Comment: What would Disraeli, Southey and Burke make of Cameron?


When David Cameron first stepped in to lead the Conservative Party, after a succession of rather poor predecessors, his plan to change and detoxify the party was set to be a very bold, even brave, gamble, that could so easily have made him immediately unpopular with the right wing and consigned him to that pile of no-hope Tory failures.

Whatever we may think of him as a politician he didn’t fail – not immediately at least.

Robert-Southey-David-Cameron
As ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie has, unflatteringly, tried to identify in the Tory leader, a lot of effort was made by Cameron to woo the Guardianistas, raising from the dead a kind of Disraeli-esque Conservatism that was comfortable with society, women, ethnicity and sexuality, not to mention hoodies.

During a recent conversation I had with Professor Tim Bale, whose new book on the Conservative party is out now, he told me that generally speaking, the British public tend to be centre/centre-left on the economy but socially populist, perhaps even authoritarian.

Cameron was surely going to have a hard time trying to sell his brand to this public – indeed he didn’t win the last election – but an even harder time trying to change his party who were still being painted as “tabloidified” by some on the Conservative left.

Whatever the merits of Cameron’s task, we can hardly say his project has paid off now

Though there are voices in his party castigating him for his metropolitan liberalism, what was to emerge from his own chancellor’s autumn statement – which show welfare cuts disproportionately affecting low income working families, that in turn will create a new batch of the working poor – can hardly be called compassionate.

The excuse, furthermore, that high earners are feeling the pinch is also a non-argument since a scratch from their annual incomes means a lot less than the gorge at the incomes of the most vulnerable in society, including the disabled.

To say Cameron continues in a long line of compassionate Conservatives today shows just how toxic the Tories became. Benchmarking him with other historical Tory figures gives a far different picture – which I will attempt to do here, namely with Robert Southey.

Southey, a poet and contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, originally a supporter of the French Revolution, tended towards conservatism like so many of the Romantic poets. Knowledge of his political stance was limited to only a few people until 1817 when radical Member of Parliament, William Smith – himself an ardent supporter of the revolutionary movement in France – spoke out in the House of Commons on March 14th to attack him as a dreaded supporter of the Tory establishment.

In response to this, Southey addressed Smith in a letter denying his politics were anything other than compassionate, noting that from his days as a radical to his current stance as a Tory he was always seeking to better the condition of the lower classes; the only thing that had changed were “the means by which that amelioration was to be effected”.

Southey’s position has been characterised as the logical extension of Edmund Burke’s – the conservative philosopher who has since been described as the “patron saint of the big society”, which included “small platoons of family and civil society, not the state”, very much in keeping with Cameron’s mood music. But the political comparisons don’t go far further.

For Southey society, then just becoming used to changes inherent to the industrial revolution, was at risk of becoming too bent on wealth rather than moral wellbeing. To him the concentration and amassing of vast sums of material affluence would generate only more misery, not less; indeed along with Coleridge, he castigated those “miserable politicians who mistake wealth for welfare in their estimate of national prosperity”.

Furthermore, talking about the wealth that flowed through Birmingham in 1807, he pointed out (beating Marx to a description of commodity fetishism) that he was not:

“…insensible to the wonders of the place:- in no other age or country was there ever so astonishing a display of human ingenuity: but watch-chains, necklaces, and bracelets, buttons, buckles, and snuff-boxes, are dearly purchased at the expense of health and morals.”

Seeing first-hand the changes that were taking place around him, he commented that the manufacturing system was characterised by extracting wealth from the labour of the working classes, and that the physical health of the masses were being eroded as a foundation, not a by-product, of manufacturing production.

In sentiments that are more often found among the far left today than Tories, Southey felt that as capitalist society accumulates more wealth, so the labour force is further degraded.

Of the working classes at the time, Southey wrote:

“…they die of diseases induced by unremitting task work, by confinement in the impure atmosphere of crowded rooms, by particles of metallic and vegetable dust which they are continually inhaling; or they live to grow up without decency, without comfort, and without hope, without morals, without religion, and without shame, and bring forth slaves like themselves to tread the same path of misery.”

We surely can detect in here a Victorian paternalism – to which Southey was no stranger – but his point of blame here were the conditions pursued by the capitalist class which traded a moral society for mere careless riches.

Perhaps what clearly marked Southey away from Burke’s thinking was his appreciation of the role of the state. His Conservative critics described this as a hangover from Southey’s previous Jacobinism, but he would insist himself that it was very much from a Tory vision he noted the state as the principal agency of improvement.

For him the state could redistribute wealth through taxation, educate its citizens and tame the capitalist system from degrading profit accumulation to effective moral harmony.

What clearly sticks out in Southey’s thought is what else the state should be obliged to do in everyday life. He strongly felt it should root out subversive politics and commit to mass censorship – an obvious harking back to French revolutionary terror. But at the heart of Southey’s conservative politics was compassion, consideration of equality of opportunity of all citizens, and protection away from the selfish ill that is inherent to a system based and rewarded on accumulation and consumption for its own sake.

To suggest David Cameron still occupies a position in this tradition of political thinkers and practitioners is to entirely misread the history of Toryism, or to misunderstand Cameron as anything other than an ideologically reckless prime minister.

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