Magazine article The Spectator

The Tories' History Man

Magazine article The Spectator

The Tories' History Man

Article excerpt

Andrew Gimson talks to Alistair Cooke, the godfather of the Cameroons, about Dave's temperament and Hilton's penchant for ponchos

As David Cameron solicits approval for deep spending cuts, he has assured the public: 'We're not doing this because we want to, we're not driven by some theory or ideology.' Cameron remains very anxious not to be taken for a closet Thatcherite, who beneath the cloak of necessity is pursuing ideological politics. If the Prime Minister wished to make a properly Tory case for cutting himself free from an outdated programme, he could do worse than turn to Alistair Cooke, who played a part in the political education of most of the Tory authors of the coalition government. When I visited Cooke at the end of last week, I found him in his library, which apart from a profusion of books about the politics of the last two centuries, is also adorned by about 50 likenesses of Disraeli, and between 20 and 30 of Lord Salisbury. Cooke at once quoted Lord Salisbury, perhaps the greatest of Tory prime ministers, explaining what Cameron has done:

'Principles should last as long as the circumstances that gave rise to them.'

Although by training an academic historian, Cooke spent the greater part of his career in the Conservative Research Department, where as deputy director he was one of the people responsible for hiring Cameron straight from Oxford. The essential task of the research department is not in the slightest bit intellectual. It is to draft, often under pressure of time and from unpromising raw materials, a stream of clear and accurate pamphlets, briefing papers and campaign guides, which make as powerfully as possible, without tipping into mendacity, the case for whatever policies the Conservative party happens at that point to be pursuing. Cooke, who on reaching his 65th birthday has just retired after editing millions of words of this stuff, has probably done more than anyone now alive to save the Tory party from sounding illiterate.

Few journalists bothered to report that by the barbarous standards of modern times, the programme agreed by the Tories and Liberal Democrats in the fortnight after the general election was a model of clarity. The fact that such a lucid document had been produced at such speed was taken for granted. Of the four Tory negotiators, three - Oliver Letwin, Ed Llewellyn and George Osborne - had, like Cameron himself, received their early training in flexible, pragmatic draftsmanship in the Conservative Research Department.

Cooke makes no claim to have improved Cameron's written work: 'He wrote the stuff very well from the beginning.' Soon after joining the CRD, Cameron was in demand to brief ministers such as Kenneth Baker and Norman Lamont before they went on television, 'applying good Tory common sense' to their 'twittering'. Cameron's temperament also impressed Cooke, especially by comparison with other politicians. 'The day's difficulties die with the day. That's very, very rare. They all fuss and fret endlessly, and he doesn't.'

When Cameron arrived in September 1988, the director of the research department was Robin Harris, of whom Cooke says: 'Robin insisted on the highest standards in that place.

He made it a Thatcherite institution, but I don't think at that time the CRD could thrive in any other way.'

But in Cooke's opinion, unbounded faith in Thatcher soon became disastrous. 'It's been the great curse of the Tory party, the assumption that Margaret Thatcher had the answers to all the problems. …

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