This political sleight of hand will make the Tories look ridiculous

Sunday National, 20th September 2020.

I DON’T know if you’re familiar with the idea of “triangulation,” but the drift of the last 40 years in British politics will make considerably more sense once you’ve got your head around it.

Triangulation has a heavy 1990s energy to it. A political strategy strongly associated with the Third Way politics of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, it represents a superficially canny way of wrong-footing your opponents, synthesising their most popular policies, and leading parties back into government from the mythical “centre” – usually defined in terms of the right-wing political preoccupations and talking points of the corporate media. The preferred political cliché for this is “modernisation”.

Sometimes, the triangulation is mainly posturing and positioning, articulated through press releases and puff pieces. But with Blair and Clinton, it had a powerful impact on how their administrations made policy and the interests they served.

The usual logic of triangulation goes something like this. Take social security. Is your political party associated in the public mind with “wasteful welfare spending”? Are you being depicted in the media as an apologist for the work-shy, the idle and the undeserving? Is this hampering your efforts to regain office? If so, then your triangulating leadership should seize the opportunity of appearing even more squeezing, wrenching and grasping with social security money than your opponents. Instead of fielding hostile questions in parliament and rebutting tabloid propaganda about social security entitlements, your triangulater should not only join in with the attacks, but apply themselves to dreaming up even more draconian and suspicious bureaucratic systems to mediate access to those entitlements if elected.

Pulling on Ronald Regan’s old suits, Clinton campaigned in the 1990s to “end welfare as we know it”, working with Republicans in Congress to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. The clue to the politics of this measure is contained in its title – the reform shredded the existing American safety net in the name of ridding the state of the burden of its slackers, free-riders and “welfare queens”. Although the act was depicted as a bipartisan triumph for the Democratic incumbent, on any objective reckoning, it represented a wholesale capitulation to the dependency culture warriors by a charismatic leader with no real ideological commitment to defending historic social democratic gains. Sound familiar?

The inspiration for British politics was obvious. Are the Tories the party of law and order in the public imagination? Are Labour hammered as a soft touch? Then Labour needs to seem “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime”, and set about an unprecedented creation of criminal offences to remind the punters that they can hang and flog ’em with the same gusto. Do Conservatives “own the brand” of being the party of enterprise and opportunity? Then let’s borrow their market logic, and set up internal competition in hospitals and schools in the name of “modernised” delivery of public services and the blue-sky thinking of public-private partnerships.

Blair was the most naturally fluent and convicted articulator of this approach to politics, but his Labour predecessors felt the same tug to accommodate themselves to the new Thatcherite hegemony. Across the whole sweep of his government, enterprising Blairites presumably thought they were being dastardly cunning during the late 1990s and 2000s, winning elections by loosening the bolts holding together Britain’s rickety inheritance of post-war institutions – but their gains were superficial and tactical wisdom extremely short-lived.

When you co-opt the vocabulary and positions of your opponents, you might think you are working a neat political trick. For a time, it might seem as if you’ve successfully stolen a march on your enemies, as they struggle to compose salient responses to your theft of their political costumes. The proponents of this sort of thing will always have soothing practical words to allay any intellectual pangs you might feel.

But in the end – when you triangulate, your opponent wins, whether or not you take office or they do. If you are getting shafted, it is difficult to make sense of a sentimental preference to be shafted by a Labour rather than a Conservative government. The problem with this approach to politics – “our opponents are right about everything – vote for us” – is that you are living within their logic, not making them campaign in yours. These examples are mainly the left selling their soul to temporarily beguile Britain’s reactionary press, but this kind of political strategy can cut the other way too.

Triangulation didn’t die the death with New Labour. David Cameron’s attempts to rebrand the nasty party with his “hug a hoodie” and “hug a husky” policies on crime and climate change came straight out of its playbook. The press dubbed him the “heir to Blair” for a reason. After the electoral collapse of Corbynism in 2019, Keir Starmer is engaged in his own calculations about how to try to form a viable new coalition behind Labour, triangles everywhere.

And in Scotland last week, a new and surprising practitioner of triangulation has revealed himself in the unlikely personage of Douglas Ross MP. After the empty years of Ruth Davidson’s leadership of the party, where Tory tax, education, health and justice policy seemed to consist entirely of “no to indyref2”, Ross has let it be known that he intends to fight the next Holyrood election on the homelier fare of “bread and butter policy”. But what policies? Ross’s two Holyrood predecessors left behind a policy cupboard which makes Old Mother Hubbard’s place seem positively well stocked.

Why? Because policy vapidity has been at the heart of the Scottish Tories’ political pitch since 2014. As leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, Baroness Davidson was able to convince more Unionists to vote Tory in Holyrood and Westminster elections, but her leadership made no pretence of trying to win over these new voters to Toryism as a political ideology or project. The appeal was personal, oppositional, an appeal for the candidate best placed to give the Nats a hard time. Sure, Murdo Fraser would chunter about tax rises in parliament, universalist public sending plans would be opposed, but none of these issues was anywhere near the front or centre of Davidson’s campaigns.

Defuse the constitutional dynamite, as Ross proposes to do, and what are the Scottish Tories left with? Against the long shadow of Brexit, Boris and independence, is there a right-wing pitch for power which can command the support of even a quarter of Scots?

Ross’s policy platform isn’t off to a shining start. He began by proposing a public procurement policy which would directly discriminate against firms in the rest of the UK – a policy which would be illegal under the UK Internal Market Bill – which the Moray MP trooped biddably through the Westminster lobby to support last week. So far, so technically inept. But take a step back from the dry legals.

Why is a Scottish Tory leader proposing this kind of policy in the first place? If Labour or the SNP had mooted a proposal to discriminate against firms in the rest of the UK by way of public procurement, the Scottish Tories would have imploded in a cloud of red, white and blue indignation, with allegations of anti-English bigotry, or slurs that Labour can’t be trusted on the Union. So why does Douglas Ross think this kind of policy is what the Scottish public are in the market for?

This weekend brings even more curious news. In January 2015, the Scottish Government introduced universal free school meals for all children in primaries one to three. On Saturday, Ross announced that the Scottish Tory policy is that all kids should have access to state-funded food in the mornings and at lunchtime. This policy began life in the early 2000s as part of the Scottish Socialist Party platform. The idea that snaggle-toothed old tax-cutters like Darth Murdo Fraser – whose favourite shape is the Laffer Curve – is sold on the state coughing up cash so every primary schooler can get a plate of sausage and mash at lunchtime is fanciful.

And this is only the beginning of the mighty list of spending commitments the new Tory leader has devoted himself to in his latest policy brief. The Tories tot up the school catering bill at £125,000,000 per year, but the “Restore our Schools” paper also proposes to spend £550,000,000 hiring 3000 teachers between 2021 and 2026, with £140,000,000 capital spending on tumbledown classrooms and teaching environments.

For the past decade, the Tories have been the loudest voices in Scottish politics denouncing universal policies on tuition fees and prescription charge as a waste of money, subsidising the lifestyle of richer Scots who can afford to pay for their painkillers or their kids’ progress through further and higher education. Now heresy is doctrine. Up is down. In the political triangulation game, there is such a thing as being “too clever by half”.

Ross isn’t nearly cute enough to carry this kind of political chicanery off. In his efforts to keep these Unionist voters onboard with a Tory policy platform, it looks increasingly likely that Ross will chase all over the political map for congenial policies. His journey seems likely to take him a world away from his party’s traditional preoccupations with austerity, fiscal discipline and protecting the gains of the wealthiest from the tax system. In the process, he risks making himself and his colleagues look and sound ridiculous

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