Conservatism will wither without modernisation

The Conservative Party must delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society.

Give them real Conservatism. Raw right-wing meat. Lower taxes on our wealth creators, cut the NHS, bemoan Europe. Throw in the tweed, while you’re at it. At the moment, you see, they just don’t think we’re right-wing enough.

This argument is repeatedly rehearsed by Tory malcontents, who think we’re letting UKIP fill a vacuum on the right of British politics as modernisation gets us lost in mushy centrist liberalism. Post-Eastleigh, the complaining loudens. Hugo Rifkind exposes the absurdity of this "lurch to the right" fetishism rather neatly: “What planet are you on, when you think Cameron’s big problem is that he isn’t enough of a traditional Conservative? Are you drunk? For most of the country, it’s a constant surprise not to see him with a shotgun under his arm”.

Quite. The rise of UKIP hides something of more significance: yes, those gay-loving, immigrant-embracing, wishy-washy Lib Dems won the by-election. Conservatives are seen as more right-wing than the politics of a typical voter; to be a party that wins an overall majority, surely it must transcend these simplistic political labels? Appeal to a broader range of people on the basis of values which are more universal: competency and compassion, first and foremost.

Philosophers have joined politicos in condemning the Tory modernising strategy. In this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, the eminent Professor Roger Scruton reviews Bright Blue’s latest book, Tory modernisation 2.0: the future of the Conservative Party. He lambasts modernisers for abandoning conviction to solve the Tories image problem. This strikes me as odd. The primary purpose of a political party, after all, is to win an election: becoming more popular among voters is inescapable.

But this is not the book's only objective despite Scruton’s belittling in absence of detailed scrutiny. More fundamentally, modernisers in this book are inviting deeper discussion about Conservative values that should guide our thinking and policymaking today. Scruton, though, professes we lack understanding of true Conservatism. The reality, of course, is that British Conservatism derives from several philosophies. In his essay, Scruton narrowly emphasises preservation. Here, he allies with those who seek refuge from the contemporary in UKIP, grumbling about same-sex marriage, immigration and house-building in villages. The past reveals the good life: the nuclear family surrounded by green and pleasant land. Tolkein’s Shire, really.

But the world around them has changed. Still, they try and impose the past on a quite different present: ironically then, they pursue social engineering, rightly resisted by Conservatives who are nervous of demands, from the state in particular, that people change the way they live here and now. Such romantics, nostalgic or progressive, ought to be judged sceptically by wise Conservatives.

We need not be mere reactionaries. No, Conservatism is much richer than this. Professor Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, offers a more compelling way. Drawing on an impressive range of studies into the development of human morality, he finds six moral sentiments that Conservatives share: care for others; a belief in proportionality, where reward is linked to effort; desire for liberty against oppression; loyalty for members of a group you associate with; respect for authority; and a belief in sanctity and purity. These sentiments can unite British Conservatives from differing philosophical backgrounds, albeit when some stressed more than others.

The authors of Tory modernisation 2.0 attempt to apply these values to a world where social composition and norms have changed, to ensure Conservatism remains relevant and inspiring. For example, credible solutions are offered to help parents with the cost of childcare. This is because two-earners families are increasingly and necessarily the norm. Instead of yearning for the male breadwinner family model, the book offers fresh thinking on how to tackle the poor affordability of childcare for parents who choose to work: because, for the sake of proportionality, it is right those who are doing the right thing to improve their financial circumstances are supported.

Proposals to catalyse house-building may offend reactionaries fearful of modest housing developments in their villages, but this is again about proportionality: ensuring home ownership is affordable to those who have worked and saved, palpably not the case for many at the moment, rather than simply those who have inherited wealth from their parents.

The book talks of the need to tackle rising loneliness in our society, caused predominantly by an ageing population, the cultural glorification of autonomy, and a degree of pornification of sexual relations. Legalising same-sex marriage is a fightback against this, albeit small, for the sake of loyalty and sanctity that emerge from loving relationships.

Elsewhere, the book describes a new approach to international development, asserting that the UK should look beyond its borders, to support the world’s poor, stemming from a belief in care for others and freedom from oppression. There is an action plan to support renewable energy for the sake of sustainable growth and preservation of our environment against climate change; again, this is about care for others, our future generations, and an instinct for sanctity. There is even a desire for preservation, so Scruton need not fear: ideas are proposed to maintain our world-class universities, for example.

The Conservative Party cannot be simplistically nostalgic and unbending, persistently stomping on the brake pedal. It needs to delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society: this is the paramount purpose of modernisation. If not, and Scruton’s UKIPness prevails, Conservatism will wither.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue

Jonathan Haidt speaking on the "moral roots of liberals and conservatives".

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide