Does the Conservative Party have an Ideology?

I have not made up my mind about whether the election of Ed Milliband as Labour leader was a good or a bad development for the Conservative Party.  Most of the Newspaper journalists seem to think it was a good thing.  I have to admit that I was unprepared for Ed Milliband’s victory.  I am playing “catch up” in my quest to become informed about him.  The only observation that I can make is that his victory was a great achievement by any standard. 

Ed Milliband’s victory has triggered off an interesting debate in The Times about whether or not the Conservative Party has an ideology. 

In his recent book “The Third Man,” Peter Mandelson suggested that David Cameron did not have an ideology.

“He has values but he doesn’t have a set of fixed, political beliefs that flow from a particular political outlook or philosophy,” said Mandelson.

There are some conservatives who would probably agree with that.  Back in April Bob Tyrell of the BBC wrote a piece “Is British Politics Ideology Free?”  He observed that this impression might easily be conveyed since so much politics is fought on the centre ground.  Citing an interesting observation by David Willetts, then shadow Educations spokesman, he wrote:

David Willetts is the Conservative’s shadow education secretary and one of the party’s leading thinkers.

He describes the political debate today as rather like a contest between different blends of coffee or whisky – “who’s got the better blend of a competitive economy and social justice and community.”

Far from regretting the absence of big ideological clashes he also welcomes the fact that politics is no longer a case of “one party that solely believes in a modern market economy and doesn’t understand society and the other party that is solely committed to some sense of social obligation to others and doesn’t understand a market economy.”

However, the parties have to come from somewhere.  Their rhetoric gives them away and even if pragmatism is the final force guiding policymaking, it is ideology which drives the debate.  As Tyrell concludes:

“In that sense all major parties will agree what matters. What works is where the disagreements will be, and there is a chance these could be bitter and, dare we say it, ideological.”

Peter Mandelson does not appear to have taken the same view about the Conservative Party as he did about David Cameron.  Nor, it seems, does Tony Blair who recently ‘advised’ David Cameron to abandon ideological focus. 

However, there are some, including Conservatives who would not accept that the party has an ideology at all.  In his article for The Times published 1st October 2010, Phillip Collins wrote:  

“As the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott said, allegiance is more about disposition than it is about ideology. The prejudice drives the politics, not vice versa.”

Collins then set out his view as to how the Labour Party viewed Conservative ideals.

“For them, politics is a morality play in which good ideas clash with bad. That is why Labour is a party of heresy-hunters, chasing out the traitors.”

Collins examined Ed Milliband’s first major party conference speech since becoming leader.  He uses the theme of spending cuts to demonstrate that Labour see themselves in some sort of permanent ideological struggle with the Conservatives.  Central to this apparent Labour view is the Conservatives’ apparent lust to reduce the size of the state. 

 “His [Ed Milliband’s] understanding of political method is that you declare your convictions and wait for the public to rally round. Labour MPs lined up in Manchester to say, in effect, the same thing: that, deep down, underneath that involuntary act of voting Tory, the public share Labour values. There is no act of persuasion needed. The reason that Labour lost is that it wasn’t really Labour enough.

This has another consequence. It means that Labour people get Conservatives wrong. Labour people take the ideological relish of the Tories for granted. They think the Conservative Party will gather in Birmingham next week to concoct a deliberate plan to ruin the public sector.”

He uses history to suggest that the Conservative Party was never a party driven by any ideology. 

“Look, in other words, at what they do, not what they say. In 1867 Disraeli cynically brought down Gladstone’s Parliamentary Reform Bill. A year later Disraeli himself introduced a more radical version of the Bill he had opposed, ostensibly in principle. The humane social legislation that came after was an explicit thank you to his new class of supporters. Some good got done, but it didn’t start with a blueprint.”

If you had read my recent post on political tectonic plates, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Conservative Party was just a party of power retained to defend the interests of the better off.  Nobody would argue that the party has evolved into a completely different political being from what it was 300 years ago and has acquired many standing values in that time.  However, not everybody, least of all Peter Mandelson, would accept that simply having a set of values amounts to having an ideology.  Once again, I quote from “The Third Way as set out in Conservative Home

He [David Cameron] has values but he doesn’t have a set of fixed, political beliefs that flow from a particular political outlook or philosophy.

“I mean, what is his view of the role of government or the State or markets? Does he really believe, as the ‘Big Society’ implied, that government should just get out of the way and let people organise their schools and hospitals as they wish?

Mandelson may well have misunderstood David Cameron.  He also seems to have been unawared of the fact that the ‘Big Society’ theme is not a particularly new strand of Conservative (or indeed Liberal) thinking.  Edmund Burke (18th century lawyer and politician) said:

 “Whatever each man can do separately do, without trespassing on others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a far portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favour”

If there is a system of ideas which links the 19th century to present day conservativism, it is the belief that government is at its best if it governs in a way in which the population, having regard to human nature, is most likely to further its best interests and that of the nation.  Perhaps that sounds vague and populist.  It translates into a recognition that Government should regulate society in such a way that it builds upon what is good, interferes as little as possible, and allows people to thrive.  It is a thread which runs through the expressions of all of the great definers of Conservative thought, including Edmund Burke, Sir Robert Peel and Benjamin D’Israeli.   

The rise of Socialism drove the Conservative Party to become the guardians of capitalism.  Once again, it was the recognition of how human nature works which gave expression to the economic aspects of Conservative philosophical thinking.  The state of human nature was such that greater wealth creation and thus national prosperity could only thrive under capitalism.  This is now at the core of Conservative Ideology.  Yes, there have been other strains of Conservativism, including one-nation conservativism, thatcherism and progressive conservativism but the core of Conservativism is about getting the best out of people, including their willingness to help others, through capitalism.

