dole. Once more, the dishonesty is almost impressive - the spiralling cost of HB is a direct result of the policies of Thatcher, who depleted social housing stocks and created the condition for the housing bubble that sent rents skyward. But it is not the Tories’ fault, apparently - it is yours.
Pass the soap
Surely Theresa May has not forgotten her own decade-old admonition to the assembled Tory grandees? Alas, she has. She bristles endlessly at the European Court of Human Rights, which irritatingly insists on overruling her attempts at reactionary rabble-rousing. We had the whole farrago over Abu Qatada’s endless wait for deportation to Jordan for torture - sorry, interrogation.
Now, the running sore is votes for prisoners. ECHR decisions have set an appalling precedent for braying reactionaries in all the bourgeois parties - while it is not a requirement to allow all prisoners to vote, it is impermissible to deny people the vote on the sole basis that they are in prison. The very idea of letting the soaring prison population have a say in politics is enough to send the ‘throw away the key’ wing of the Conservative Party into paroxysms of horror.
Again, the argumentation is drearily instructive. Prisoners have forfeited their right to vote by abdicating their responsibility to obey the law. This is laughable. An ever greater number of people end up in the slammer for trivial offences - the legacy of endless successive governments’ insistence on posing tough on ‘law and order’. More to the point, prison has the effect of transforming the petty criminal into the career criminal. So obsessively punitive is this society, it actually manufactures people fit to punish. Perhaps prisoners might have something to say about these things. Certainly, MPs whose constituencies contain major prisons would have to give the issue more thought than is currently the case.
That is too much for the Daily Mail et al, and it is therefore too much for May. Tory politicians are congenitally incapable of empathy for anyone who gives them the smallest excuse to withhold it.
All of this adds up to a frankly disturbing picture of the Tory psyche.
The function of prisons, in the eyes (and most especially the practice) of Theresa May and her ilk, is to be hell on earth. I mean this quite literally. What is hell, but the place where the Almighty exacts eternal vengeance on all who do not obey his command? The doctrine of retributive justice amounts to the same thing; the means may not run towards direct physical torment, and the time frame may not stretch to infinity, but prison amounts to an environment of permanent anxiety and, in many jails, risk of physical harm. It is pretty much torture. The Tory mind is thus deeply and pathologically sadistic.
The child benefits issue, meanwhile, conceals a disturbingly misanthropic view of children. In this analysis, the very young are simply an economic burden, to be borne only by those quixotic enough to tolerate the loss of cash and spare time. A child is not the object of hope, not the symbol of our duty to make a tolerable future for the next generation of humans. It is rather the object of a cost-benefit analysis. A child - in this grey world - is £65 per week added to the treasury books. If only people would stop having the damned things.
The fish rots from the head down. Not only does the Tory Party carry such pathological views: Labour Party strategy since Blair has consisted of adopting Tory positions on these and other issues. It too has propagated scares about largely fictional benefit fraud and vastly expanded the prison population. It, too, has adopted the grotesque rhetoric that surrounds these issues.
Capitalist rule, meanwhile, is ensured by a Faustian pact between the ruling class and the petty bourgeoisie, to which the workers’ movement is no longer strong enough to consistently offer an opposing ideological pole. So, inevitably, these ideas find an ever greater traction among the population at large, whose response to an atomised existence is to kick the next fellow below them.
The Tories, indeed, are the nasty party, and perversely proud of the fact these days - but the logic of capitalism, and the logic of bourgeois politics, makes that nastiness contagious.