Heaven knows, I really did try to write about Conservative Party Conference last week, back when it was topical. On Monday, though, I ended up doing a lot of dusting, particularly those disregarded places just under the hinges of doors, and the bits of banisters that no normally-configured human being ever actually sees. On Tuesday I bought some boots, learned a little more about medieval Islamic manuscript illumination and picked up the dry cleaning. On Wednesday, I think, it rained a lot. On Thursday I made the mistake of reading the Guardian. And by the time I bounced back on Friday, the week was nearly over. Lucky escape, eh?
Well, not quite, if only because there clearly was something more than the usual combination of laziness, disorganisation and first-class distractions nudging me away from the public contemplation of Cameron’s Conservatives poised on the threshold of government, and I remain puzzled, up to a point, as to why exactly that was so.
Laziness was, inevitably, part of the problem. That comes with the territory here. Yet the strand of laziness in question was, in this case, a specifically Cameroonish one — the fruit of boredom, sired by indifference out of long-congealed dislike. Put bluntly, I only find being Conservative truly difficult when I have to think about Dave, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Chris Grayling, Theresa May, the words ‘compassionate’, ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’, that stupid tree logo, the continuing existence of Policy Exchange, people who ‘get it’ or ‘care’ or wish to ‘seal the deal’, prohibitions on hunting or drinking champagne or indeed smiling in an incontinent manner. The rest of the time, though, it’s really easy. For that reason, anyway, it seemed sensible to avoid the television, radio and internet as much as possible last week. The benefits regarding those dust-free under-door areas are, while spectacular in their own way, as nothing next to the wear and tear I’ve spared what’s left of my political equilibrium. Admittedly, I may thus have missed some of the finer detail of what went on in Manchester. The phrase ‘rational ignorance’ springs all unbidden to mind.
Now, it’s famously true that Conference is, like much of what happens on television, much less fun for those forced to watch than it is for the participants, producers and miscellaneous hangers-on. So probably my desire to avoid thinking about the wretched thing was also tinged just a little bit green with envy — admittedly, a slightly bilious shade of the palest eau de nil, but discernable for all that. For even in its present, de-natured, neutered incarnation, Conference presumably retains what was, in any event, always its major charm — which is to say, the opportunity to luxuriate, however equivocally, in an environment where being Conservative is, at least, normal. It’s an environment where, no matter how loudly one curses the leadership, denounces the policies and spews venom at most of those present, one does so cushioned by the understanding that we’re all, in some abstract sense, on the same side. Tribalism may be unbecoming — the intellectual equivalent of going out in tracksuit bottoms and Ugg boots — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also very comfortable, at least every now and then.
Yet for all that, Conference looked, at least from a distance, a spectacularly gloomy affair this year. Of course I can understand why the party hierarchy wished to avoid all charges of triumphalism. Yet need the mood have been quite so bleak, so joyless, like North Korea but without the exciting parades of only slightly antique armaments? This was, after all, the Conference that cheered to the rafters a £65 grey high street dress, cuts proposed not in the spirit of righteous Thatcherite zeal but cautiously and half-apologetically, the re-introduction of Iain Duncan Smith into the heart of public affairs. One after another, front benchers were dragged out in front of the conference hall by journalists, to proclaim the qualities of the Leader, all without cracking a smile, so that one watched, mesmerised, struggling vainly to recall what T-O-R-T-U-R-E looks like when blinked in Morse code.
The fact that most fringe meetings seemed to take place within something called the Freedom Zone failed to reassure. Dave looked tired — if actual power ages him nearly as badly as the anticipation of power seems to have done, he’ll be unrecognisably decrepit by the end of his first hundred days. In the end, perhaps the only truly cheering note was struck with the ‘Modern Conservatives’ rebranding, the retro-charm of that ‘modern’ conjuring up, at surely it must do, nostalgic visions of Harold Macmillan telling us ‘you’ve never had it so good’, Old Etonian Tory paternalism and all sorts of chrome-and-Bakelite consumer durables, the sort of redundant yet comforting mod cons which now cost far too much when one can even find them, these, days, at little shops in Camden Lock or Islington’s Upper Street.
The sombre mood has, as implied above, been attributed, more or less universally, to a general desire on the part of party managers to avoid a Sheffield Rally moment. Well, all right (as it were) — perhaps so. But watching the thing on television, I couldn’t help but wonder whether something slightly more complicated was at fault. In short, isn’t it possible that at least some of those present feel, as indeed I do myself, more than a degree of ambivalence regarding the imminent triumph of the Conservative party?
My more regular and attentive readers will, perhaps, have intuited by now a measure of scepticism on my part — ‘loathing’, ‘revulsion’ and ‘ineradicable antipathy’ might also be relevant here — regarding the whole Cameroon project. Personally, I like my Conservative party politics, well, conservative, if not downright reactionary, although this often leads me into what some might consider unsettlingly libertarian directions. I would, for instance, prefer to leave ‘compassion’ to individuals, rather than letting the state steal their money in order to spend it on sloppy experiments in public choice theory, just as I don’t believe immigration needs to be ‘limited’, state provision of medical care and education ‘defended’, banks nationalised, or badly-thought-out military commitments left at once over-ambitious and heartbreakingly open-ended. Dave’s obsession with whoring after the votes of Guardian readers disgusts me, as does his apparent contempt for the sensibilities of everyone outside the tiny clique surrounding him. The point, here, however, reposes not in my own doubts about Dave — who cares? — but, rather, the suspicion that at least a few of those doubts are shared more widely amongst Conservative party activists. Of course we all want to see the defeat of Labour next spring. But do we want to see Dave’s victory? The two questions, after all, are not identical, the answer to the first more readily apparent than the second.
