22 May 2006
A modest proposal for the Tory Party
Something is going wrong when a Scargillite socialist has to explain to the Conservative Party just what is going wrong with their world. The Tories have now lost three elections in a row. Their local election results were good, but not brilliant, and the the polling figures show them stuck behind Nu-Labour. Can the party recover? For that to happen the Tories need to get back to the past as quickly as possible.
For most of the twentieth century the Conservatives represented the interests of the English upper middle-class, the A/Bs as the advertisers call them. With that bedrock of support they could then appeal to other groups, based on whatever pragmatic policies seemed right at the time. Of course those policies could never run counter to the interests of the upper middle-classes, but that still left plenty of scope for political gaming.
Thus when the Liberals became the temperance party in the late nineteenth century, the Tories were quite happily to recruit in the pubs. Until the middle of the last century the Tory vote in Scotland and parts of Northern England was an Orange vote. The Orange drum was never banged as loudly in Manchester as it was in Glasgow, but a Protestant Mancunian was as likely to vote Conservative as he was to support Manchester City. For their part the Catholics voted Labour and cheered on Manchester United. Finally, the 1950s Tory governments used to taunt Labour that they, the Tories, had built more council houses than had the previous Attlee government.
This policy of pragmatic opportunism helped ensure that the Tories remained as the natural party of government. During their rare periods in opposition the Tories could cheerfully oppose most of what the government of the day proposed. Once the swings and roundabouts of politics brought them back into government again, they would accept those bits of recent legislation that seemed either popular or necessary and jetison the rest. Then they carried on governing.
Two things happened to ruin this cosy arrangement. The first was the introduction of party democracy to the Tory Party. It probably seemed like a good idea to dispose of the magic circle of party grandees that had previously chosen the leader, but this system of informal consultation had kept the party firmly in responsible hands. Once it had gone, then sooner or later the party would fall into the paws of its rank and file, the suburban lower middle-class.
The election of Margaret Thatcher may very well have owed more to a desire in the parliamentary party to see the back of Edward Heath, but it did lead directly to something that the Tories had never had before: an overt ideology. That is not to say that the party did not believe in anything prior to 1979, but what it didn't do was put forward any type of ideology that could be used to test a government's policies against. The Thatcherite ideology, basically a Whiggish mix of low taxation and limited government, was guaranteed to appeal to the party's membership, but it has been the bane of the Conservatives ever since. Whatever policy the leadership comes up with is now bound to run up against a group within the party who will claim that the policy runs counter to the ideology. In the past the Tories could sit back and watch as the Labour Party tore itself to pieces from time to time as a result of some ideological battle: now the Conservatives are doing exactly the same thing.
Secondly, by the late twentieth century the Tories were rapidly becoming the Nasty Party; the party of rancid people who thought that chaining female prisoners up when they were about to give birth was a good idea. Via policies like this, and through the personalities of the people who defended those policies, the impression was given that the Tories were, frankly, not the type of people that anyone else wanted near them.
During the Thatcher years, the Tories were driven into extinction in Scotland, Wales and most of Northern England. Most of that was due to their anti-industrial agenda, but that does not account for their failure to recover after Thatcher was driven from office. That failure, a failure that has now covered almost a decade, to say nothing of four Conservative leaders, probably owes more to the nasty taste that modern Toryism has left in the British people's mouths.
To make matters worse, the party's leadership has decided that modern Conservatism needs to reflect the face of modern Britain; thus the recently issued A-List of favoured parliamentary candidates is made up of a strange gang of minor personalities, very un-Tory women and plain weirdos.
This looks set to create a new bout of civil war as those who have found themselves out in the cold seek to reverse this decision. The fact that the losers are as unappealing as the winners doesn't seem to have entered anyone's head.
The end result of all this ideological infighting is that the Tory Party has been reduced to a Southern English regional party. To make matters worse, they no longer represent the metropolitan elite, instead they are seen as the voice of the "narrow-minded, crass and insensitive" denizens of the new towns and nasty suburbs.
So what is the modest proposal? Namely that the Tories stop bothering about representing the changing face of modern Britain and select candidates who basically appeal to enough British people so that a Tory government can be formed. This would probably mean ample-bottomed, middle-aged, white businessmen and professionals. Men who have gravitas and who have made it, or, more probably, have inherited it. The Tories should stop looking for people who want to become somebody by entering the House of Commons in other words. The proper place for those people is as county councillors and party workers. They can spend their lives drawing up motions for the party conference that will never be acted upon, and good luck to them.
Secondly, the Tories should stop emulating the other parties and should drop their overt ideology. They would be far better advised to go back to the past and simply oppose the government's actions. They need to look for divisions in the government ranks that they can exploit - hardly a difficult task in 2006 one would have thought.
Will they have the wit to do this? That question must remain hanging in the air for the time being.