What is the point of the modern Conservative party?

4 March 2013

3:16 PM

4 March 2013

3:16 PM

Who are the Conservatives? No, really, who are they and what do they stand for? Once upon a time – as James Kirkup points out in a typically astute post – we had a pretty decent idea about David Cameron. He was young. Polished. Presentable.  Dutiful. Unthreatening. Fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal. Modern (whatever, as Prince Charles might say, that means). Above all, he was neither Michael Howard nor Gordon Brown.

Ah well. That was all a long time ago. Let sunshine win the day is the soundtrack to another era. Such are the trials of government. Time – and power – tarnish everything.

What does David Cameron believe in now? He remains more popular than his party but sometimes you have to think that’s a pretty feeble standard for success. A form of grade inflation, if you will. (And the backbenchers are restless now.)

Perhaps I’m mistaken but it seems to me that Cameron’s recent manoevers have hurt his own reputation while doing nothing to advance his party’s prospects. There’s a lot of scurrying about but little sign of any firm strategy.

Consider the leaflet pictured above (plundered from Fiona Melville). This was distributed to voters in the dying days of the Eastleigh by-election campaign. Consider the message it sends: vote for the Tory candidate because she’s endorsed by a politician from a rival party for which you would not yourself often vote. Brilliant! Worse still: vote for Maria Hutchings because she appeals to people whom the Prime Minister himself has previously called “fruitcakes” and “closet racists”. Who thought of that?

Now perhaps this was just a last, desperate, ploy in the final days of a disastrous by-election campaign. But it also shows how the Tories have allowed themselves to be spooked by the UKIP phantom. They have become so obsessed with protecting their right flank they’ve forgotten that overloading their defences on the right leaves them exposed elsewhere.


Despite what some people might have you believe I can assure you that the general public does not in fact consider this a left-wing government. This Conservative government is actually perceived as being pretty right-wing. The people may be wrong but that’s what they think.

And why wouldn’t they? The Tories have been very good at telling the country what they don’t like but rather less good at telling us what they do like. There is a negativity about the government these days that is rotting its ability to tell a good story. We know what the Tories are against but not what they are for.

They’re against foreign judges, foreign workers and foreign students. They’re against people on benefits or in receipt of tax credits and they’re against “free” university education. Worst of all, perhaps, they’re against taxing millionaires and remain blind to the damage cutting the top rate of tax for the very richest Britons has done them. Then, though a little unfairly, they’re seen as being against gay people’s desire to marry each other and, more generally, they’re seen as being against (or at least uncomfortable with) much of modern British life. Some of this is the result of unfair (and often hostile) media exaggeration but not all of it.

Individually, these positions may have some merit; collectively they risk making the Tories seem a party for sour and angry people who rather resent the country they live in.

The headline polling figures are pretty grim for the Tories but they’re less important than some of the horrors lurking beneath the surface. One recent poll found Tory support amongst women had slumped to just 26 per cent. Just as importantly, only 31 per cent of respondents reckoned Cameron “cares about people like me“. As recently as 2010 that figure was 42 per cent.

Of course a stagnant economy helps explain much of this. Nevertheless, the Conservatives have not helped themselves. Perhaps gay marriage really is a ‘distraction’ from the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues about which people care. But if so it may also be that Europe is also a distraction. It matters enormously to a smallish number of people but is still, in the end, a minority passion. Vehemence should not be confused with salience.

And yet the Tory party appears convulsed by the European Court of Human Rights. (A place where, incidentally, the British government lost just ten cases last year.) In any case, they’ll need a Conservative majority in 2015 to leave the ECHR. What price that?

If there is any relief to any of this it is that Ed Miliband has not defined himself either. I still fancy that Miliband is a tree from which the bark may be stripped in a general election campaign but the Labour leader’s own weakness and his struggle to refresh the Labour party is still a shoogly peg upon which to hang Tory election strategy.

And yet, despite all this, the government has some good stories to tell. Recent setbacks notwithstanding, there’s a good story to be told about education reform. The same is true of employment growth and even, if the framing is done properly, of welfare reform. But we don’t hear very much of these things and nor do we hear much talk of what the government is actually doing. Instead the party bangs on and on and on about what it is against but only rarely about what it is for.

You could, often, be forgiven for thinking that Britain must be a pretty dismal, desperate place these days. You expect the opposition to make that suggestion; it’s not a good idea for the government to talk in that fashion too. Some optimism right now would be no bad thing.

