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Some nine years after he took leadership of the Conservatives, there is still a quiet debate about what the meaning of David Cameron is. It’s a question, in fact, that goes to the heart of what the Conservative party is; indeed it raises some very important questions about what conservatism is.

It was Cardinal John Henry Newman, the foremost English religious figure of the nineteenth century, who refused to accept that conservatism was predicated upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. Instead, if you leave something alone you leave it open to an uncontrolled torrent of change. It could be argued that Conservative modernisation under Cameron was a means to control the change in the party’s direction, rather than letting it be swept up with the zeitgeist left by the previous Labour government.

Indeed Cameron said as much himself in 2006. In a speech that year to the think tank Demos on what modern Conservatism is he pointed out that once the socialism of old Labour was defeated it left the Conservative party with an identity crisis. What would have been so easy for the Conservative party to do, at that time, was simply reflect back the thoughts and opinions of the centre ground. Instead Cameron embarked on a deep and challenging restructure of his party’s philosophy.

Tory traditionalists felt unnerved by this. Was it wise, critics could be heard saying, that Cameron put to one side the party’s more popular doorstep policies in order to convert “Guardian readers” on issues like climate change and civil liberties?

However this enquiry rather misses the point, and supposes that Cameron was simply trying to woo another set of voters. After all, if it were just about winning votes then taxation, immigration, and Europe would have been safer ground for Cameroonism. It’s quite clear his change in direction was far more ambitious. Take for example sexual equality. It has perhaps gone unnoticed that by the time Cameron was leader of his party most of New Labour’s legislative programme for sexual equality was complete, so Cameron in theory could have appeased his backbenchers and argued that the Conservatives simply have to accept this as a new reality. But he didn’t do this.

Whatever you think of Cameron’s movement towards modernisation, it is difficult not to accept that his primary motive was to develop a principled identity irrespective of the zeitgeist; to defeat “skinhead conservatism” and the “tabloidification” of the Conservatives, not because he had to, but because it was right.

Another reality, however, is that it has failed. Membership has halved under Cameron’s tutelage. The UK Independence Party, a thorn in the side of the Conservatives, are may win the largest share of the vote in the European Parliament elections in May. The political downside of not reflecting back the opinions of your largest voting bloc in the UK is that sometimes you will have to challenge dominant opinion; and sometimes you will lose.

For me however, the biggest loss of Cameron’s was failing to pursue a different kind of economy. It was GK Chesterton who once critiqued modern capitalism as being less a nation of shopkeepers, but rather one particular shop. It so happens that in the week Chancellor George Osborne delivered his budget it was found by Oxfam that the UK’s richest five families own more than the nation’s poorest 12 million.

An economy based on a more equitable share of property, or an ownership state, has been lost. Back in late 2013, it was with almost certain delight that Jon Ashworth MP wrote in the Telegraph asking Cameron to admit it, “Your modernisation project is dead and buried”. While as a Labour supporter I might delight at the fact the Tories will struggle in the next general election, I find it disheartening that Cameron failed to temper the right wing of his party – particularly as this has always been what I wanted to do in mine.

 Carl Packman is an author and Labour blogger. He has observed Conservative modernisation with interest. Here he gives his outsider’s critique of Conservative modernisation.

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