Matthew Paris, writing for The Times on October 2nd 2010 does not agree with Phillip Collins.  In his article, he sets out two strands of Conservative Ideology.  One is ‘the pessimistic’ which accepts the darker, selfish side of human nature.  The other is ‘the optimistic’ which promotes the human virtues of kindness and responsibility.  He sets out why he believes that conservatives have been in denial about their ideology.  He concludes by suggesting, that there is growing feeling amongst the population, that there is something wrong with “gross” inequality and proposes that the Conservatives will need to refine their ideology in the direction of greater equality to make it fit for the 21st Century:

 “Conservatism’s a teaching taught so early that most Tories, having imbibed the doctrine with their mother’s milk, don’t even realise they have a doctrine; they think it’s just common sense, as Hindus think reincarnation is common sense. Tories are as unconscious of their ideology as are most Englishmen of their sense of nationhood.

But Conservatives have a philosophy as muscular as it is submarine: an anchor Tories may need to hold them in bad times, if not in good.

For, odd as it may sound, these are good times for Conservative politics. Labour’s near-bankrupting of Britain seems to have made their case for them. The sun shines on the Tory prescription for government. Conservatives can lean on the easy argument for rolling back the State: that the money has run out. They needn’t try our patience with Aristotle, Locke, Smith, Hume, Mill, Burke, Ayn Rand and the philosophical case for self-help.

Your instinctive Conservative is anyway uncomfortable with abstractions (Phil’s right about that) and becomes nervous when pointy-heads speak of ethical egoism, benevolent capitalism … or anything ending in -ism. But, just as Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it, your average Tory has had an -ism all his life without knowing it. He might be surprised to know he believes in the galvanising power of inequality, in the charitable instinct, in fear, in hunger and (within limits) in greed. He might not acknowledge that he thinks it human nature to do as little as we can get away with. Hardened into words, these ideas unsettle him. “Sorry, the cupboard’s bare” is so much easier. Which of us cannot remember the parental “can’t afford it” as the knockdown answer to the child’s “why not?” Other, better reasons were left unvoiced.

Unvoiced by most natural Conservatives is a slew of arguments about governance, most of them anchored in a recognisable if sloppily expressed idea of human nature.

In calling this idea pessimistic, our critics (I speak as a Conservative) correctly describe half the truth. We do see self-interest (and those extensions of self: family and community) as a more reliable motivator than any urge to improve humanity generally. We do see sharp limits to the possibilities of altruism, except in palpable, time-limited emergencies. We do believe that too much economic security dulls the individual’s edge. We don’t believe that anything like equality of outcome between all citizens is either achievable or desirable.

We don’t think the possibility of success can have useful meaning without the possibility of failure; that “ourselves” can signify much except as distinguished from “others”. We cannot conceive of virtue in the absence of vice; of honour without stigma; or of hope without fear. We are suspicious of political theologies that censor the dark side from their lexicon, or deny that if success needs beacons then so does failure. We doubt you can eat your cake and have it afterwards.

So, yes, there’s a strong strand of pessimism in Conservative ideology. A tremendous compensating optimism, though, has been the unspoken strand. Conservatives think human beings, all human beings, can be very strong. We think people underestimate their potential. We think individuals have great and often untapped reserves of kindness and duty to those people they adopt as their personal responsibility: the more direct the link, the stronger the devotion.

This is the other half of the truth about Tory thinking. It has been David Cameron’s enormous contribution to our party’s idea of itself, not just to say this, but to exemplify it personally. It was with this optimism that he made his distinctive start. But the optimistic side of Conservative doctrine is now vulnerable to the “cupboard’s bare” sentiment gripping Britain.

The party should take care. Open-handed may be bad, but big-hearted is still good, and it can be no coincidence that the only part of Ed Miliband’s Manchester address to Labour last week that really took wing was his closing passage, about optimism. He spoke to a sense of what’s missing.

Of course the Tory Big Society idea is aimed at precisely this lack. The concept’s making headway and must be pushed all the harder at Birmingham this week. But it suffers from being easily (if not always fairly) linked to spending cuts.

Big heart cannot in today’s climate mean deep pocket, so policy proposals must be without cost to the Exchequer. Here are two. Conservative doctrine leaves unanswered some aching questions, and they are linked. Nobody really thinks it fair or necessary that wages at the bottom in Britain are so incredibly far from those at the top. Who at a conference hotel can compare what the anxious, worn-looking woman who comes in to clean the room is earning per hour with what the guest or hotel boss earns and still insist that free-market economics depends on the scale (as opposed to the fact) of difference?

And though Conservatives believe fiercely in inequality of outcome, most of us feel uncomfortable about gross inequalities in the situations from which young people start.

It follows (I submit) that the inquiry Mr Cameron has asked Will Hutton to conduct into wage differentials is the more important because it touches a spot where Conservatives should be very sensitive. And Michael Gove’s free-schools plan, which incorporates a premium to follow disadvantaged children, will touch, unless generous, just as raw a nerve.

Why not tax employers who let wage differentials sprawl? Why not skew pupil premiums dramatically towards the poor? Why not make fee-paying schools’ VAT-exemption depend on what proportion of scholarship students they take from non-fee-paying families? Would one in four be so shocking?

For the coalition Cabinet, big heart and tight wallet will not be easy to square; but for the integrity and reputation of the Conservative Party’s 21st-century ideology, the attempt is critical. Ideology matters. “The cupboard’s bare” is not enough.

Matthew Paris’s conclusion is certainly thought-provoking.  A new centre-right party for Northern Ireland would, of course, develop its brand of ideology which links it to the specialist requirements of the Northern Ireland population.  As a starting point, though, I commend Paris’s thinking.

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