Cameron’s neo-con heritage

If the Tory leader sounds a bit like a leftie, it’s all down to an American, neo-con hero


I call it his “Heir to Irving strategy”. Not its conventional name, I admit, but I think it fits.

I am not the first person to notice that David Cameron’s conservatism is not what we have been used to from the Conservative Party.

His talk of community, of voluntary action, of civil society; his attempts to explain why he is a progressive; his insistence that there is more to life than money; his emphasis on the need to lift people out of poverty. They seem odd themes for a Tory.

Most people think they know the reason. Cameron is pursuing what is known in political circles as the “Heir to Blair” strategy. He is going to hoover up the votes of centrists who flocked to Tony Blair in 1997. And this is no doubt correct. Cameron is positioning his party.

Like the Jews who created Hollywood, the neo-cons created their own world

But I think there is more to it than that. I believe that the Jews and the Communists have got to David Cameron.

In the late 1930s, a group of mainly Jewish Trotskyites used to congregate in Alcove One of the cafeteria of New York’s City College. Not Alcove Two, mind, because the Stalinists ate lunch there. And, unlikely as it might seem, out of the competition between these two alcoves emerged one of the most important groups in modern conservatism.

The leader of the Alcove One Trotskyites was Irving Kristol. He was their organiser, their spokesman, the man who kept the network going. By the time he died at the age of 89, a fortnight ago, he had become a giant on the political scene.

The Alcove One group were shaped by two things. The first was their clash with other parts of the left. First, they disputed with Stalinists, and then with the cultural New Left. In the process they became strongly anti-Communist and defenders of bourgeois values. They also acquired a name. The left-wing writer Michael Harrington thought them so right-wing as not to be leftists at all. He dubbed them neo-conservatives.

Irving Kristol accepted the title. (It has later, oddly and innacurately become associated solely with foreign policy hawks in the Bush regime, but it originated with Kristol.)

The neo-cons were also shaped by their Jewishness. Like the Jews who created Hollywood, they too created a world of their own. That world revolved around intellectual publications in which their essays appeared.

Kristol founded The Public Interest, and the neo-cons also dominated Commentary, established in 1945 by the American Jewish Committee. (Woody Allen famously joked that Dissent — another New York intellectual journal — and Commentary should merge to form Dissentary).

Now listen to David Cameron and you can hear the neo-con in him. You can hear that the discourse taking place in left-wing New York intellectual circles has passed into the mainstream of Conservative thinking.

The stress placed by modern Tories on marriage and the family repeats a classic neo-con theme. David Cameron believes, as Irving Kristol did, that consumer capitalism has contradictions. It is only possible because of the bourgeois virtues of thrift and hard work, yet it may lead people to become less hard working, less thrifty and less virtuous. So Cameron, like the neo-cons, is interested in encouraging responsibility.

While the traditional right in America investigated the idea of a minimal state, neo-cons thought this wrong. They believed in a welfare state — reformed to encourage work and self-reliance. Many of their essays concerned the vexed topic of how to ensure social justice while not undermining the enterprise economy. These things, too, are Cameron preoccupations.

The alliance that Cameron — not particularly animated about religion himself — has built with faith groups to create projects that combat poverty here and abroad, is also a move straight out of the Kristol play-book.

So when you hear rhetoric and ideas from the Conservative leader that sounds as if it comes from the left, that is because some of it did.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

    Last updated: 2:30pm, October 1 2009