Thursday, 24 October 2013

John Major's "compassionate conservatism"

John Major is now the only living person to have led a Tory majority government (1990-1997). When he was selected to lead the Tory party in 1990 he was seen as a steady hand to lead the party through the difficult recovery period after the internal coup d'etat that ended the reign of Margaret Thatcher.

Perhaps you are old enough to remember some of the "innovations" that the John Major regime introduced such as "Black Wednesday", the hopelessly botched sell-off of British Rail, the decision to give the UK nuclear industry away for an absolute pittance, the privatisation of the UK nuclear deterrent, cash for questions, the propaganda campaign against single mothers and the Cones Hotline.

John Major was not a good Prime Minister by any stretch of the imagination, but it is probably fair to say that he was the least bad Tory Prime Minister since Harold MacMillan who served between 1957 and 1963. I conducted a pair of polls on the AAV Facebook page which confirmed that John Major was neither popular (right wing people have an unhealthy fixation with Thatcher and the majority of left-wing people went for Clement Attlee) nor particularly unpopular (people were split quite evenly between Thatcher and David Cameron as the worst PM since WWII), meaning that he ranked as very average indeed, which is probably fitting for a man that earned himself the nickname "the grey man of politics".

Even though his government introduced a number of catastrophically bad policies, he is quite clearly leagues above all of his successors as leader of the Tory party. William Hague became the first leader of the Tory party since the 19th Century to not serve as Prime Minister of the UK. His successor Iain Duncan Smith was so bad that the party removed him before he could even lead the party into a general election and his replacement Michael Howard was just as unelectable. The lack of talent within the Tory party led to the appalling situation that a transparently dishonest former PR man who had only been a Tory MP for a few years landed the top job. David Cameron was so desperately unconvincing that he failed to get a majority despite the fact that he was standing against an extremely unpopular Prime Minister, during the worst economic crisis in generations, and with the support of the vast majority of the corporate controlled mainstream media. This fourth successive failure to win a parliamentary majority meant that the Tories were forced into sharing power with the Liberal Democrats.

At first John Major was a vocal supporter of the Coalition Government, but as the years have gone on he has clearly come to realise that the current Tory leadership are a bunch of over-privileged and out-of-touch rich boys, who are driving the country towards economic ruin. He kept quiet about it out of loyalty to the party, but in October 2013 he reached breaking point as he saw Ed Miliband running rings around David Cameron on the issue of energy bills. Here's what he said:
"I do not regard it as acceptable that they [energy companies] have increased prices by this tremendous amount. Nor do I regard it as acceptable their explanation that they are investing for the future ...  [the UK] will probably have a very cold winter and it is not acceptable that many people are going to have choose between keeping warm and eating ... I suggest [George Osborne] imposes an emergency tax on the energy companies to claw back the money that we will have to give to people to see the winter in any form of warmth."
He didn't limit his criticism to the way David Cameron and George Osborne have refused to deal with the cost of energy crisis, he also laid into the Work and Pensions Secretary (and failed Tory party leader) Iain Duncan Smith, criticising his refusal to properly address any of the concerns of his critics and warning that "if he listens only to the bean-counters and to cheerleaders concerned only with abuse of the system, then he will fail."

He also made a long overdue apology to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster for having steadfastly refused to conduct an inquiry during his time as Prime Minister.

The former Prime Minister also spoke of the "silent have-nots" and "lace curtain poverty".
"Low interest rates are unavoidable, essential for economic recovery, but they crucify the prudent long term saver. For many elderly people now in retirement the financial crisis has destroyed security of mind as well as the value of savings ... There are too many people falling behind through no fault of their own ... They are not high fliers, not financially secure. They are the dignified poor or near poor and to the shame of politicians - and I include myself in this - there are still millions and millions of them."
I believe that these divergences from the position of the current Tory leadership are inspired by pragmatism and loyalty to the long-term interests of the Tory party. He can see that a bunch of out-of-touch and over-privileged millionaires dogmatically pursuing an ideological agenda to the detriment of countless millions of people (voters) is going to severely damage the long-term prospects of the party. By actively helping the rich to get richer (Millionaires tax cut, corporation tax cuts, below market value privatisations, dodgy outsourcing contracts to Tory party donors ...), whilst inflicting severe economic pain on millions of poor and ordinary people ( Wage repression, the VAT hike, "Bedroom Tax", Atos WCA regime, slashed in-work benefits ...) is terrible for the long-term prospects of the party he led for seven years.

Another telling point is the way that John Major described Ed Miliband's energy price freeze policy:

"Ed Miliband's heart was in the right place but his head has gone walkabout ...but he did touch on an issue that's very important. The private sector is something the Conservative party support but when the private sector goes wrong or behaves badly I think it is entirely right to make changes and put it right."
Firstly, I have to say that the accusation of the "heart being in the right place, but the policy suggestion being nonsense" is even more applicable to John Major's one-off energy windfall tax idea. The reason being, it is a short-term fix for a long-term problem. If the profits of the energy companies are recouped this year to help the millions of people living in fuel poverty, this will only delay the pain, because next year prices will still be sky high, and in fact, it is likely that the energy companies will further hike their prices to recoup their "lost" profits from the windfall tax. John Major is essentially saying "we can't let them freeze and die (until next winter)".

Secondly, both Ed Miliband and John Major are motivated by legitimate concerns over fuel poverty, but their solutions are both inadequate. The real, obvious long-term solution is a large-scale renationalisation of the energy sector, but since that conflicts with the neoliberal economic orthodoxy, and the competition laws of the neoliberalism riddled European Union, nobody apart from the Green Party and a few unelectable fringe left-wing elements are even going to dare suggest it.

Thirdly, the assertion that "Ed Miliband's heart is in the right place" contrasts very sharply with the vile Lynton Crosby inspired bullshit that David Cameron spouts. John Major is from the old school where civilised debate and a measure of respect for your adversaries were essential elements of doing politics. David Cameron has a different view, he believes the British public love to see childish mud slinging, at-the-man attacks, abusive language, outright lies and fact-free rhetoric from their political leaders. Hence his decision to lie about Britian having been declared "bankrupt" one week and then make the absurdly hypocritcal accusation that Ed Miliband is a "conman" the next.

John Major is an old-school politician, with an old-school idea. He understands that a political agenda, administered by multi-millionaires, that drives countless millions of poor and ordinary people into greater poverty is likely to severely damage the Conservative party. He would prefer to see a more pragmatic and less ideologically zealous strategy; a form of "compassionate conservatism", where the Tories still overtly favour capitalist interests (as is their way), but will intervene when market forces push millions of people (voters) into greater poverty. It's still conservatism, but with a pragmatic pinch of social justice.

The other thing John Major is arguing for is a return to civilised and respectful debate and political balance. He clearly despises the playground politics of the current era, and hankers after the days when politicians called each other "honourable gentleman" rather than "conman".

The problem for the former Prime Minister is that neither of these objectives are remotely possible. With a clueless ideological zealot like George Osborne (who barely understands the neoclassical economic theories he ceaselessly promotes) in charge of both the Tory party policy and national economic policy, and a cabinet that is stuffed full of compensatory narcissists like Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove (people who have a siege mentality towards the slightest hint of criticism), the idea of "Conservatism with a pragmatic pinch of social justice" is an impossible pipe dream.

When it comes to grown-up and civilised politics, that also is never going to happen when the Prime Minister, and leader of the Tory party is taking strategic advice from a gutter dweller like Lynton Crosby.

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