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Show comments
  • Manicz

    Conservatives stand only for themselves, many are mere career politicians who have no great love for politics except for what it can afford them, so it comes down to not what they can do for the country but more upon the line of what the country can do for them and that does not include many of the citizens who have no positive part in their policies for the manner they wish to run the country. Conservatism is the ugly face of what happens when greed has it’s way and it remains unchecked and continues to consider itself superior on a class and financial level in an arrogant manner, in many respects it becomes a platform not for political ideals for what the party represents in relation to the country and the policies they make but more in relation to what they may gain collectively as conservatives, many hold to extremist views on a fascist level and history underlines that fact. Wealth is no shield against the truth of their actions because their words mean even less when they come from the mouth of privilege.

  • Night Stalker
  • Grrr8

    Think Nick Boles read your piece before his interview in the Saturday Times.

  • Jambo25

    There was another excellent article in the Guardian from John Harris pointing out that there is no conservative party in the UK and hasn’t been since the time of Douglas-Home. Since the time of the awful Heath we’ve had a party of activist, right wing radicals wedded to social liberalism and fiscal austerity. Heath lost his nerve and back-tracked on it. He was got rid off and ‘La Thatch’ was brought in. She and her mates confirmed the Tories in their right-wing radical path.

    ‘La Thatch’ got away with it due to the Labour Party obligingly ripping itself to bits until the 90s; the Argentines obligingly invading the Falklands and the black stuff obligingly by gurgling out of the North Sea and giving ‘La Thatch’ megabucks to play with. If one or two of these things hadn’t been available I wonder how successful, electorally, the Tories would have been in the 80s and 90s? As it was, even with all 3 of these things, ‘La Thatch’ managed to make the Tories unelectable in Scotland and much of the North of England. The Tories are still struggling with this today. Those Tories who fondly remember ‘La Thatch’ and despise the coalition should remember that they are probably only in the coalition due to the need to ‘borrow’ Lib Dem voters and MPs from Scotland and the North of England as they are incapable of getting sufficient (or any) MPs of their own elected there. ‘La Thatch’ destroyed ‘One Nation’ Toryism and this is the result.

    ‘New Labour’ were a slightly softer version of Thatcherite activism and we now are back to Thatcher’s Children with the Cameroons. Social liberalism and fiscal austerity to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Guess what? Traditional Tories don’t like it.

  • adam_01

    Perhaps putting a comment such as “can’t win here” (which is what Labour did to the LibDems in the 1990s) signals a conservative overtake from out of nowhere.

  • andagain

    If there is any relief to any of this it is that Ed Miliband has not defined himself either. I still fancy that Miliband is a tree from which the bark may be stripped in a general election campaign but the Labour leader’s own weakness and his struggle to refresh the Labour party is still a shoogly peg upon which to hang Tory election strategy.

    I have always thought that both Labour and the Tories would be a lot better off if they spent less time worrying about their own core supporters and activists.The more internally democratic they become, the less attention they appear to pay to anyone else.

  • andagain

    Perhaps gay marriage really is a ‘distraction’ from the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues about which people care.

    Their own members appear to think otherwise, judgeing from the amount of time they spend complaining about it. They seem to think it is very important, when they are not telling people what a distraction it is.

    • adam_01

      I think it was a rallying cry to the average married couple, that Britain lacks even a normal worldview on so many things. Of course one day gay marriage will be globally a “consensus” policy but at the moment it strikes of the Brussels mandat which was about to insist first on recognition of it by 2014. I agree with it by the way, but still think Cameron failed to listen to his own backbenchers again.

  • David Barnett

    manoeuvres – surely?

  • terence patrick hewett

    A small political party was started in Britain around the year 1900 and within 20 odd years overtook the Liberal Party in popularity and was helping to form governments; it was called the Labour Party. Interestingly Ukip was formed around 1993 about 20 years ago.

  • ben corde

    There is no point unless you want more lies, broken promises and jam tomorrow that will never be spread. Why do you think we’re all voting for UKIP. WE DON’T TRUST DC. (More AC than DC)

    • Democritus


    • Grrr8

      All the loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists you mean 😉

      • Wessex Man

        No we’ll leave them for you to deal with

  • SimonToo

    Clearly what is needed is someone in a senior position in the party who is competent at either PR or marketing.

  • Youbian

    “They’re against foreign judges, foreign workers and foreign students. They’re against people on benefits or in receipt of tax credits and they’re against “free” university education. Worst of all, perhaps, they’re against taxing millionaires and remain blind to the damage cutting the top rate of tax for the very richest Britons has done them.”

