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Into the new blue void

Toryism no longer has a distinct core of belief. The Conservative Party does not know what it wants or what it should be. How has this happened?

It is a commonplace criticism of today’s Conservative Party – especially among Conservatives – that it is poorly led by David Cameron, without coherent policy and therefore without sense of direction. “Themeless”, said the Observer on 7 October 2012. The last Tory conference, despite the enthusiasm shown for Boris Johnson, did little to alter the image of a party (it is no longer a movement) without distinctive character and which does not know where it is going. It is also enmeshed in a coalition with a party, equally poorly led, which has no detectable philosophy or determinate principles.

The inability of today’s Conservative Party to fashion an identity for itself is a matter for incredulity. If you think like the classical Conservative used to think, you would be seething at the “moral condition” of the country, lamenting that citizenship of it signifies little, and feeling troubled that the term “civil society” is meaningless to millions.

Consider Conservative thought and action as they once were. Old-style Tory utilitarians would have been rolling up their political sleeves to tackle today’s indecent levels of social and economic inequity, housing shortage, declining standards of health provision, rural impoverishment and soaring public transport costs. They would have been tackling them in their own interests, fearing the contagion of increasing public anger. But they would have tackled them nonetheless.

Look at Britain through old Conservative eyes and what do you see? You see a country in politically poor shape, parliament (and the political class as a whole) discredited in public opinion, and party organisations and memberships in the doldrums. You see the independence of its civil service compromised, its honours system debauched, its once-proud system of municipal government a shadow of its former self and its armed forces weakened and underpaid.

Worst of all for the traditional Tory is that Britain’s national sovereignty has diminished and that its influence in the world has shrunk, but Cameron’s wild gesturing over a retreat from Europe has been idle and mistaken; no Churchill would have opted for withdrawal. Moreover, these internal and external weaknesses have come at a bad time, a time of conflict at home and abroad with a renascent Islam. The old Conservative would have had his work cut out, but would have done whatever was possible to redeem this state of affairs.

You might, then, have expected conservative themes to be presently commanding the party’s “address to the people”. After all, such themes have a continuing resonance with much of the public, if vox pop is any guide. Many still value the nation’s history and want to see its established institutions protected, not dispersed into private hands. They still think that citizenship has its duties (not “responsibilities”) and believe that a common value system is necessary if the polity is to cohere.

Yet such ideas have either disappeared entirely from the Conservative Party’s current stances or can be glimpsed only in half-baked forms. A Conservative party that is embarrassed by the impulse to conserve is thus part of a larger dissolution of old principle. New Labour has also changed its spots and no longer represents the “labour movement”.

There are three main reasons for the absence, or ghostly appearance only, of conservative themes in the Conservative Party. The first is political. The tawdriness of Friedmanism, with its reach-me-down “free-market”, “free-to-choose” sales pitch, has played havoc with Conservatism and the moral authority in Britain of the Conservative inheritance. The “low tax and small state” mantra of the marketeer would not have served the Tories’ past grandees.

The second reason for the disappearance of traditional conservatism in the Conservative Party is a cultural one. Whatever is held to reflect “old Tory thinking” and an “old right-wing agenda” is assumed to be irrelevant in “new” times. In some cases old Tory “reaction” is indeed irrelevant. But in most cases it is not, at least not for a notionally conservative party.

The third reason is as disabling as the other two. Because “moralising” is out and “modernisation” is in, it is felt that the Conservative Party should get “with it”, as it is trying to do in the matter of gay marriage. But when a Conservative party ceases to be conservative it merely invites the further right to do its job for it. That is coming.

A non-Conservative witnessing all this from the sidelines cannot easily identify, or identify at all, with the old Tory politics of “faith, flag and family”. But a politics of fudge, flannel and farce – today’s version of Conservatism – is no better, and holds more dangers in the longer term. Such disarray in what remains one of Britain’s main parties cannot be afforded for democracy’s sake. To have lost its conservative moorings and to be led so ineffectively leaves an historic vacuum. For the British Conservative Party traditionally possessed an authority, and even a style, which helped anchor the political system as a whole. This authority rested in large part on a public sense, reassuring to many, that if “the left” went too far, “the right” would pull it back; and that if the moral rot set in or if the nation became weak at the knees, “no-nonsense” Conservative values would seek to correct it. Moreover, if national or local institutions were being undermined from whatever cause, Conservative values were thought to be strong enough to protect them.

