Roger’s Rules

What happened to the Conservatives? (British edition)


Here’s a stocking-stuffer for your politically mature friends and relatives: The Conservatives: A History by Robin Harris, an historian and  former Director of the Conservative Research Department.  (It was he who in the Thatcher years hired David Cameron:  does that augur prescience or recklessness?) Anyone interested in the evolution and essential nature of English Toryism will want to read this book. And as a salutary prolegomenon, I recommend the long and brilliant review by John O’Sullivan at ConservativeHome.  Harris begins his story with Burke and Pitt the Younger, but I suspect that many readers will be most absorbed by his account of the sad  fate of the Conservatives in recent years. As O’Sullivan notes:

the more Cameron modernization is explained, the less anyone understands it. There is something elusive and will o’ the wisp about it. Initially, it defined itself negatively as a movement opposed to the unreconstructed Thatcherite Tories. It proudly announced that there was such a thing as society. It renounced any foolish intention of “banging on” about crime, immigration, Europe, or other supposed obsessions of more traditional Tories. Its adherents were constantly looking for a “Clause Four moment” when they could demonstrate their distance from the “Nasty” past by dissing a prominent Die-Hard. But there is a strictly limited appeal in not being Norman Tebbit. Only those who follow politics closely would even realize that a dramatic gesture of ideological revolution was being bravely made. (Sorry, Norman.) Something more positive was required.

What followed was a series of photo-ops and exercises in gesture politics – the windmill on the roof, the bicycle to work, the dash to the Pole. This development of the Cameron project was a sort of cultural make-over — “the Dianification of Toryism” as I have argued elsewhere—to render the Tories an entirely different party, one of socially liberal herbivores, acceptable to its critics in Metroland. Cultural make-overs are notoriously hard to pull-off, however, since those being culturally transformed notice the process more quickly than anyone else. And they don’t always like it. The main result of this make-over, visible in the 2010 election results, was to strengthen UKIP by driving dissed-off Tories towards it. It made only modest inroads in the voting bloc of Liberal centrists who had many other suitors.

Indeed.  The extent to which conservatives, by betraying their principles (including the principle of patriotism), abet right-wing alternatives that are anathema to genuine conservatism is a phenomenon that is not sufficiently appreciated. More generally,  conservatives, in the United States as well as in the UK, do not win elections by pretending to be liberals, but this seems to be a lesson that is difficult for conservatives to absorb. O’Sullivan continues with some additional sage observations:

The 2008 financial crisis made these cultural gestures look frivolous—as well as shocking the Tory leadership which had rooted the Cameron project in the assumption that economic growth would continue smooth and uninterrupted under New Labour. That was a curious assumption to start with: every previous Labour government had ended in economic crisis—why should this one be different? If the crisis embarrassed Cameron and Osborne, however, it also rescued them by imposing a more realistic economic policy upon the party—and by giving them a serious purpose in office. They have to save the British economy by public spending cuts that eventually reduce the deficit. That political commitment is now fully half of the Cameron project.

Not going bankrupt is, however, a very inadequate political philosophy. It is an aim shared by all parties (even if their methods for achieving solvency differ) and it does little more than lay the groundwork for positive policies. . . .  Other signature Cameron issues, such as his ultra-Green commitment to carbon reduction, look both doomed and embarrassing as their costs become apparent. Yet those issues on which the Cameron modernizers had imposed a vow of silence on the party — immigration, Europe, and crime — now constitute the main topics of public debate as they spiral downwards in a series of crises. Those crises — especially the crisis over the Euro — would represent welcome political opportunities for almost any imaginable Conservative party. But these opportunities drive the Cameron Tories into silence and paralysis — and not simply because they are in a coalition with Lib-Dems. Cameron modernization, as originally conceived, has run into a dead end.

That is not really surprising if, as Dr. Harris mordantly and (in my view) correctly remarks, there is no such thing as a new political idea. The best we can do is to mine our political tradition for old ideas whose time has come round again (as Thatcher did). Neophiliac Tories determined on new ideas will therefore find themselves either borrowing ideas from other political traditions (as Heath and Macmillan did) or indulging in empty gestures that disintegrate on coming into contact with harsh political reality.

These are wise words, well worth pondering by conservatives as well as Conservatives on both sides of the pond that divides and unites America and the U.K.