Tories travelling light

1 Sep 06
PHILIP JOHNSTON | Few beyond the narrow confines of Westminster politics will have heard of Sir Alfred Sherman, and even there mention of his name will probably be greeted with puzzlement.

Few beyond the narrow confines of Westminster politics will have heard of Sir Alfred Sherman, and even there mention of his name will probably be greeted with puzzlement.

Yet, 30 years ago, Sherman was a key figure in a group of Conservative politicians and thinkers whose prospectus for the future of Britain would later be implemented by the Tory governments between 1979 and 1997.

Sherman, who died last weekend aged 86, provided the intellectual ballast for Margaret Thatcher’s instinctive critique of what had gone wrong with the country and her visceral feel for what was needed for its rescue. In 1974, they founded, along with Sir Keith Joseph, the conservative think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and Sherman became its first director.

A former communist, he was an eccentric and somewhat aloof figure who eventually fell out, acrimoniously, with his Tory colleagues in the mid-1980s. But for about ten years he had the ear of the woman who would become party leader and then prime minister. He helped lay the foundations for the free market creed that would become known as Thatcherism, much of which remains in place to this day, despite nearly a decade of Labour government.

The CPS was a hugely influential think-tank, fizzing with ideas that would today seem unexceptional but which were then radical in the extreme, such as supply-side economics, denationalisation of industry and flexible labour markets. Among the policies that emerged from the CPS were the mechanics of monetarism, privatisation and trade union reform.

As early as 1982, the CPS was arguing for a concentration on standards, parental choice and the devolution of power to schools, and for greater pluralism in the delivery and funding of health care.

While the CPS was looking at the finer detail of policy, the Tories were seeking the political consensus that would allow their implementation. In the mid-1970s, this was not an easy task because the political and media establishment remained in thrall to socialist theories. But it became easier as the decade went on and the country became the economic basket case that encouraged the country to give Thatcher her chance.

It is often thought today that she went into the 1979 general election laden with the baggage of worked-out policies. But, in terms of detail, Thatcher travelled light; what she paraded was a set of core values and an unswerving conviction in their rightness.

Can David Cameron learn from her experience? He appears to want to expunge the memory of his illustrious predecessor, apparently on the grounds that in order for his party to be seen to have changed, it is essential to bash up its most successful leader. This is unwise, not because there are millions of voters who still hold a candle for Thatcher but because it evinces an ignorance of how elections are won.

Many think that Thatcher’s job was easier in the late 1970s because the country was crying out for change. But it is often forgotten that she was personally not very popular and that James Callaghan might have won an election had he gone to the country in October 1978 before the winter of discontent cooked Labour’s goose for 18 years.

In some ways, Cameron has got it easier. Tony Blair’s government looks like a busted flush just 18 months after a third election win. There is a feel of the mid-1990s about British politics, with a discredited prime minister facing a younger and personable opponent. So why are the Tories not 20 points ahead, as Labour was in 1995?

Perhaps Cameron’s difficulty is that the great political battles of yore were clashes of ideas, not of personalities. It is simpler to put space between you and your opponent if they take up a substantially different position that can be attacked and an alternative offered. When they occupy fundamentally similar territory, the task becomes harder.

But whereas the arguments over free markets and nationalisation that exercised Sherman’s mind 30-odd years ago have been resolved, there are still ideological differences that Cameron should be exploiting and which would form the centrepiece of his first party conference speech as leader in a few weeks’ time if he believed in them.

These centre on Labour’s continued belief in big government, high taxes and extravagant state spending; over-regulation; micro-management from Whitehall; social engineering and pettifogging interference. These are the modern equivalents of the dragons that Thatcher vowed to slay in the 1970s but which Cameron seems unwilling to ride out to meet. He needs an Alfred Sherman to spur him on.

Did you enjoy this article?