There appears to be a hardening consensus behind the opinion that David Cameron, conscious of his electability in the key marginal seats that will decide the election, is seeking to present a Tory party sterilised of the toxicity that has plagued the Tory brand since the downfall of Thatcherism. In the economic sphere this quest for de-toxification has yielded positive results, for with it has come a limited realisation that the Thatcherite acceptance of neo-liberal economic policy was, in a sense, not really conservative at all, since it failed to protect against the excesses of blind markets and monopolising oligarchies precisely those things that conservatives are purported to cherish: the individual, the family, the community. This is a genuine development, and allows reclamation of a conservative thinking that is champion of the people, and protector of the civic realm.
However the development seems to have become stunted, for the Conservative Party seems to have become enchanted with talk of ‘progressiveness’ and the benign persona it bestows, an allure that has proved irresistible even whilst its possession requires the acceptance of the left-liberal worldview that underlies it. This capitulation speaks of a lack of confidence of the merits of genuinely conservative thought; Mr. Cameron has focussed instead, to use the words of Tim Montgomery, on ‘proving progressive credentials to the Left’. Quite why the Conservative Party should feel the need to do this is the point at issue; the answer, one suspects, is because it has accepted the left’s account of what ‘progressive’ thinking looks like. In accepting the terms that frame the debate, the right really has yielded its ideological foundations, and ceded to the interests of the status-quo.
Whilst this might all seem a little cerebral, the point is an important one, because at stake is a genuinely conservative appraisal of the problems that face contemporary society. As Phillip Blond’s Red Tory project has convincingly argued, the homogenisation currently afflicting the political parties consists chiefly in the continuing adherence to a ‘post 1945 embrace of the state and the post 1968 embrace of the individual’. The argument is convincing, for the evidence is there for all to see. Conservative thinking has accepted an authoritarian statism that proceeds under the presumption that the state holds a monopoly on power and is therefore the only legitimate generator, dispenser and guarantor of it (note here how all three parties currently talk of pushing power ‘outwards and downwards’). In addition, for all the Thatcherite talk of ‘small state’ theory her reign brought no perceptible shrinkage of the public sector, and little was done to address the real issue, both then and now, which is the wielding of unwarranted power by a cultural and political oligarchy over a dispossessed majority – a power that needs dissolution, not mere relocation. With regard to the individual, Conservatives have done little to challenge the wholesale adoption of freedom defined as the liberty of the individual to pursue unfettered his or her hedonistic urges so long as no other individual gets hurt, an account which ignores its own rich traditions of the individual as a relational being, from which come notions of personal duty and responsibility that the contemporary liberal consensus finds so abhorrent.
If Blond is correct, and the Conservative Party needs to cultivate its own conservative politics, then there are numerous more pragmatic examples of a similar retreat from the ideological battlefield. To name but a few of the most recent; the imposition of 50:50 shortlists upon local conservative associations, which demonstrates a centralising power-grab by CCHQ and a disempowerment of the rank-and-file, in addition to an embrace of the ‘equality of outcome’ agenda; coolness toward grammar schools, which condones the left’s envious vandalisation of excellence in its own unique attempt to ‘widen access’, despite all the evidence that this protects class interests and denies opportunities to the poor; the uncritical acceptance of the man-made and man-solvable climate change agenda, which reveals a lack of perspective with regard to both the world and the place of the individual within it, and which makes the poor disproportionately liable as a solution; and much more besides.
Whilst Red Toryism has found favour, it has also attracted its fair share of legitimate opposition. Nonetheless, it has least drawn an ideological battle line and sought to offer a unique brand of conservatism that challenges the liberal status-quo and the power interests that reside there. For the electorate, however, there is no such luck. The choice facing us might mischievously be depicted as between a left-liberalism that calls itself Labour and a left-liberalism that calls itself Conservative, the only distinction between the two being the manner in which they choose to enact their homogeneity (‘we believe the same things, but we’ll use conservative means to achieve them’). If the electorate, possessing the wisdom that the intellectuals of Westminster so often lack, continue to desert the current political settlement as offering no real choice, as being unrepresentative of common opinion, as defending nothing but the interests of the cultural elite, then one would have to commend their perception and hope that their justifiable apathy might eventually translate into a genuine change within the political classes.
In the meantime, for those concerned with how conservative thinking might rediscover its vocation and offer the electorate that genuine choice, one is left with the question posed at the outset; could Red Toryism insert a dose of conservatism back into the Conservative Party?
This article appeared on ConservativeHome on September 21, 2009.