In bed with Polly Toynbee

While Blair’s New Labour remains mired in the war in Iraq, Cameron’s new-look Conservative Party declares war on poverty and makes peace with Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. In a recent article, Tory front bencher Greg Clark, says that:

Ignoring the reality of relative poverty was a terrible mistake. It allowed the Left to dominate the poverty debate for a generation and to copyright the issue of social exclusion. This was an absurd position for us to be in, Disraeli’s idea of One Nation is nothing if not a determination that no part of society should be alienated from the whole – in other words, socially excluded. In short, poverty is too important an issue to leave to the Labour Party and overcoming social exclusion is an essential ambition for a Conservative Government.

It’s not the kind of thing that Margaret Thatcher would have said, but it’s nowhere that Tory leader David Cameron hasn’t been before. In a speech last year he announced that eliminating poverty must be "a central component of the Conservative governing mission." And in a break with classical liberal orthodoxy he said that "there’s more to eliminating poverty than engineering economic growth."

For free market types, it’s bad enough that Torys are talking about relative poverty and social exclusion. But it gets worse — Clark has started quoting Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. And worse still again– Cameron agrees.

Who is Polly Toynbee, you ask? Conservative MP Boris Johnson explains:

In so far as New Labour has a fairy godmother, Polly is the girl. She incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain. She is the defender and friend of everyone whose non-job has ever been advertised in the Guardian appointments page, every gay and lesbian outreach worker, every clipboard-toter and pen-pusher and form-filler whose function has been generated by mindless regulation. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism. In an ideal Polly Toynbee world, private sector broadcasting would be banned, Rupert Murdoch would be nationalised, and the BBC would hire thousands more taxpayer-funded social affairs correspondents to psalm the benefits of social democracy.

Blogger Chris Dillow asks, "of the countless intelligent egalitarians he could have mentioned, why her? Why not invoke instead, say, John Rawls." It’s a good point. After all, wasn’t Friedrich Hayek a Rawls fan?

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Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago

A classic example of ‘the power of one’. One leader, one party or whatever. The Thatcher, Howard, Hawke, Keating, and Blair Governments – all had massive impacts on what was perceived as the ‘centre’ of politics. They dictated where the debate was. Personally I prefer where Blair’s taken things (Iraq excluded) to where Howard has. (Actually Howard hasn’t taken us anywhere much in terms of policy because he doesn’t care for it much. But he’s taken us a long way culturally, and a long way into a policy vacuum where there’s no real momentum to government policy and the agenda rolls along without much foresight or even real commitment to getting a bit of good policy done – subject of course to the realities of politics).

Andrew Norton
17 years ago

“Blogger Chris Dillow asks, “of the countless intelligent egalitarians he could have mentioned, why her? Why not invoke instead, say, John Rawls.”

Maybe because lots of people have heard of Polly and few people have heard of Rawls?

Jason Soon
17 years ago


I wrote a piece on this at Catallaxy before the Great Server Crash where I made the point that the Tory party had moved from Gladstone to Disraeli based on a speech of David Cameron’s that I dissected. And I was getting pilloried from pillar to post for over-intellectuallising a mere speech.

And here I see someone from the Tory party actually mentions Disraeli.

Thank you, Don.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
17 years ago

I’m guessing that David Cameron won’t actually mention Toynbee by name.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
17 years ago

Jason – David Willetts has also painted Cameron the heir of Disraeli. In a speech in Feb this year he said:

Today I want to focus on one particular episode – the Party’s years in the wilderness in the mid-19th century, and its recovery under Benjamin Disraeli. You might just see some relevance to the challenges we face today, set out so well by David Cameron in his speech on Monday …

…Disraeli saw as clearly as any Tory squire what was wrong with the brutal market economics of the Manchester school. And of course he himself flirted with all the medievalist hostility to modernity in the culture around him. But he escaped from mere nostalgia for a rural past: he turned this into a programme for tackling social conditions in Britain’s major cities. He made the elevation of the condition of the people the great Conservative battle cry. He meant by this first the inclusion of the working classes within the pail of the constitution. But he went further to mean active social reform.

Fred Argy
Fred Argy
17 years ago

Thanks for your piece Don. I too find Cameron a very interesting person – more like the ‘small l liberals” we once used to have in this country and that I greatly admired.