The debate about the future of the Conservative Party is now in full flow, and may soon turn a little ugly. However, almost all of its participants do at least have one thing in common: they are far more distinguished than me. I have tried to come up with a good argument as to why anyone should listen to the opinions of this erstwhile Conservative Central Office researcher. Unfortunately, the only one I can offer is that I think I’m right – which will hardly serve to allay suspicions that I’m being dreadfully self-indulgent. But, well, here goes anyway. As the Americans say, what follows is just my two cents.
Fortunately, young people are beginning to assume most-favoured status in the Conservative Party, so maybe someone important will listen to me after all. Associations throughout the country are supposedly crying out for younger blood. The next Leader may well be young, and those who surround them will certainly be so. There are many who hope that this will lead to a shift in attitudes and policies, which in turn will finally make us electable. We should proceed with caution.
On the one hand, it will certainly be welcome if the Young Turks persuade the Party to embrace more
issues. A concern about the environment is of course not exclusive to younger people, but there is much evidence that it matters to them a great deal. It should matter to all Conservatives. We should care passionately about the implications of climate change and of waste, about the erosion of the green belt, and about the degradation of our cities. At the risk of sounding fatuous, it is not a coincidence that the words ‘conservative’ and ‘conservation’ are spelt so similarly. If we can establish that connection in a tangible way, whilst talking more broadly about quality of life issues, we can get whole swathes of people to vote for us who have not done so recently.
But there will be a cost. The Party will have to engage in some pretty serious expectation management. If we are genuine about wanting to protect our environment, we will have to get serious about air travel and housebuilding. This would inevitably involve price rises. Equally inevitably, that would upset a lot of voters, particularly young ones, but there is no way out. Because – and here’s the rub – the Conservative Party cannot be all things to all people.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the matter of Britain’s relations with the European Union. The Tory Party has attempted to tread a fine line between europhiles and eurosceptics for several elections. The conventional wisdom is that under Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard we have done that successfully, and many MPs have been hugely relieved that there has been far less internal squabbling on the subject. Their contentment is misplaced.
Ultimately the two sides of this divide cannot reach an accommodation. Either the UK is to be a sovereign nation, or it is not. Either we are to lock ourselves into a federal polity with a group of countries that do not make natural allies, or we are not. Either we are to regress further into the failed economic theories of social democracy, or we are going to pursue a low tax economy and free trade agreements with nations all over the globe. Sooner or later, there has to be a final reckoning.
It should come now. There is no question about which vision more accurately reflects the core values of the Conservative Party, nor about which vision the more Tory MPs and activists subscribe to. And happily, it is also perfectly clear which approach is the more electorally profitable. The largely hidden story from the recent General Election is the huge number of seats in which the Conservative candidate would have won had they been the beneficiary of votes cast for UKIP.
Euro enthusiasts, whether in the Conservative Party or outside it, like to think of themselves as more urbane, progressive and modern than those of us who dislike the European Union. Let them think it. The public knows better than that, and a majority of them are crying out for us to say the same. Of course we shouldn’t be looking to shed supporters. But if a few Europhile activists leave the Conservatives – even a few MPs past or present – that will still be a price worth paying.
With this confidence in mind, whoever wins the Tory crown should be cynical about some of the more extreme pleas for ‘modernisation’. I am not talking about acknowledging and respecting the fact that some people are homosexual. Nor am I denying that we need more top-class female and ethnic minority MPs – although I would resist calls to gerrymander the selection process in order to achieve those goals at all costs. And of course our spokesmen should pay attention to what they wear, and how they phrase their arguments. I am instead talking about - and rejecting - the claim that the Conservatives should extend as far as possible the social liberalisation that began in the 1960s.
Younger MPs and officials are particularly eager that the Conservative Party should become ultra-libertarian. There are many who would cheerfully see, for example, prostitution and all drugs legalised. They recoil in horror if a Christian MP expresses distaste for abortion, and they would have contraception handed out to minors in schools on a massive scale. These polices would be complimented by tax cuts and the slashing of central government.
This would be utterly wrong-headed. It would constitute a grotesque betrayal of the most vulnerable in society. It is almost universally accepted that the legalisation of drugs would lead to greater drug use. Therefore we would see a huge increase in mental health problems and personal tragedy, and watch burglary and robbery shoot through the roof. Just because the vendor was no longer a criminal does not mean that the user would stop his criminal ways. People with hardcore heroin habits do not hold down well-paid jobs (unless they are pop stars).
Prostitutes are less likely to be self-confident middle-class women who love sex than the drug-addicted victims of childhood abuse. Meanwhile, handing out condoms to 12 year olds is not merely a response to reality, it helps to shape it. Abortion is always likely to remain a matter of personal conscience for an MP, and there are no signs that abortion is going to be completely outlawed in this country any time soon. As such, no-one should get their knickers in a twist if an individual MP is pro-life.
There are some in the Party who privately have comparatively little sympathy for libertarianism, but who feel we must go down that route to win votes. Nonsense. Most people do not lie awake at night worrying about the fact that it is illegal to use hookers. Nor is a libertarian approach the way to convince middle class types who want ‘moral permission’ to vote Conservative. The Thatcherite age was unfairly maligned as heartless and cruel. The best way to convince the doubters that this image of the Tory Party is accurate is to declare that government will take no interest if you want to descend into decadence and despair, and does not recognise that when an individual does so descend, he rarely hurts only himself.
That is not to say that government has all the answers, or that government is always the panacea. The National Health Service is over half-a-century old. Labour and the Lib Dems are going to accuse the Conservatives of wanting to wreck healthcare whatever we propose. We may as well bite the bullet and instigate essential root and branch reform. Only ardent lefties think that the NHS itself has some inherent moral value. These people are never going to vote for us, or endorse us in their newspaper columns.
We should resist the promised land of localism. This is the theory that much of what central government does should be done instead by local councils and authorities. It is a crazy notion, simply involving the replacement of one bureaucratic mess with another. Many things should not be done by the state at all, and we should look much more carefully at how the private and voluntary sector can take over, or at least help with, certain services. Tim Montgomerie, a former Central Office official who is now working with the Centre for Social Justice, is a leading figure in this exploration.
Those areas that do
need some state involvement usually require the firm guiding hand of Whitehall. The state normally has a role when everyone benefits equally from provision (such as with defence) or when it is impossible to predict who will benefit most (such as with healthcare and education). There is no evidence that Britons want these services to vary wildly from county to county. It just isn’t true that people in Yorkshire want a healthcare or police service that is profoundly different to what is wanted in Oxfordshire. Innovation should be left to experts in the field, not to councillors - too many of which are corrupt or halfwitted. At a time when the Conservative Party is booming at local government level, this argument may not go down well. But it is right.
The new generation of Conservatives, among which I have only a very humble place, risks becoming consumed by its own self-importance (he says, in an article telling the Party what to believe and how to act!). Largely cocooned in the Westminster Village, it has made assumptions about the values of its peers and of the rest of the nation that are horribly distorted. Instead of simply looking through the prism of the young and wealthy metropolitan class, the next Tory Leader should also be informed by those enduring conservative values that have been proven over time.
The Tory Party is at its best when it does two things. First it recognises the merits of established British institutions, of national sovereignty, of free trade, and of a human being’s inherent worth. Then it starts from these core principles to adapt to the changing times; no-one serious would suggest the Party should not change at all. But now is not the time to lose our nerve. The country is fed up with Labour. It is crying out for a decent but unapologetic Conservative Party. If the new Leader offers them that, they will