Thursday, 18 February 2016

On Tim Montgomerie's Resignation

Tim Montgomerie is no household name, but his resignation from the Tories after 28 years of membership have certainly caused ripples on the right side of political life. As the founder of the Ashcroft-bankrolled Conservative Home and former backroom boy for various leading Tories, Tim is probably the most influential Tory not to hold any kind of office. As Paul Goodman notes, a number of his ideas have got taken up by party bigwigs. So as that vanishingly rare beast, the Conservative Intellectual, Tim's departure from the scene is something of a deal. You'll have to get the night vision cameras out to catch them now.

Nevertheless, anyone aware of Tim's views know he isn't your run-of-the-mill ideologue of the Liam Fox mould. Unlike the Thatcherite epigoni holding office, he takes issues around social justice seriously, albeit within the limited horizons of Tory paternalism. After all, if one does not look out for the plebs there's every danger they might start looking out for themselves. And yet, incongruously, this meshes with the free market fundamentalism that is a given in these Tories these days. Still, he's far from the first right wing intellectual to try and square that tricky circle.

And so, as you might expect, his resignation note is a bit of a mishmash. He lacerates Dave over his EU renegotiation stunt by observing,
... nothing registers more strongly on the social injustice front than recommending staying in the EU. It remains the greatest source of social misery on the continent — requiring intense austerity in countries such as Greece and causing terrible youth unemployment across southern Europe from which millions will suffer lifelong scars.
A quote that could almost have come from a Trotskyist newspaper. He goes on,
What about fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with Brussels that the PM pledged, promised and vowed to deliver? ... The newspapers that called the deal a “joke”, “conjuring trick” and “delusion” weren’t exaggerating. But it took the Fourth Estate rather than Tory MPs to point out the emperor’s naked state. With a few honourable exceptions Conservative parliamentarians were silent when Mr Cameron, pretending to have changed anything that matters, stood at the same dispatch box at which Mrs Thatcher vowed to fight European integration.
Ouch. And right there is the contradiction in Tim's thinking. He sheds tears about the awful consequences of EU austerity, though, of course, precious few fall for victims of his own government's cuts - indeed, he praises them. He also invites another unflattering comparison,
Faced with a weak, divided opposition in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher moved the country forward. She seized the opportunity to deliver tough reforms that a more effective opposition might have stopped. Today, David Cameron and George Osborne are doing little that Blairites or Cleggites could object to. I recently asked Peter Mandelson what separated his politics from that of Mr Osborne. He joked that the top rate of income tax was too high. At least I think he was joking.
What Tim despairs at is how removed Dave's mob are from the Thatcherite ideal. She had strategic vision and a will to recast the country in her image. The PM and Osborne only care about power for power's sake, of managing from the middle without the desire to do anything beyond getting re-elected. The pledges about getting immigration down, tackling the deficit, and sorting out the mounting pile of public debt were less guides to policy action and more electoral flimflam, promises made in the heat of a battle the Tories barely won. In fact, it's virtually identical to the discontented sentiment running off the Tory backbenches and into the gutters provided by the right wing press. "Dave's not really a Tory." "There isn't really any austerity." "They've put power before principles." You've heard the self-indulgent whining all before. A mirror image of what is oft said on the left, in fact.

Tim and those sympathetic with his disappointment in Dave not being Thatcher's second coming are indulging (perhaps a necessary) self-delusion. As people who understand materialism at the immediate level of numbers in the bank account, it's something they fight shy of when analysing the way of the world. The truth is Thatcher was a creature of her time, with a political programme that was only possible at that point in time. Thatcher's successive governments took the post-war consensus of prices and incomes policies, of state intervention to maintain full employment, of nationalised industries, strong working class communities, and powerful unions, and they tore that up. Deregulation and privatisation meant riches for the few, precarity and a shackled labour movement meant anxiety and uncertainty for the many. The Britain we have today was pretty much in place by the time the 1990s came around, so a Thatcherite repeat is surplus to requirements. Market relationships and private capital are deeply embedded in the public sector, industrial action is as rare as an intelligent Tory, and social security has been pared right back. There is very little left for a Thatcherite to deregulate, to sell-off, to cut without a) causing the Tories serious political harm, and b) undermining the health of British capitalism.

As they stand, many of Dave's policies are short sighted and counter-productive, but the government's freedom of action is circumscribed by social necessity. There are limits beyond which they dare not go. Were Tim's dream to come true and Dave was a Thatcherite visionary, what would his government do? There's virtually nothing more they can do without risking unforeseen costs and the possibility of future social explosions.

Tim has not only packed his bags and left his political home. He's bid a final farewell to understanding the realities of political life.


Unknown said...

Tim Montgomerie was a fan of Thatcher in the 1980's . as a gay man I find another gay man's adulation of the woman who brought us section 28 deeply disturbing.

as is the fact that he bears a striking resemblance to my ex partner.... also a bloody tory!

The Fulcrum said...

In other words, he's a reverse-Corbynite.

I await Phil's inevitable response.

David Parry said...

Bob Woods,

Tim Montgomerie isn't gay as far as I know.