16 MAY 2007 SMALL TRAIN CRASH IN LONDON. ONE PARTY DEAD.
David Moss, 21 May 2007.
Always ahead of the game, Private Eye profiled Steve Hilton on 11 May: "Senior Conservatives are wondering what the point is of being in the shadow cabinet. After decades of working their way up, they finally get the chance to direct party policy only to find the mysterious former business guru Steve Hilton has already done it for them. He decides the outcome of meetings in advance and orders the U-turns that take the party away from its old image. No-one is closer to David Cameron, not even fellow old Etonians". We may find out one day which frustrated policymaker(s) briefed them.
Mr Hilton never explains himself. That job is left to Daniel Finkelstein, a former Director of the Conservative Research Department.
For over a year now, we have been treated to his jovial and informative lectures in the Times about the science of marketing. All the classic business school case studies have been mined for their lessons.
There is a name for each of the nuggets. Optimism bias. Control bias. Confirmation bias. Framing. Anchoring. In the Times of 16 May we discovered another one understanding bias when Mr Finkelstein wrote: "Conservatives have always adhered to the idea that individuals are responsibile for their acts. And quite right too. Yet there comes a point where this clear moral position becomes a bias against understanding".
It seems from what he says that, despite being quite right about personal responsibility, we have actually always been quite wrong. Our understanding has been biassed against. Further, Mrs Thatcher was wrong to say that there is no such thing as society, only people. Wrong, because according to Mr Finkelstein, there are no people either, there is only a crowd, the crowd's behaviour is determined by the situation it finds itself in and "Mr Cameron and his key adviser, Steve Hilton, now lead the situationist pack".
The message delivered by Mr Finkelstein's lecture series is uplifting Mr Hilton knows how to pull the levers, the Conservative Party goes into battle with Labour, armed with science.
We were all waiting for an example of this invincible force in action. All that expertise ... All that promise ...
Wait no longer, said Mr Finkelstein, "as with much that it is worthwhile in the Tory party, [situationalist thinking] began with the MP and thinker David Willetts ... Later today ... he will be giving a major lecture about social mobility".
And then the train crash. Mr Willetts made his education speech to the CBI: no more grammar schools; no selection; Tony Blair is right. The World at One radio news bulletin carried the shocked screams of pain and confusion from Conservative passengers, while David Cameron pleaded that they just didn't understand, this is the journey they had bought tickets for.
They have no right to be shocked, Mr Finkelstein argued in the Times, later in the day.
But they are shocked.
Whether or not they have the right to be.
Perhaps their expectations should have been better anchored? Perhaps the policy should have been better framed? Perhaps. All we know is that there was a train crash. On 16 May, the party died and went into post mortem.
There didn't have to be a train crash. Next day, 17 May, Labour announced the closure of 2,500 post offices. There can't be anyone in the country pleased by this news. And yet there was no train crash.
Five days later, on 21 May, Mr Cameron is reduced to calling his supporters "delusional" and accusing them of wasting his time with pointless argument. Cast your mind back, if you will, to the last Prime Minister who spoke to people like that. You can't. There has never been one.
And in the path labs of ConservativeHome, surrounded by jars full of organs, the blood-spattered editor reports: "A shadow cabinet minister told me last night that the party leadership was winning the battle over grammar schools. If today's newspapers are victory I'd hate to see defeat".
So much for Mr Hilton's science.
Earlier that same day, 16 May it was a busy day Simon Heffer had been asking why, just because he was almost certain to be the next Prime Minister, the Chancellor was smiling so much. The answer is (a) simple Labour have won the next general election (May 16, 2007 2:12 AM). And (b) tragic the Conservative Party is dead and the UK is now doomed once again to be a one-party state.
Less than two weeks before, the 3 May local elections went very well for the Conservatives and very badly for Labour. It looked as though Labour at last had some opposition. That is now another country. Defeat. Snatched. Jaws. Victory.
The problems were evident before Mr Willetts's speech.
Consider Oliver Letwin's sociocentric framework ideas. The long words used by Mr Letwin caused much oafish hilarity at Prime Minister's Questions on 9 May. But anyone of a Labour bent who took the trouble to understand what Mr Letwin said with those long words was bound to be smiling.
Firstly, the Letwin confusions: "Cameron Conservatism puts no faith in central direction and control. Instead, it seeks to identify social and environmental responsibilities that participants in the free market are likely to neglect, and then establish frameworks that will lead people and organisations to act of their own volition in ways that will improve society by increasing general wellbeing".
Are people and organisations acting of their own volition in this framework or are they really being lead, i.e. manipulated? Who identifies the responsibilities that participants may neglect? Presumably a responsibility neglect tsar, reporting to the leaders, i.e. central government. And yet Cameron Conservatism puts no faith in central direction and control.
And second, the audience. Who is Mr Letwin's manifesto for?
There is nothing in it for Conservatives: "The framework theory of the modern State sees government as having two basic roles: to guarantee the stability and security upon which, by common consent, both the free market and wellbeing depend; and, much more controversially, to establish a framework of support and incentive that enables and induces individuals and organisations to act in ways that fulfil not merely their own self-interested ambitions but also their wider social responsibilities".
That second responsibility is nothing to do with government as far as Conservatives are concerned, it is the job of society. Conservatives want a smaller state, less interference and wider choice. And pace Mr Finkelstein, society is not a crowd.
And there is nothing in it for Labour supporters: "Cameron Conservatism, so far from being merely a set of attitudes, has a specific theoretical agenda. It aims to achieve two significant paradigm-shifts. First, a shift from an econocentric paradigm to a sociocentric paradigm. Secondly, a shift in the theory of the State from a provision-based paradigm to a framework-based paradigm".
Why should they vote for a party that doesn't believe in state provision?
The death of the party goes back still further.
After Tim Congdon said in January that he was going to vote UKIP, Matthew dAncona was unleashed to deliver a hatchet job on him. According to Mr d'Ancona, Professor Congdon is no ordinary economist, he is one of the most articulate champions of monetarism, he has been a luminous presence in the world of conservative ideas for a quarter of a century, he is a serious man, he has stature and he is a brilliant economist. And yet, also according to Mr d'Ancona, the Professor has misunderstood Mr Cameron. Well whose fault is that?
In Mr Cameron, the Conservatives have a PR man who cannot communicate his message. Not even to articulate, luminous, serious and brilliant economics professors. What chance do the rest of us have?
Mr Willetts was a good man (2 Feb 2007 13:58:24). A lot of good people's work has gone up in the flames of Mr Hilton's marketing bias.
Simon Heffer has warned against "Team Cameron" from the start. So has Matthew Parris, at least since the 2006 party conference, when he compared Mr Cameron to a puffball and a jellyfish in successive articles. No doubt many others have given warning behind the scenes (but see The Silence of the Hacks).
Together with David Davis, they have a lot of work to do now.
28 January 2010: We can make you behave
10 December 2010:
Student fees protest: Questions on police handling
David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme. Turning the UK into a one-party state does not help. Thank you, Mr Hilton, and goodbye.