Hillary and Dave: separated at re-birth?

by Stephen Tall on August 5, 2007

Andrew Sullivan draws some interesting parallels, in today’s Sunday Times, between the dilemmas facing US Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton, and Tory leader David Cameron:

Cameron has a Hillary problem. Hillary Clinton learnt the hard way what it is to be a Democrat in a Republican era, just as Cameron has had to learn how to be a Tory in a new Labour era. Every time you open your mouth, you fear your opponents will corner you into the old liberal or Tory stereotype.

So you play relentlessly against type, and hedge yourself aggressively against critics, and aim for the golden centre ground where people will no longer even think of you as they once thought of your immediate predecessors.

Clinton is haunted by the spectre of Jimmy Carter, of liberalism, of the old left that became so stigmatised in the 1980s and was used to devastate the Clintons in the early 1990s. She still won’t call herself “liberal” in public.

Similarly, Cameron is haunted by Major and the “nasty party” and the Eurosceptic infighting and the stench of corruption of the last Tory government. He is haunted by the failures of post-Major Tory leaders to break free of this. And he is determined – rightly – to be different.

The problem with this strategy is that it makes you seem both afraid of your opponents (you suspect their ideology is more popular than yours) and more circumspect (you’re always trying to avoid a mistake that will reveal your true views). Voters can smell fear and they can smell pure positioning. Up against the humour-free grit of Brown, that’s fatal. In politics, “be not afraid” is good counsel.

All good stuff – and well worth reading in full here. However, I think Sullivan underestimates the conundrum facing Dave.

When Tony Blair won the Labour leadership, the left of the party was in tatters: their ideology had been routed at four elections, overwhelmingly so when they stood on an unabashedly socialist platform in 1983. The Labour left might not have liked where their leader was taking the party, but they acknowledged the remorseless logic Mr Blair was following.

It’s very different for Mr Cameron. His party’s right-wing is not a marginalised, demoralised force – rather it is the dominant strain of thinking at every level, from the membership, through the activists and into the Parliamentary ranks. Yes, they voted for Mr Cameron – but to be their winner, not their ideologue. The Tory right has an almost unnerving capacity for self-belief: they believe their ideas – anti-Europe, anti-immigration, ‘prison works’ – are the ideas of the people, and they will not let a pretender to the throne, the heir to Blair, subvert their mantra.

Mr Cameron may be a liberal Conservative, albeit one who helped craft the right-wing 2005 Tory manifesto. But his party most certainly isn’t: they are right-wing to the core. The Tories’ problem is not, pace Andrew Sullivan, that they lack ideology: it is that they appear destructively obsessive in their pursuit of an ideology which has been rejected three times by the electorate.

Britain is not the harsh, suspicious, parochial nation right-wing Tories appear to believe in. Britain is a liberal, tolerant, generous nation. Discuss.