    Actually no. There are lots of ‘fors’. I am for talent and meritocracy, for low taxes for all and for encouraging enterprise. For making money if you want to so you can spend it better than the state – thus a lower rate for everybody including the richest. It helps everyone. I am for self- responsibility. If you want an education then pay for it. Encourage savings too. Encourage a strong, competitive economy and an educated workforce. Surprisingly most of highly educated Asia pay for their own education because they are allowed to save with low taxes.

    And as for your final comment… There is nothing wrong with millionnaires. Even Communist China thinks it is a good idea to have some. And I would rather most of the world’s millionnaires were here contributing to this economy not in another country. I am afraid your comments are just petty socialist jealousies. I probably earn far, far less than you but I do understand good economics. Socialism doesn’t work.

    • adam_01

      I agree Youbian, the fors outweigh the cons. The point on China is excellent, we are not too brainwashed by the BBC in the country to be able to distinguish between inherited wealth (questionable) to self-made wealth (heavily rewarded, or at least it should be, as abroad to create more for everyone). If any party was to insist the rich living here could all only pass on 75% of their wealth on death we might actually have a fair system rather than it being a cop-out for the well-advised. Also UKIP actually having lower taxes for all is economically credible, it just hasn’t been tried.

  • Augustus

    Conservative principles and bedrock institutions like marriage should be viewed as timeless, and not subject to the mere whim of polls, public opinion, and cultural fads.

  • Estelle Wolfers

    The European Court of Human Rights, which adjudicates a convention that British lawyers largely wrote, that we were one of the first nations to sign *sixty-two* years ago. Which rights, exactly, do they want us not to have? Or, as I suspect, they want rights only to apply to the non-imprisoned British-born.

    • Democritus

      They want to get rid of the whole of the Human Rights act (UK) that was passed by parliament. But if they felt so strongly about it why didn’t they put it in their last manifesto and deal with it now? Probably because they didn’t feel that strongly about it.

      Tory HQ are fighting a rear guard action to try to stem the loss of supporters to UKIP by promising a referendum on the EU and ditching the HRA. But not until after the next election! The message is quite clear “Vote UKIP and the tories will lose. Vote Tory and we will trash the HRA and leave the EU” A message of desperation it would seem!

      • adam_01

        Estelle you are a model of state charity. Unfortunately the enlarged EU is expected to cost too much in terms of housing benefit and other benefits due to non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality and a short window after which all such claiming rights apply here to our more generous system than there. So either we wind up the welfare state, which is not our aim, or we and I daresay UKIP, restrict it to those who may have contributed to it, or at least were born here, and therefore may find it easier to get a job here. Or we can carry on pandering to those who say it should not matter where you are born and inviting them all to a country being dragged to financial ruin all because you insist you tax us so much.

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    10 judgements lost is a 40% loss rate of those cases that had any foundation, all 2400 cases would have required very expensive legal advice to be taken

    As for the rest of the article it’s a lot of supposition. How do you know what the public thinks? If you’re relying on surveys then I and many others tell them to clear off, I’ve better things to do than telling strangers what I think of BBC4 or whether Ed Miliband is stronger on the EU than Clegg ( I note you use the phrase beloved of the left “Europe” in order to paint Conservatives as little Englanders) . What sort of pathetic individual thinks David Cameron or any politician cares about them? Is the state your mother now?

    • andagain

      The state has power over me, does it not? So it seems perfectly sensible to think it important whether the people at the top are on my side.

  • Nick Pearce

    “there’s a good story to be told about education reform”

    would you care to share a synopsis? looks like a shambles to me!

    • Democritus

      I have a story. The school up the road sent me a letter a few days ago stating that they are going to apply to become a “free school”. At the moment they are an independent school that charges parents to educate their children. As a free school they will charge the government to teach the same children!

      • Daniel Maris

        There’s going to be a lot more of that once people realise you can have an (effectively) selective independent school paid for by the state.

        • Wessex Man

          nothing wrong with that, after all we have paid the state more than enough!

        • adam_01

          nothing wrong at all. Wealthy benefactors have often paid for facilities that are the envy of other schools.

      • andagain

        That should please the left. They have always wanted state education to expand to replace private education.

        They will now be able to send their children to this school without being called hypocrits.

