independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Eilis O'Hanlon: Time to reclaim Tory mantle and help our aspiration nation

In the current political flux there is a place for a centre right party that would represent Irish go-getters, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The word Tory comes from the old Irish for outlaw -- and that's pretty much how the modern Conservative Party is seen these days in Ireland. Just as the country seems to instinctively prefer Democrat presidents over Republican ones, so we tend to feel a greater affinity with the British Labour Party over its blue counterparts. Which is odd, and not only because the electorate's experience with our own Labour Party has been so repeatedly disappointing. It's equally bizarre because, whatever the popular caricature of Tories on this side of the Irish Sea as heartless toffs, most of what they actually stand for would be accepted uncontestably by a broad swathe of Irish voters. David Cameron offered a reminder of it last week in a speech to his party conference in Birmingham.

The speech may not have pleased the politically correct BBC-stroke-Guardian crowd, but from this side of the water, Cameron's words felt like a refreshing draught of cold water on a hot day in recessionary Hell. "We get behind people who want to get on in life," went the crucial part. "The doers. The risk-takers. The young people who dream of their first pay-cheque, their first car, their first home -- and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things. While the intellectuals of other parties sneer at people who want to get on in life, we here salute you. They call us the party of the better-off -- no, we are the party of the want to be better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families -- and we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so."

It was political hooey, of course it was, mixed with equal parts sentiment and bunkum. The cynical might even call it cynical. But it's hooey that plenty of us on this side of the sea would love to be hearing from our own leaders right now. Cameron was pushing the Tory faithful's button, but they're our buttons too.

When he spoke of wanting to build an "aspiration nation", he was speaking our language, even if he was doing it in a posh English accent. Nor did he shirk from outlining what was wrong. "What do the countries on the slide have in common? They're fat, sclerotic, over-regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills, unreformed public services."

Sounds familiar. Terrifyingly familiar.

This is exactly what we need to hear right now, not left-wing rhetoric. Tony Blair won three elections in a row in Britain by aligning himself with people who wanted to get on in life, because that's simply who most of the voters were -- and it's who we are in Ireland too. In fact, we were way ahead of the curve. Britain has flirted with socialism from time to time, but there was never a serious appetite for it in Ireland, even in the worst times. Margaret Thatcher practically had to start a revolution to transform Britain into the sort of bourgeois, property-owning democracy which Ireland always was.

Unlike the British, Ireland had to do it without real political leadership too; we didn't have parties articulating core social and economic values which those of a similar mindset had to guide them in Britain. In the Dail, economics always came second to historic and local allegiances. Underneath it all there remained a bedrock of the same eternal values which David Cameron articulated so powerfully last week.

It was about helping the poor and vulnerable, but also expecting people to take personal responsibility for themselves and their families; it was about hard work, and believing that those with talents should be able to enjoy the fruits of their good fortune without too much interference from the dead hand of the state; it was about respecting the law and the gardai, and having a correspondingly devout contempt for criminals and wastrels; it was about having faith in education, and being patriotic without becoming silly about it.

Unfortunately, the fact that most Irish opinion is innately conservative allowed those who are supposed to represent those who think that way to become complacent and take their support for granted. Fine Gael may talk the talk about embodying intrinsic middle-class decency, and of empathising with aspiration; that's why left-wing zealot George Galloway refers to the party contemptuously as "Irish Tories". But if only that was true. To realise how misguided Galloway is, imagine Enda Kenny delivering the speech which David Cameron gave last week.

There are people in FG who surely understand the sentiments which underpinned that address -- they're there, if you look hard enough -- but at a national level, FG has just let itself morph comfortably into a box-ticking party of wishy-washy, European-lite social democrats. Where were those traditional voters going to go, after all? There was no other home for them.

In government, Fine Gael has not stood behind the strivers; it has crippled them. The bankers were bailed out; the developers had Nama; the Quinns and the FitzPatricks had their friends to help them back on their feet -- but the coping classes, to borrow that perenially perceptive phrase, had no one looking out for them. Their reward for trying to do the right thing was instead to be saddled with the blame when it all went wrong.

Even the Taoiseach insulted them by telling the world they "went mad with borrowing". Now they're ready to face the challenge of becoming a leaner nation; of tackling welfare and vested interests in the public sector and the trade unions; but they still have no one to champion their cause, to harness their good instincts and turn it into political will. No wonder that, far from being an aspiration nation, we're now a desperation nation.

Irish politics is undergoing something of an identity crisis. Who stands for what? Micheal Martin, to his credit, has tried to get Fianna Fail to ask itself what it stands for; FF, though, is suspicious of introspection. FG and Labour, meanwhile, are coming to the realisation that they have a hollow at their core and may stand for nothing more than the exercise of executive power -- and emasculated, Troika-curtailed power at that.

The left continues to rise, but will never break through the glass ceiling of Ireland's inner conservatism. Somewhere in this flux there has to be a place for a vibrant, muscular centre-right party who can represent that now-suppressed spirit of aspiration.

The Progressive Democrats dream died, but it doesn't mean the vacuum which they sought to fill does not exist. The want-to-be-better-offs in Ireland simply don't want Fine Gael sheep in wolf's clothing anymore; they don't want straw men and women who talk tough on Croke Park and then dive for shelter when the trade unions start doing an Apache rain dance.

It's about time Ireland reclaimed that old Tory mantle from the English. It belonged to us first. What we need now is real Irish Tories : rebels, outlaws, who can take on the vested interests and stand behind the middle class, who want homes not unrepayable debts, and businesses not handouts, because those people have always been the backbone of this country and always will be -- and, as David Cameron said, "we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so".

Sunday Independent

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