So who are the true Tory modernisers? The question is worth asking now that Iain Duncan Smith has resigned as Welfare Secretary in protest at constant attempts by David Cameron and George Osborne to milk his budget in an attempt to balance the nation’s still parlous books.
In orthodox political terms, Duncan Smith is a man of the Right. He entered Parliament in 1992 and almost immediately hurled himself into the long-running rebellion against the federalist Maastricht Treaty. An overt admirer of Margaret Thatcher, he became a member of the Commons dining club dedicated to advancing her agenda, the No Turning Back Group. A devout Roman Catholic, he has long been associated with the now much shrunken socially conservative wing of the Tory Party.
He strongly and publicly supported the war in Iraq and had close contacts with the so-called “neo-cons”, such as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in the George W Bush presidency. Needless to say, he favoured low taxes, free enterprise and a small state, alongside strong defence and a robust approach to law and order. A metropolitan liberal, he was not.
There are many labels for this kind of politics: Thatcherite, right-wing and dry are just some. Nasty is another. The adjective was popularised by Theresa May, now Home Secretary and then Conservative Party chairman, in a speech to the party conference in 2002. Adopting a distinctly progressive stance, May, not known before or since for memorable use of language, berated the party faithful for its allegedly curtain-twitching attitudes and a penchant for demonising minorities.
“Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party,” she said.
May aligned herself with the modernisers, the faction represented then by Michael Portillo, Francis Maude, Oliver Letwin, John Bercow and Andrew Lansley – all of whom had, of course, once been committed Thatcherites.
A simpler term for them is the Tory Left. They have been around for decades and will be there for decades to come. David Cameron and George Osborne are their most prominent figures today. John Major, Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine flew the same banner 20 years ago. The Tory establishment is another word for them. They are best defined by what they are against (certainly Thatcher) than what they favour. Pragmatism is their watchword. Dogmatism their greatest sin.
Divining their beliefs is difficult, but can be summed up by “go with the flow”. As Cameron has indicated on many occasions, they have no time for those who would rage against the ways of modern Britain. Conservatives should embrace the modern world, not seek to remake it. The fact that some things about the modern world – its superficiality, its relativism and its lack of moral courage – are deplorable is irrelevant.
In Thatcher’s time it was Wets versus Dries. By the time of May’s self-flagellation, it was modernisers versus traditionalists (or mods v rockers). Now it is Cameroons versus the remnants of traditional Conservatism, with the added twist that the supposed dinosaurs (a favourite word of the ruling Cameroon faction) appear to be gaining the upper hand over the not inconsequential matter of Europe.
Modernisation is a wonderfully flexible word. First popularised by Tony Blair, it can mean whatever you want. Any political gambit – from gay marriage to privatising the NHS – can be presented as a modernisation. To quote Humpty Dumpty, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.”
In his unhappy time as Tory leader from 2001-2003, Duncan Smith recognised that the Conservatives had to change. But the changes he favoured were difficult and far-reaching. Specifically, he wanted to commit his party to tackling deep-seated social ills such as family breakdown, welfare dependency, worklessness and crippling educational failure in sink schools. His solution was not to throw money at problems, the knee jerk response of the Left, but to help the most disadvantaged to rebuild their shattered lives. And he rejected the gesture and identity politics that have since come to symbolise the cosmetic modernisation favoured by the Cameroons.
Yesterday, we came to the ultimate irony: the archetypal Thatcherite going on the Marr show on BBC TV to berate his government for abandoning its One Nation roots and dividing the land through expecting the poor to bear the main burden of deficit reduction.
Who is the nasty party now? Is it the faction led by David Cameron and George Osborne, locked as they are in a desperate bid to buy off the middle classes before the EU referendum on June 23? Or is it the traditional right-winger and his followers, intent as they are on transforming broken lives in Britain’s underclass.