  • Nick Reid

    You’re being a bit negative. Pretty easy to make a list of things the Tories are for – better schools/teachers/exams, low mortgage rates, lower taxes for all, more business start ups, more exports, more inward investment etc etc

    The trouble is too many of the Tories natural supporters never mention any of these things. We have the lowest mortgage rates ever, more business start ups than ever before, a (albeit slow) manufacturing revival, and the lowest corporation tax of major country in Europe outside Ireland. And yet there is constant sniping from the right wing fringe of the Tory party who just never seems satisfied.,

    • Grrr8

      U r making Alex’s point for him.

    • Jambo25

      They haven’t managed to achieve any of those things they are for yet and show no sign of being able to do.

  • The Red Bladder

    I would need an awful lot of convincing that there is a need for any of our present political parties. Surely there enough chiselers, cheats, self-serving egomaniacs, unimaginative buffoons and downright scoundrels walking our streets that could be pressed into service without all the hullabaloo created by those stupid enough to join The Party?

    • trevor21

      If I could recommend you a million times I would.Very well said,Sir.

  • FF42

    The odd thing is that politics is getting more ideological at the same time as the electorate is getting less so. Or, at least, less partisan.

    My, undoubtedly useless, advice to Mr Cameron is make a pitch for competence. He can make as good claim on that basis as anyone else. “You go on about the EU, human rights etc etc. I prefer to sort out the economy, health service – whatever – real people’s problems. What do you do?”

    • The Red Bladder

      That sounds a reasonable proposition so therefore has absolutely no chance of going any further than your comment

    • Grrr8

      But then you have the economy which is an unmitigated disaster.

      The problem w/ the competence pitch vs the ideology/ values pitch is that the former is difficult to prove to voters. Chris Mullins in his excellent diaries points out that despite both anecdotal and data based evidence of rising living standards under new Labour, his constituents were permanently dissatisfied.

    • Democritus

      Actually that’s the same advice Lord Ashcroft (ex Tory donor) gave. They didn’t listen to him either.

  • Iain Herd

    Conservatives stand today for what we’ve always stood for – with the exception of a small clique at the top – wealth creation, low tax and enterprise, as recently described by Nigel Farage.

    • martinvickers

      You see, Iain, that’s the odd thing – what you’ve described is not conservatism at all – it’s neo liberal mercantilism – or more poetically, Thatcherism/Reaganomics. nothing wrong with it, of course, but the fact you misname speaks to something.

      Here’s the key, key point of conservatism. It’s anti-radical – more than anything else, conservatism, actual conservatism is about ‘conserving’ the existing successful institutions and understandings, defending them against radicallism and ideology, and a distinct preference for ‘evolution’ over ‘revolution’.

      Yet this government is dominated by radicals and reactionaries – which is just a kind of nostalgia radicalism by a different name. The education revolution is libertarian, and possibly neo liberal – but conservative it ain’t (Gove doesn’t have a ‘conservative’ bone in his body). Duncan Smith’s reforms are radical, not conservative.

      And lets be clear – denunciation of both the ECHR and the EU would be radical, not conservative. whether it would be a good idea or not is open to discussion – but conservative, it ain’t.

      The Gay marriage debate, oddly, has been relatively conservative – partial legalisation of homosexuality in the sixities, full legalisation later, then anti-homophobia laws, then civil partnerships, then gay marriage. An evolution, each step discussed and debated with vigour – and those who oppose gay marriage can do so very well on very classical conservative grounds – (there’s nothing wrong with civil partnerships, they work well, give them more time, there could be uncomfortable unseen consequences of change for changes sake, etc…)

      Think back, if you can, to the feelgood factor of the Olympics – mass volunteerism, traditional british humour, the stirling work of the armed forces, ceremonies that centred on shared cultural experiences rather than mad innovation, national pride and support…mixed in with a new appreciation of the benifits of multiculturalism properly handled(super saturday for starters), with a delicate and clever balancing of the trusted old and the exciting new.

      In other words, we didn’t try to reinvent the wheel – we just said “you know, aren’t wheels really bloody good ideas?” and proceeded to put all out might into creating some really top class ones – Refitting Eton Dorney, Horseguards parade, the serpentine, Greenwich – creating the new (olympic stadium) only when we had to.

      That is actual conservatism – careful, loving of tradition but not hide-bound, evolution of and with the past.

      The Conservative party forgot that in the white heat excitement of 1979 – understandably; the country was in a crisis. But that crisis passed, bu the conservatives never returned to conservatism.

      And it’s that, coupled, sadly with a healthy dose of fairly unpleasant foreigner dislike, that has catapulted UKIP forward. UKIP seem to love the traditions, understand them – that some of them, i repeat some, can hide a fair dollop of basic misanthropy behind it is at least partially the fault of the conservative party for forgetting it’s raison d’etre.

