Turning Right, Talking Left: David Cameron’s ‘Four Nations’ Conference Speech and the Ghosts of Tory Leaders Past

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Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

Cross-posted from Four Nations History blog

In a special post, the University of Exeter’s Professor Richard Toye reacts to David Cameron’s speech to the 2014 Conservative party conference and reflects on the Prime Minister’s vision of the United Kingdom. 

David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference started with a line that will make it of direct interest to the readers of this blog:

‘I am so proud to stand here today as Prime Minister of four nations in one United Kingdom.’

Confessing that the Scottish referendum had given him sleepless nights, Cameron boasted that the British people have now been confirmed as ‘one people in one union’. The explicit Unionist message naturally places him in a long Conservative tradition. And whereas much of the instant reaction focussed on the promise of tax cuts, reading the full speech leads to interesting reflections on the extent to which today’s Conservative Party follows in the rhetorical footsteps of its past leaders.

In a seminal article on class politics in the 1920s, David Jarvis argues that the Conservatives, who had been extremely worried about the implications of the mass enfranchisement that took place at the end of World War I, increasingly developed a world-view that recognised the heterogeneity of the working classes. This, he argues, was the key to their electoral success, which the advent of full democracy might have seemed likely to frustrate. As Jarvis puts is: ‘the Conservatives articulated a more sophisticated, diffuse language of class in their proselytizing literature: a language that acknowledged the diversity of its new audience and the existence of specific interest groups.’ Rather than treat the workers as a single mass, the party crafted distinct appeals ‘to working-class savers, shoppers, tax-payers and property-owners’.[1]

One passage in Cameron’s speech was particularly reminiscent of this approach. (The emphases are mine.)

If you want to provide for yourself and your family, you’ll have the security of a job…

…but only if we stick to our long-term economic plan.

If you work hard, we will cut your taxes…

…but only if we keep on cutting the deficit, so we can afford to do that.

For those wanting to buy a home, yes – we will help you get on that housing ladder…

…but only if we take on the vested interests, and build more homes – however hard that is.

We will make sure your children get a great education; the best education…

…but only if we keep taking on everyone who gets in the way of high standards.

For those retiring, we will make sure you get a decent pension; and real rewards for a life of work…

I was also struck by Cameron’s willingness to balance his tough right-wing line on immigration, the economy and human rights with a willingness to use more progressive sounding language on social policy. There was nothing much new in his pledge to protect the NHS, but his willingness to make an explicit promise to reach ‘full employment’ seemed to take us back to the era of the so-called ‘post-war consensus’ that dominated the decades after 1945. (Well, historians debate whether there really was such a consensus, but that is another story.)[2] Cameron’s pledge to build 100,000 new houses (‘and they’ll be twenty percent cheaper than normal’) was definitely reminiscent of – although much less ambitious than – the 1950 Tory Party conference promise to build 300,000 homes a year.

But perhaps more significant than anything else was this passage, in which Cameron double-down on his immediate post-referendum commitment to solve the west Lothian question:

here’s my vow to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I know the system is unfair.

I know that you are asking: if Scotland can vote separately on things like tax, spending and welfare….

….why can’t England, Wales and Northern Ireland do the same?

I know you want this answered.

So this is my vow: English votes for English laws – the Conservatives will deliver it.

Ironically, this is highly similar, not  to past Tory rhetoric, but to the pre-1914 idea of ‘Home Rule All Round’, which some moderate Liberal politicians hoped would take the political sting out of devolution for Ireland, which at the time was highly contentious. So if Cameron’s reiteration of Unionism is in itself unsurprising, it seems that the Union he envisages is something radically different from that supported by his predecessors a century ago.

[1] David Jarvis, ‘British Conservatism and Class Politics in the 1920s’, English Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 440 (Feb., 1996), pp. 59-84

[2] Richard Toye, ‘From “Consensus” to “Common Ground”: The rhetoric of the post-war settlement and its collapse’, Journal of Contemporary History, pp. 3-23.

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