Now there is a void. All three main parties have fallen into it together; Labour, too, no longer has a core of belief. In the case of the Conservatives, the void is called the “centre ground”. It was above all David Cameron who laid claim to it from his first days as Conservative leader – as if the “centre ground” were a Normandy beach rather than a quagmire in Notting Hill.

“All our policies are under review,” he declared in December 2005. But the electorate knows a party by what it stands for. A party’s policies are the outcome of its history and traditions, and the embodiment of its beliefs and principles. They cannot all be “under review”. Moreover, to make “change” a measure of one’s seriousness of purpose was and is adolescent.

“Blairism” did much the same in its search for the “centre ground”, and destroyed Labour as a party of distinct principle and with a historic character of its own.

No, the true “centre ground” is the ground, or foundation, on which state and civil society stand. It certainly cannot be the shifting sand of passing political fads and intermittently “rebranded” fashions. Rather, it is the ground where institutions have been built, common values established and taught, traditions maintained and citizen-identity created.

This is also what Conservatives previously believed. There can be nothing “outdated” about such a belief, and certainly not in conservative terms. Instead, the “centre ground” that Cameron was seeking has turned out to be a limbo. On the one hand, it was essentially the same location formerly occupied by New Labour (after stealing Tory clothes). On the other hand, it was to be a place where the Conservatives would establish “clear blue water” between themselves and other parties. But this has not happened, since Toryism no longer has a distinct core of belief. In consequence, far from having found the Promised Land, or “centre ground”, Cameron and his friends have been wandering about in circles without a compass.

Even before being saddled with a coalition, the Conservative “project” was a muddled one. One aspiration was to cast off “outdated policies” and become a “mainstream party”, as if it was not already that. The second was to seize the high ground (on the “centre ground”) as a party guided by more honest purposes than New Labour, while imitating Blairism’s abandonment of party principle and copying its marketing methods.

In order to find “clear blue water” between the two – a mirage in the “centre ground” desert – falsehood was also required. It was therefore asserted that Conservatives “believe in society” but, unlike Labour, “do not think it is the same as the state”. This was again juvenile. Who thinks they are “the same”? I know of no one. In addition, a claim to “believe in society” is as devoid of meaning as was Lady Thatcher’s assertion, which it evidently seeks to correct, that “you know, there is no such thing as society”. Both assertions were foolish.

The vacuous claim to “believe in society” – or to believe in the “big society”, in another version – was a “centre ground” claim. It said, in effect, “We New Conservatives are no longer what we were. We are now your socially conscious partners in the world that you inhabit. We are with you in the marketplace, in the public square, at home, at work and at play. The everyday is our world, too.”

“Modernisation” also led the New Cameroonian Conservatives not to a coherent revision of policy but up a gum tree in an effort to “talk about the things people care about”, as Cameron put it. It has been a tenacious wrongness. “The centre ground is where people’s hopes and dreams are. This is where we are going to stay,” David Cameron declared in September 2006. In December that year, he said that “rolling forward society really sums up everything this modern Conservative Party is about”, which plumbed a new depth of unmeaning. “We get the modern world, he [Gordon Brown] doesn’t” was its foolish variant in June 2007.

Also in June 2007, Oliver Letwin, Cameron’s minister for government policy, described the New Conservatism as being about “the whole way we live our lives”, a notion as empty as it was overweening. The previous month, in order to lend substance to the insubstantial, he had declared: “Politics – once econo-centric – must now become socio-centric.”

Illustration by Aron Vellekoop Leon

This was “we-believe-in-society” in intellectual fancy dress. It was to put a glaze upon an empty vessel. All politics is “socio-centric”. Moreover, with advisers as callow as those in the Blair period, it is on the superficial appearance of things that most effort has been expended. “Brand” has taken precedence over brain, a new logo has counted for more than a new logic, and a photo opportunity more than a philosophy. Cameron’s “new product”, as David Davis called it in March 2007, has failed and the Conservative Party has failed with it.

But Cameron’s efforts to “reposition” the Conservatives on the edge of the void have fitted well enough into the pick’n’mix pattern of today’s party manoeuvres. What, after all, has “New Conservatism” said? “If you want an open and inclusive party, we are it.” “Representative of modern Britain”? That, too. “Welcoming to ethnic minorities and gays”? Right here. Conservative, but also “caring for those who get left behind”? Roll up. “Repair the broken society” and simultaneously “leave people to live their own lives”? Never mind the contradiction, we’ll do it. “Make poverty history, go for social justice and create a more egalitarian society”, just like Labour aimed to do? No problem. “A strong public infrastructure” together with “a smaller state”? Of course. “Free business from over-regulation” and “stand up to big business”? That’s us. Wear a red tie one day and a blue one the next? Sure, why not?