Of course when the election comes, I’ll vote Conservative. I pretty much always do. And there are moments when, in all honesty, the prospect of Conservative government appears to me an altogether desirable outcome. Unless something very odd happens, the next parliament ought to include individual Conservative politicians — not all of them seated on the back benches, either — whom I know, respect and trust. For all the dud policy announcements, there are moments — not enough of them, but still, at least a few — when Conservative policies seem both distinct from Labour ones, and at the same time, preferable to them. There’s something genuinely pleasing, and not a little moving, about the sight of my nicer Conservative friends — the sort of people who really do spend their Saturdays dropping leaflets through letter-boxes on rough-looking council estates, who can find it in their hearts to be generous about Osborne, affectionate towards Sam and indulgent regarding the wit of Eric Pickles — as they contemplate the months ahead.
Last but not least, of course, there’s the cheap pleasure to had from upsetting the Left, the lingering pleasure gained from perusing hysterical nonsense like this, the fleeting moments in which I am irresponsible enough to share their paranoid suspicion — to me, of course, blissful fantasy of the most self-indulgent variety — that Dave is, in fact, some sort of terrible ravening wild-eyed Thatcherite in sub-Blairite clothing, liable to turn all right-wing and, well, nasty the minute he’s slipped those irksome traces of short-term electoral expediency. Of course, the Left are almost certainly as hopelessly wrong in this analysis as they are about everything else. Still, a girl can dream, can’t she?
Let us, though, however thankless we may find the exercise, consider the Left for just a moment longer. For all their protestations otherwise — the nannyish disapproval of Hutton, the rather attractive last-ditch Ultra-grade obliviousness of Campbell, whatever it is that the old Left is currently thinking — they, too, surely await the Conservatives’ probable victory with more than a little ambivalence all their own.
There’s a lot to be said for being in opposition. Governing is hard — criticising is not only easier, but in lots of ways, far more fun. Labour supporters of my generation must have found it jarring, over the past decade, to inhabit a political environment in which right-thinking, broadly apolitical, mainstream protest — which is to say, against quasi-imperialist wars, the failures of our public services, assaults on time-hallowed civil liberties — are directed, not at the evil Tories, but rather at Labour governments, doing Labour-type things, backed up with Labour-type rhetoric. What a relief, then, when the passage of time licences the phrase ‘since 2010’ to become all that ‘since 1979’ once was, obliterating (at least the Left might hope) the coruscating embarrassment of ‘since 1997′ — what a relief to have the power of critique without the burden of responsibility, the traditional prerogative of the opposition benches. Then there’s also the fun of selecting a new party leader, forming new cabals, in-fighting with stakes low enough to allow for some very lively play indeed.
And on top of all that, there’s the fun of admiring the Tories’ predicament. Landed with the most colossal economic mess, played out amongst the snake-infested ruins of a half-demolished constitutional settlement under conditions of foreign policy servitude almost too distressing to contemplate, what is Dave to do? To what must surely be an unprecedented degree within living memory, Dave will stand at the head of a parliamentary party not only unused to basic party discipline or legislative procedure — but also held in low esteem, despised for their supposed venality, distrusted by their own leadership, in many cases disconnected by the logic of the ‘open primary’ system from their own local associations, uncertain in the nuances of their political beliefs, heterogenous in their conservatism — ambitious now, but possibly truculent when frustrated. The steady old hands have gone to spend more time with their moats, contemplating the frailty of political loyalty. Instead, Dave has landed himself with a crop of untried, disorganised novices, united mostly by their desire for power — power, though, to what end?
The question will, I suppose, answer itself naturally enough over the next few years. Some will, doubtless, find it rather more entertaining viewing than others — after all, not everyone enjoys black comedies, improbable disaster films or even those natural history documentaries in which photogenic wild animals take chunks out of each other in a strangely depopulated version of Africa while, back here in Britain, a soothing voice contextualises the carnage. Meanwhile, I shall struggle with the ambivalence which, of all these, worries me most. There are moments at which my contempt for David Cameron and all that he represents — the Blue Labour equivocations, the ‘progressive’ impulses and his own powerful Big State inclinations — starts to look worrying like a truly contemptible desire to stand always on the sidelines, permanently superior, blithely untroubled by practicalities or contingencies or the need for occasional dirty compromises, unable to support any actual real-world party — waiting, in other words, for perfection in an imperfect world. Leave aside, for a moment, the easy point that such a stance is, with whatever degree of cleverness one parses it, cowardice, pure and simple. More to the point, what could be less Tory? No, in a few months I shall have to learn, if not precisely to love our Dave, then at least to recognise him as the leader of a party to which I shall continue, as I have done for two decades now, to vouchsafe some sort of genuine, if often critical support. No wonder I couldn’t bear to see the television more than half a dozen times across the course of last week.
Yet the one point on which ambivalence is, however, surely no longer possible, is that a general election really cannot come to soon. Whatever the metaphors one decided to adduce — gangrene and amputation are uncontroversial selections — there’s something unendurably airless about the current political mood. Between New Labour’s long drawn out self-destruction and the Modern Conservatives’ boring safety-first doctrine, the apparently endless expenses scandal and the media attention lavished on the most tiresome of fringe groups, critiques of the Afghan intervention providing sensible answers to totally misjudged questions, panicked fire-sales of public assets, public-sector strikes, the ongoing collapse of sterling and by far the worst Turner Prize short-list in years — well, almost anything would be better than this. Let us end this now, all of it — whether we do so in order to start to incant our plangent dirges over the New Labour dream, or to try to balance some intricate construction of hope and aspiration on the slim outlines of the Modern Conservatives’ message — or, perhaps, simply to pick away at our own ambivalences in a slightly more stimulating enviroment. Personally, I’d settle for rather less dusting under doors, and a little more scope for positive political engagement.