Tories would do well to read those deleted speeches

Published in The Guardian (November 15th, 2013)

Lynton Crosby, the hard-nosed Australian strategist being paid £500,ooo to ensure the Conservatives win the next election, has a phrase regularly heard in Downing Street. He tells the Tory team to ‘Get the barnacles off the boat’, by which he means they should remove any encumbrances that cling to the party and detract from its core themes.

Now they appear to have removed a very big barnacle: a decade of speeches, videos and press releases from their own party website. Insiders claim there is nothing sinister in this, saying it is just an attempt to turn the site into a campaigning tool, filling it with current campaign messages rather than clusters of old speeches. But the use of sophisticated software to ensure search engines do not stumble on these archives slightly undermines the claim.

Few people outside Westminster will shed many tears over no longer being able to access Michael Gove’s old speeches or Philip Hammond’s press releases from the first 10 years of this century. But it is embarrassing for a party that has trumpeted the need for transparency to delete speeches in which the prime minister spoke passionately of politicians needing to release their grip on information they guarded so jealously – even if Labour has done similar.

It also hands Labour a gift, offering it some easy shots about how the Tories are trying to cover up their tracks over promises made in opposition that have not been kept in power. Yet most importantly, the erasing of these records provides a chance to pause and reflect on something more profound: namely, the way that for a brief period in opposition a youthful new leader on the right tried to remould Conservatism for the digital age.

Detractors love to portray David Cameron as little more than a public relations man. When I first met him – and later when offering advice on policies – what struck me was how comfortable he was in modern Britain, with none of the anachronistic hangups over gender, race and sexuality shared by many Tories at the time. Behind those images of hoodies and huskies designed to grab media attention was a genuine attempt to redefine Conservatism and reach out across tribal divisions.

So it is a shame to hide speeches grappling with interesting concepts, especially for a politician on the right. The modernisation project was knocked off course by the financial meltdown, but many of the ideas are more pertinent now than the tired, traditional themes of bashing burglars, slashing taxes and sending immigrants home that emanate from the party today. Think instead of those opposition attacks on vested interests in both private and public sectors, the drive to rebuild communities, the desire to tackle climate change, the focus on national wellbeing as much as economic growth, the fears over state control.

These ideas were stereotyped by critics as a swipe of surface polish, a few unexpected faces and a shiny new list of candidates – something, incidentally, starting to pay dividends today with some of the cabinet hopefuls. Thoughtful speeches on rehabilitating recidivists who wreck communities were reduced to jokes about hugging hoodies, while attempts to debate rising levels of depression, inadequate care and family breakdown were mocked as an Old Etonian’s airy-fairy talk of happiness.

But in place of fearful, stuffy and top-down Conservatism briefly flickered something far bolder. It was an optimistic and transformative agenda, centred on ideas of reducing state power, reviving social capital and making communities more cohesive, in keeping with the technological revolution of our time. At its core lay the idea private behemoths needed containment but that the public sector failed the most needy in society, however comfortable the padding it provided for the middle classes and its staff. These are, of course, things we still see in Britain.

The embryonic philosophy – boosted by the charisma and freshness of their chief salesman – briefly united most of the party, finding a common ground shared by the likes of Iain Duncan Smith on the right and Nick Boles on the left. It also reached outside the party: highlighting the lack of responsibility of powerful interests was attractive to the left, while raising individuals’ lack of responsibility was to the right. And it proved attractive to the electorate, especially younger and female voters, who have since deserted the party in droves.

Behind the scenes, this political creativity brought together people from the traditional right alongside defectors from Labour and the Lib Dems. Nothing was off limits, from talk of renaming the party to discussion on decriminalising drugs. Among the Labour figures most intrigued by these ideas were some people who are now key players under Ed Miliband. Meanwhile those Tory advisers who went into Whitehall turned out to be the real reformers and inheritors of the Thatcherite mantle. Sadly most have now left, driven out by civil service caution and political stasis.

Economic imperatives collided with political reality to throw the Conservatives off this course. Yet it is worth recalling how far the party had to climb to get back into power, and how its stumble in the polls was caused not by the “big society”, as conventional wisdom now claims, but by necessary talk of austerity after Labour’s ludicrously spendthrift years in office.

Perhaps the tragic truth is that political parties tend towards bravery in opposition and caution driven by compromise in government. One former aide suggested the rise, fall and rise again of Chris Grayling symbolised the party’s recent evolution, with a man demoted for homophobic comments now playing such a prominent role with tough talk on criminals. Yet some significant vestiges of the modernisation project remain intact, from the nudge unit to the schools agenda, from probation reforms to the championing of patient power.

Instead of denying the past and deleting those old speeches and press releases, Tory strategists would do far better to read them again. Then they could reflect on how to reinvigorate their party with a fresh sense of purpose more suited to the realities of the modern world.

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