Why not? Because liberal democracies are more fragile than they look, and when a free-for-all takes the place of principle in the name of “modernisation”, the absence of a Conservative party that seeks to conserve can only unhinge society further. Yet today’s Conservative Party does face real dilemmas. Some of its supporters look to it to defend continuity, tradition and established institutions. Others look to it as the party of the “free market”, the party that wants an ever wider “unleashing” on a battered society of the “forces of competition and private capital”, as the egregious John Redwood expressed it in August 2007.

Among its followers and funders there are surely those who would buy the Crown Jewels if they were for sale. But a large part of its constituency also expects it to be the party of Queen and country. As a market party, it is in favour of the privatisation of almost any public institution from which a profit can be turned. But it must also be, or try to be, the official guardian of the public domain. Yet when market values rule the culture, as they now do, everything – institutions, public property, integrity, principle, “heritage”, honour – is potentially for sale.

The same party also cannot also represent authority and order, on the one hand, and, on the other, espouse a belief in the “right to choose” as a supreme virtue, political and moral. Society needs to be defended from a free-for-all, whether the free-for-all be political or moral, or (as now) both. Moreover, “faith in markets” may be gospel for some. It is no faith at all, or not much of a faith, for many, perhaps the majority of Conservatives among them.

To square all these circles on the “centre ground” is harder for conservatives than for any others. Multiculturalism, for example, has gone “too far” for many in the Conservative Party. Yet the New Conservatism, being “inclusive”, proclaims that “diversity in society” must be “respected” while the far right clenches its fists.

Conservatism can declare on the one hand that “the family” is “the most important institution in Britain”, that “marriage is vital” and that children “need to be brought up in stable, loving homes”. On the other, it is promoting gay marriage in modernisation’s name. But for old conservatism, gay marriage and the gay family are unacceptable notions.

This subject has had New Conservatism tied in knots for some years. What about gay couples and their children? Iain Duncan Smith was asked when the matter surfaced in December 2006. “We haven’t touched on it,” he replied, fresh from examining the implosion of the family in “Breakdown Britain”. “We don’t have a view on it, we don’t even have a comment to make on it. Just stay on the other issues.” Questioned about the same thing the following February, Cameron fudged. “I want to lead a real fight for the family in Britain,” he said. “But everybody knows that I’m not a discriminator.”

Duncan Smith’s testiness, and Cameron’s cowardice in absenting himself from the Commons debate and vote on the gay marriage bill, demonstrated that trying to be “where it’s at” is a tough business for a Conservative party. “Rebranding”, with part of the vehicle successfully resprayed, part of it mottled and part of it untouched and untouchable, has left it in a fine old Laurel-and- Hardy mess.

The grim truth is that the Conservative Party is not able to make up its mind on most of the central issues of the day. This is ascribable not only to its present intellectually feeble leadership; it is because the Conservative Party is divided about what exactly it is and how to present this chimera to the public – as the Upbeat, Can-Do, Going- Somewhere Party of the Bright (if imaginary) Future, or as the party of those who are honest enough to say what a rough condition the country is in.

Before the last election and the formation of the coalition, you could hear Tory voices talking of a Britain in “breakdown”, but such a dark view is bad for business. Today, any leader of the Conservative Party, chameleonlike, is also caught between the open-necked shirt and the dark suit and sober tie, between the bike and the official limo. Much of this is farce. But all these cleft sticks are real: the party is caught between an “old” Conservatism that is an authoritative force in the land and a “new” Conservatism that is liberatory, fresh, pink-cheeked (if it is Cameron), tousle-haired (if it is Boris Johnson) and idealistic.

Old conservatism was more straightforward. “Liberty”, as Edmund Burke declared in 1774, “cannot exist at all without order and virtue”. In his “Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol” in 1777, Burke similarly argued that “liberty must be limited in order to be possessed”. But the very idea of the “limitation of liberty” triggers a complicated reflex in most conservatives. The old authoritarian in them would limit liberty on the instant; their “new” libertarian side rebels, or is expected to do so, particularly when others are listening. There is a warring within the conservative soul.

Given this inner conflict, it is not surprising that there has been so much vacuity in Conservative pronouncements, or waffle at a time when the country cannot afford it. The Tory void truly is a hollow place.

David Selbourne’s most recent book is “The Losing Battle With Islam” (Prometheus, £26.95)

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue