As David Cameron finally delivers on his promise to recognise marriage in the tax system and announces yet more action on immigration and welfare, it seems like a good time to ask whether – despite the valiant efforts of commentators like Ian Birrell and Matthew d’Ancona and think tanks like Bright Blue – it’s all over for Tory modernisation.
To work out what has become of modernisation and to guess where it might be going, however, we first need to appreciate that it was always a contingent, ambivalent affair that was latched on to rather than actually led by Cameron and which presented a challenge to Conservative instincts that was always more limited and less head-on than some of its standard-bearers liked to imply.
The ambivalence was there even in its earliest and most easily recognised focus on cultural and social liberalism – the idea that the party should face up to the fact that society had changed in ways that could not be reversed and which, therefore, ought not to be railed against. On one hand, the party was urged to declare an end to its war on single parents. Yet on the other hand, it insisted that society was somehow “broken” and that many of its problems were rooted in poor parenting and family breakdown.
Arguably, however, Tory modernisation was at its most ambiguous – critics would say disingenuous – when it came to public services and public spending – and, indeed, the economy more generally. Insofar as it was a response for a coming to terms with the Britain that New Labour had helped to usher into being, modernisation was also a recognition that pledging ever-lower taxes and keeping the nation’s health, education and pension systems on shorter and shorter rations was no way to run the country – or to convince voters that the party knew how to run it in the way they wanted.
Given that it was in part the product of a more benign economic climate and that its advocates failed in opposition to fully persuade more than a minority of their party colleagues and supporters of its merits, it is hardly surprising that in government and in an age of austerity, modernisation seems to have stalled rather than snowballed.
But not everything that was solid – or at least halfway solid – about the project has melted into air. As if to provide proof of its centrality, parts of modernisation’s socially liberal agenda have been pursued to the last and to the letter. Legislating for gay marriage and sticking to the commitment to ring-fence overseas aid spending sent out a signal that Cameron and those around him retain at least some of the principles that gained the Tories’ “permission to be heard” by some, if not all, of the well-educated and well-heeled voters the party needs onside in order to win elections. The problem is they don’t make much sense to large numbers of Conservative MPs and grassroots members, or indeed to a fair few members of the general public.
It may be no coincidence, then, that the area in which Tory modernisation may end up achieving the most – albeit under the radar of voters – is not policy but process. Nor, perhaps, is it a coincidence that the man at the cutting edge of changing the way government goes about its business is Francis Maude – surely the modernisers’ moderniser. There is no guarantee, though, that the very inertia and vested interests that Maude hopes to overcome in Whitehall and beyond won’t end up doing for his plans. The same is true – in spades – for another Tory determined to tell it like it is, Nick Boles, whose supply-side reforms strike at the heart of small-C countryside conservatism.
In other important areas, the picture is decidedly mixed. Some of the Government’s policies on immigration and education are simply traditionalist measures that can claim little or no convincing connection with modernisation other than the fact the ministers introducing them – Theresa May and Michael Gove – were associated, at least in a previous life, with that cause. And even those which can make a claim to be truly modernising, such as speeding up things for firms wanting to recruit the ‘brightest and the best’ and introducing free schools, go comfortably and conveniently with, rather than against, the grain of traditional conservatism.
Whether or not individual government policies can be convincingly connected back to Tory modernisation, it is worth noting that their chances of making a real and lasting impact are unlikely to be overly affected by whether Cameron stays on as leader in the long term – primarily because he has always been more about selling than designing and driving them. Whether, then, modernisation would receive a new lease of life under another leader – be it a “ground-floor” moderniser like Gove or simply one of those who “got it” early on, like May – would be interesting to see.
It may be, of course, that “modernisation mk II”, like the Conservative party itself, is simply waiting for Boris. Even if the current Mayor of London ends up winning, however, his talent for being all things to all Tories means that anticipating what that win would mean for the party, let alone for modernisation, involves seeing through a glass very, very darkly indeed.
A full version of this article is published by IPPR in Juncture.