Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Puzzle of Cameronism

Matthew Lakin discusses 'the puzzle of Cameronism' in our latest research note.

The prospect of the British General Election of 2015, the most unpredictable and uncertain in a political generation, is an appropriate juncture at which to assess the so-called puzzle of Cameronism. In other words, what have been the formative features of the political thinking of Cameron’s Conservatisms?


The first problem, perhaps most troubling, refers to Cameron’s presentation of his politics as ‘practical’, ‘non-ideological’ and ‘pragmatic’. He is a politician, as are the other Cameronites (i.e. George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Nick Boles), who eschew ideological attachments. This, rather troublingly, as been taken as self-evident by both academics and journalists. Cameron has been painted and presented as the pragmatic and masterful statesman supremely equipped to respond to event as they arise.

This troubling falsehood places an impediment to approaching this so-called problem of the puzzle of Cameronism. It is reflected, inter alia, by Rafael Behr’s recent article in The Guardian, in which he argues that the ‘tragic’ Cameron premiership will leave no ‘ideological trace’, and will ultimately remain a futile project preoccupied with ‘power without purpose’.[1] Behr repeats the well-worn and facile canard that Cameron ‘abhors ‘isms’’.

The second problem refers to the vague notion that Cameronism, even if it is admitted in its most weak and feeble formulation, is less ideologically-dominant than Thatcherism and New Labour. Instead, it is purportedly accounted for by being a mere ‘cypher’[2] for the broader neoliberal project, a continuation of the triangulatory fudge of Blairism, or merely a ‘delusion’. This notion of Cameronism as ideologically derivative and/or delusory discounts the possibility that it does have an analysable, distinctive, authentic and meaningful political map and contribution to the ideo-political environment in which it inhabits.

Therefore, the lazy assumption that Cameronism is non-existent or ideologically-anemic causes academics/journalists to look elsewhere, and instead look to Cameronism merely in terms of statecraft, governance, elections, foreign affairs and party membership. Serious ideological analysis of Cameronism has been sadly moribund.

Ideologies needn’t be dominant or especially clear. Ideologies, according to Michael Freeden, need to be ‘typical’, ‘imaginative’, ‘creative’, ‘influential’ and ‘communicable’. On that criteria, Cameronism is equally as deserving as any other purported political phenomenon of ideological analysis, enquiry and scrutiny. In order to solve the puzzle of Cameronism, one must at least regard the puzzle as a puzzle worth solving.

Cameronism is rooted, like all ideologies, in what Freeden identifies and calls its ‘idea-environment’: the constraints on the content and objectives of an ideology imposed on it by context. Cameronism evinces three discreet, but nevertheless overlapping and adaptable, political commitments: (1) a steadfast and determined commitment to reducing the size and scope of the central state; (2) a recognition that neo-liberal economics is a necessary but insufficient precondition for the delivery of wider Conservative aims; and (3)  a rediscovery and commitment to the renewal of civil society as an alternative to state intervention in response to the perceived failures of neo-liberalism.

The first strand of Cameronism, and the first strand in other post-Thatcher Conservatisms, is a commitment to ‘rolling back the state’. Indeed, the commitment to further retrenchments and reductions, in the scope and size of the state, has been a consistent commitment of British Conservatisms from Mrs Thatcher to Cameron. Indeed Mark Garnett argued that Cameronism would be determined and shaped by the ‘problem of path dependency’’, insofar as Cameron inherited, when becoming Conservative Party leader in 2005, three decades of broadly anti-statist attitudes.[3] Cameronism’s anti-statism has been consistent. During the Blameronite consensus, circa 2005-2007, Cameronism looked Right to decentralisation, deregulation and the promotion of commercial competitiveness where Blairism looked Left to social investment and state activism. Cameronism’s anti-statism was presented with ever more elaborate and byzantine decoration, which included allusions to ‘social responsibility’ and ‘the post-bureaucratic age’. In the passage from Blairite prosperity to Cameronite austerity, anti-statism and state retrenchment were presented more clearly in the tropes of ‘living within our means’, the need to ditch ‘big government’ and the promotion of 1930s-levels of public expenditure as a proportion of GDP. For Ben Kisby, Cameronism believes ‘that the state is bad and almost anything else - the free market, charities, volunteers - is better’.[4]

