The Conservatives always do a lot worse than Labour in polls that ask about how proud voters feel of their party. They’re hoping that ‘shy Tories’ might still win them the election, but it’s pretty pathetic that more than 20 years since the phenomenon was first identified, Conservatives still haven’t found a way to remove the stigma and convince the electorate that right-wing politics is about making people’s lives better. Social justice, compassion and coolness are now strictly the domain of the Left in the public consciousness, which makes it all the more baffling that the Tories decided to leave principle and passion out of this election campaign to fight on a dry message of past economic competence.
As Fraser has argued, people don’t vote based on what you’ve done but on what you’re going to do. Boring on about your past economic achievements isn’t going to inspire nearly enough people to win a majority. Conservatism has a long and proud history and it wouldn’t have been too difficult to come up with another, more ideological message to sit alongside their economic case.
In 1923, Noel Skelton laid a similar charge at the door of the Conservative party.
Between the pure political principle which lies at the core of any living Party and the expression of it in legislation or otherwise by a Government there must be some loss of quality. The wine cannot be poured from the golden to the silver cup without parting with some of its fragrance. That is one of the inevitable features of the translation of thought into action…Failure of the Conservative Party to realise and express the vital elements in its faith would produce a wave of disillusionment and disgust sufficient to overwhelm utterly the ship and its precious cargo. It does not help at all to recall how often, in the past, the Conservative Party has failed, when in power, to realise and express its principles, has mumbled instead of speaking out, has drawn back instead of moving on, and how, despite it all, confidence in the essential truth of these principles remains one of the deepest-rooted political instincts of Britain.
If they were looking for ideas about how best to express those principles, P D James did it beautifully just before the 1997 election:
Conservatism has always been less a set of rigid political theories than an instinctive way of looking at human beings and at the society which they comprise…Conservatism believes that people are more important than systems, and that what matters most is the freedom of the individual under the law, whether we think in religious terms of the individual human soul or of a unique human personality.
Conservatism is patriotic but not jingoistic; the love of country runs deep in the party and comprises a love of the land itself, a respect for its institutions, its history and traditions and a reluctance to change unless change can be proved to be necessary. If change is not necessary, it may be necessary not to change. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, ‘We grow conservative as we grow old, it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious; we grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine.’
Conservatism doesn’t believe that politics should be a substitute for religion and is wary of utopian ideals; the road to the promised land is too often paved with tyranny. Conservatives believe that people are both happier and better if they are allowed the freedom to direct their own lives, to decide how their money should be spent, to save and know that what they have built up will be bequeathed unplundered to their children, to decide how those children shall be educated.
At a time when a lot of voters accuse all the parties of being as bad as each other, it’s more important than ever for conservatives to appeal to hearts as well as minds, to make a moral as well as a managerial case for giving them another term in government.