Recently Jago Pearson of this parish admonished the Conservative party for its elitist image and warned that, until it changed its ways and modernised more effectively, it would never win a majority again.
Quite so, but can the party really save itself, or is it doomed gently to decline into nothing more than a Home Counties and regional party? More to the point, should we in the broader conservative movement fear or welcome such a fate?
History strongly suggests that the Conservatives Party’s problems are very deep rooted. The antecedents of the modern party were the “Tories” loyal to Charles I and his belief in the divine right of kings. Right from the start, therefore, the party has been bedevilled by an overwhelming sense of entitlement to power and position. Conversely, it lives in waking terror of being cast out of power.
That said, a much more progressive conservative tradition later emerged. Far from being anti-intellectual and reactionary, the Conservative Party has often been and is home to many quite brilliant and original thinkers.
However, because genuinely conservative reform is based on empiricism, it is often hard to implement and consequently unpopular, leading to extreme tensions between the two traditions within the party. Sadly, it is usually the Tory tradition that wins: we have seen this most recently with the defenestration of Michael Gove and internal party hostility generated towards Iain Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms. Even more unforgivably, the party has often undermined vital conservative institutions in order to secure power in the short term, most notably with the progressive destruction of a pro-marriage and family-friendly tax system.
The Conservatives’ supporters often cite the Thatcher years as proof that the party is capable of radicalism, but actually that rather proves the point: at more than one juncture in the post-war years the Tories debated proto-Thatcherite ideas: Enoch Powell advocated monetarism and privatisation as far back as the 1960s. Granted, Powell was a very brilliant man and ahead of his time, but the party funked it once again in the 1970s with Heath’s short-lived “Selsdon Man” agenda. By that time, the post-war consensus was clearly in very serious trouble, but it was only when this became absolutely desperate that the party, deeply reluctantly, gave Thatcher her head. Having cured the malaise, she was jettisoned when her increasingly anti-Brussels rhetoric threatened the UK’s – and therefore the Tories’ – seat at the top European table.
And it is ultimately “Europe” that has proved the Conservative Party’s undoing, as it requires the progressive destruction of national institutions to further the European ideal of integration. Thus its two traditions are brought into diametric and irreconcilable opposition, and it has left the party unable to articulate any kind of socially cohesive national vision. What we have instead is the very worst of both the Thatcherite and High Tory traditions: atomised individualism for the masses under an aloof patrician elite. Is it therefore any wonder that the party’s ‘only for the rich’ tag gets worse and worse, and the party finds being replaced by the nationalistic Ukip in poorer constituencies?
In my opinion we should welcome this. Ukip may not be the perfect vehicle for conservatism but it has one quality the Tories often lack – balls. The rise of Ukip – and of course non-aligned sites such as The Conservative Woman – are also broadening the conservative church and providing more opportunities for the advancement of conservative thought. In that context, the recent defection of the intellectual Douglas Carswell to Ukip was highly symbolic: a political climate where there is genuine competition for conservative ideas is ultimately healthier for us all.