      • adam_01

        “Thatcherism/Reaganomics” I’m sorry but that’s just personal, not really historical. Are you a Stephanomics reader by any chance?

        • martinvickers

          Stephanomics? Just had to google that.

          The answer is no.

          By the way, why are you suggesting personal and historical are mutually exclusive?

          • adam_01

            I am not, but to portray any strongly parodied 20th century leader (for other reasons) as being identical to today’s conservatism is wrong. In fact the conservatives are more “big society” and “wishy washy” by far than any of the examples you mention. And UKIP are just confident in a dose of free markets helping out, which is not the same as the two people you mention, who wanted instead centrally to transform society. I don’t think that is what UKIP are for, as they want more localism.

            • martinvickers

              I’m not suggesting for a second that the current lot are ‘identical’ to Thatcher and her government – rather that Thatcher’s undoubted radicalism (you admit yourself she wanted to ” centrally…transform society” – that is inherently unconservative) untethered the Big C party from the small c philosophy – and tied it instead to deregulation and neoliberalism. No longer a party of Nelsons and Wellingtons, soldiors and statesman, solidly defending the isles but of Drakes and Raleighs, romantic privateers…

              There is a very strong argument that this was precisely what was needed at the time.

              But the big C party has never recovered its basic small c philosophy, hence it’s clear philosophical drift into the wider waters of neoliberal deregulation, and a big warm fuzzy mess from the leadership on social issues.

              Thatcher was NOT a conservative. she was a classic neo-liberal. Unfortunately for her, she never was able to square that with the EC project – somehow she wanted all the benefits of free trade abroad, and none of the drawbacks (like those pesky foreign beepers wanting the same rights in return in terms of labour, travel and capital). She had to make do with charisma to keep the game together.

              A true conservative would never have sacrificed the mining and manufactuing core of the country and put so many of the eggs in a City basket – to the point that we now have not just individual banks, but a whole industry that is Too Big To Fail, forcing governments into policies that are frankly destructive of the country in the long term. That was an ideological decision, and conservatives, small c, are anti-ideologue.

              Hence the utter mess today – where every thatcherite bone in Cameron’s body (there are a few, not many, but a few) cries out to engage in free market adventures, yet his remaining shire true conservatives want nothing more than the deeply illiberal instinct to pull up up the drawbridge, on the romanians, bulgarians, germans, and european in general.

              Hence the stupidity over a ‘renegotiated’ EU (hint, ain’t never gonna happen), withdrawing from ECHR

              BTW “Big Society” isn’t worth a beaker of warm spit – it’s simply a ‘warmer’ way of trying to say “rollback of the state” – an attempt of sorts at ‘compassionate neo-liberalism’ without actually understanding either word.

              UKIP’s localism would last exactly as long a it took for parts of England to rebel against it. It’s localism is a tactic, not a philosophy. The clue is in the name of the party – it’s basic unit of definition is the UK – not something bigger, and not something smaller.

              What UKIP do understand, on a gut level, is the borderland between conservatism (stop changing things!!) and reactionism (Change everything – back!!) – it’s where a fair proportion of the tory shires emotionally live, in an imagined land of post war stoicism. From that hardy place, they can make all the other parties look inauthentic, because they alone at the moment are comfortable embracing, rather than challenging, the contradictions in the country’s psyche.

              • trevor21

                ‘Butskillism’ was a somewhat pejorative term in its day but there was much in it that spoke to the underlying psyche of the British people. It was an approach that squared the circle of the dynamic towards disintegration that are the perennial forces within Capital and Labour. The simple point is that the present Neocons have forgotten that the vast majority of British people fall within a broad line of just a shade left or right of the true Liberal centre. I myself would be called,today a ‘far-left’ socialist yet this is only in view of the skewed false centre that exists within our broadly Neocon politics. In the old,pre-Thatcher, politics I would have been a solid supporter of the SDP.

      • trevor21

        A very good piece,Martin and,as a Socialist I have to say that your completely right. If the Conservatives were still as you recall them then I,for one, would be very afraid because such a true Conservative party would be virtually unbeatable. It is only because the Tories have become such cruel radicals and have disavowed their past that I am filled with confidence that Labour, with all its faults,and there are many, will win a majority in 2015. If we Socialists were facing the Conservative party of the past we wouldn’t stand a chance.

    • andagain

      And yet they seem to spend all their time talking about how much they hate the EU, immigration, gay marriage and benefit claimants.

      And the only tax rates they seem to care about cutting are those for high earners and the rich.