The distinctiveness of Cameronism resides in its particular ‘ideological experimentation’: the particularistic meaning it invests in the combination of political concepts it promotes. The second feature of Cameronism refers to its attitudes towards neo-liberalism. Stuart McAnulla convincingly argued that ‘neoliberal economics’ is ‘necessary’ but ‘insufficient’ in the mission of regenerating civil society.[5] It is however a core decontestation of market-state-civil society relations in Cameronism. Proto-Cameronites like Oliver Letwin and David Willetts have lamented that British Conservatisms, and the Conservative Party in turn, had become too economistic.[6] There are four distinct and identifiable areas of Cameronism’s qualified neo-liberalism: (1) Cameronism’s pitch to ensconce a new and more ‘moral capitalism’; (2) a rhetorical, albeit shallow, commitment to downward income redistribution, social justice and wealth inequality; (3) a more inclusive and positive attitude to public services; and (4) the evolution of a light industrial strategy with an adjacent emphasis on ‘full employment’. Attitudes towards neoliberal economics has been the most misunderstood aspect of Cameronism. This is understandable insofar as the preponderance of Tory-driven austerity in the ideological practices of Cameronism has overcast the subtle points of the insufficiency argument.

Cameronism’s qualified neo-liberalism was a by-product of Conservatism’s discovery that ‘economics is not enough’ and a ‘vibrant market economy’ is merely a ‘precondition’ for the third strand of Cameronism: the renewal, interest in, and celebration of, civil society.[7] The conceptual commitment to civil society, for a time signified by the Big Society, is essential and distinctive because: (1) civil society and its renewal are conceptualised as a better response to the problem of the insufficiency of neo-liberalism than state intervention, and (2) civil society pervades Cameronism as an ideological free-standing concept alongside the market as a mirror-image to the state. The locus classicus of Cameronism captures this point: ‘there is such thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’. In this ostensible repudiation of Thatcherism’s ostensible rejection of society, Cameronism wanted to be defined by the ‘social revolution’ of creating the Big Society.

Cameronism is a recognisable and distinctive member of the Conservative family. The commitment to reducing the central state has, increasingly, predominated over its earlier attempts to qualify neo-liberalism and reinvigorate civil society. It is, like all ideologies, a changing, evolving, mutable and transient ideology. If the Conservatives form the government after 7 May 2015, expect more change. However, it will likely follow the pattern of anti-statism, supplementing neo-liberalism with non-statist remedies, and promoting the civic middle.

Matthew Lakin teaches history and politics at Whitgift School having gained his Dphil from Oxford working with Michael Freeden.


[1] R. Behr. 2015. ‘Power without purpose: the tragic rule of David Cameron’, The Guardian, 6 January.
[2] See R. Seymour. 2010. The Meaning of David Cameron. London: 0-Books.
[3] M. Garnett. 2010. ‘Built on Sand? Ideology and Conservative Modernization under David Cameron’, In British Party Politics and Ideology after New Labour, 117.
[4] B. Kisby. 2010. ‘The Big Society: Power to the People?’ Political Quarterly 81 (4): 485.
[5] S. McAnulla. 2012. ‘Liberal Conservatism: Ideological Coherence?’ In Cameron and the Conservatives: The Transition to Coalition Government, edited by T. Heppell and D. Seawright. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 167.
[6] D. Willetts. 1999. ‘Reviving Civic Conservatism’, In The Social Market and the State, edited by A. Kilmarnock. London: Social Market Foundation, 29; D. Willetts. 1998. ‘Conservative Renewal’, Political Quarterly 69 (2), 113; O. Letwin, ‘From economic revolution to social revolution’, In Is the Future Conservative? 73.
[7] D. G. Green. 1993. Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics. London: IEA, ix.

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