Boris Johnson Must Learn Lessons from the Ideological Failure of Cameronism

Guest post by Dr Jack Newman: Research Fellow, Department of Sociology

This blog post summarises the argument of a new paper: Newman, J. and Hayton, R. 2021. ‘The ontological failure of David Cameron’s ‘modernisation’ of the Conservative Party’. British Politics.

When the twin crises of Brexit and COVID eventually begin to subside in the UK, the Conservative Party will find itself wrestling with difficult dilemmas about its domestic policy agenda. It is likely to face major questions, both internally and externally, about its core values and policy priorities, as it tries to outline its programme for government in the remaining 3-4 years until the next general election.

Since losing power dramatically in 1997, the Conservative Party has repeatedly failed to offer a substantive domestic policy agenda. Under Hague, Duncan Smith, and Howard, the party struggled with the legacy of Thatcherite economics and social conservatism, losing heavily in three successive general elections. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, under May and now Johnson, the party’s domestic policy agenda has been drowned out by the twin crises of Brexit and COVID. In 21st Century Britain, only the Cameron administration has had the space to develop a substantive Conservative policy agenda. It is therefore, essential that the current government learns the lessons from the Cameron era.

When he became leader of the opposition in 2005, Cameron sought to ‘modernise’ the Conservative Party. This entailed moving away from the legacy of Thatcherism by committing to ‘high quality public services’, embracing social liberalism and social justice, and downplaying the ‘Europe issue’. By the time of Cameron’s resignation in 2016, the modernisation agenda had been blown off course, leaving the Conservative Party split over social liberalism, split over Thatcherite economics, and split over Europe.

Many of the lessons to be learnt are either self-apparent, such as the perils of referendum gambles, or they have been extensively analysed, as with the impact of austerity economics. However, an equally important lesson is lurking within Cameron’s attempted modernisation of the Conservative Party. This lesson relates to fundamental tensions in the government’s assumptions about social change. In short, patching together different political traditions for electoral convenience is likely to create an incoherent theory of change, which can undermine the formation of a coherent and lasting ideological legacy.

Increasingly, policymakers are reflecting on their assumptions about social change and will often include an explicit section in policy documents outlining their ‘theory of change’. However, these reflections are often brief, uncritical, and tend only to relate to particular policy mechanisms rather than wider political agendas. In academia, on the other hand, philosophers and social scientists have explored theories of social change at great length and in great depth. Our research engaged with three particular issues from these academic debates. We then analysed a range of government policy documents from the Cameron era in order to uncover the assumptions made about those three issues.

  1. The first issue relates to the existence of human agency, the existence of social structure, and the relation between them.
  2. The second relates to the distinction and relation between the material aspects of society (e.g. environment, economy, distribution of resources) and the cultural aspects of society (e.g. beliefs, language, knowledge).
  3. The third issue relates to our central question about social change, specifically the way in which change and stability are the product of structural and/or agential factors, and the product of material and/or cultural factors.

In applying this framework, we focused on the two central elements of Cameronite conservatism that sought to breach the limits of the Thatcherite ideological inheritance. Firstly, we considered the ‘Big Society’, which sought to triangulate between Thatcherite individualism and state-centred approaches to politics by appealing to voluntarism and charity work to deliver public services. Secondly, we examined the ’social justice agenda’, the party’s approach to poverty and unemployment, which similarly appeared to break with Thatcherism by embracing the notions of social justice and relative poverty.

In relation to both of these central planks of Cameron’s modernisation, we found fundamental contradictions on each of the three issues in our framework.

  1. Agency and structure

We found a contradiction between the assumption that society is made up of morally responsible agents and the assumption that the state must reorganise society so that people become morally responsible agents. The difficulty of implementing the latter pushed the government back towards the former, and therefore to inaction. This can be seen in the retreat of the Big Society project, which would only work if ‘every adult played their part’. At the same time, the government argued that because ‘the social fabric of communities was being stripped away’, people now lacked moral responsibility. By positing this moral breakdown, the Conservatives set themselves an almost impossible policy challenge, and simultaneously undermined the premise on which the Big Society was based. The resultant inaction on this issue contributed to the failure of the modernisation project.

  • Material and cultural

We found a contradiction between the assumption that people act according to financial incentives and the assumption that people act according to values. The immense policy challenge of implementing a mass change in values was considered in the early days of Cameron’s leadership; for example, the party considered policies that taught children about charitable giving. It was also attempted to some extent when the Conservatives came to office, with the National Citizens Service attempting to instil community values among young adults. However, for the most part, the government steadily moved towards policy solutions focused on financial incentives. This represented a retreat away from modernisation and back to Thatcherite ideology.

  • Stability and change

We found a contradiction between the assumption that social change is organically evolutionary and the assumption that social change will occur according to the government’s radical programme of reform. Both the Big Society and the social justice agenda sought to create radical changes in social organisation and individual behaviour by reforming systems of public service delivery. However, at the same time, both were developed from assumptions about organic change over multiple generations. Ultimately, government policy solutions tended to ascribe to a theory of change that was either agency-driven or structural, and either material or cultural, rather than attempting to develop a more nuanced understanding that combines these factors.

Our analysis shows that the key policy agendas of the Cameron modernisation project were underpinned by contradictory and shifting assumptions about the nature and causes of social change. These contributed to the failure of the modernisation project. The lesson to be learnt here is that combining different political traditions is not just about rhetoric – it requires deeper theoretical work to address contradictory assumptions about the nature and causes of social change. If Boris Johnson is to hold together his disparate electoral coalition by appealing to a mixed political ideology, as indicated by his ‘levelling up agenda’, he must look to his underlying theory of change. Otherwise, he may well fail to create a lasting legacy, and fail to implement coherent policy solutions.