After three successive landslide election defeats, the British Conservative party is undergoing its fourth leadership contest in eight years. Yet this election is not just about finding the right man to present conservative policies, it is about what direction British conservatism should follow. The major candidates differ from each other not just in personality but in philosophy. What is going on is a struggle for the soul of conservatism, in which the adherents of various philosophical strands each contend that their idea must be the driving force behind British conservatism in the future, and that to follow the other routes would mean disaster. The trouble is that the party is so driven by its internal strife that it is failing to see the forest for the trees. The question is not whether conservative principles need to change, but how to convince people how those principles speak to their values.
Perceptive Tories recognize the extent of the electoral problem. As a group of some of the brightest young Tories (including Michael Gove MP, Nick Herbert MP, and Daniel Hannan MEP–all names to watch in the coming decades) argue in their publication “Direct Democracy: An Agenda for a New Model Party,” the Tory wagon has stalled. The party’s support, in both polls and real elections, has advanced barely at all since John Major led the party off the cliff in 1997. Their failure to advance, the young Tories recognize, is due to a combination of factors–an ageing, unskilled party base with different tastes and preferences from the rest of the electorate, a tendency to turn to unpopular populism which sprang from a failure to “develop an overarching critique of contemporary Britain,” and a rise in anti-politics that has hit the Tories hardest. As the authors say, “The Conservatives are in the unenviable position of being seen as an even more Establishment party than the party in power.”
At least many now recognize this problem. For too long some have assumed that, because they see through Tony Blair’s spin and manipulations, the public will too and that when it does, it will turn to the Tories. It is true that in British politics oppositions tend not to win elections so much as governments lose them, but the current position is that no matter how much the public disapproves of its prime minister and Labor’s policies, it still prefers them to the Conservatives. Moreover, the recent revival of the Liberal Democrats as a third force in British politics makes that party an ideal home for the disaffected. It would take an act of monumental stupidity on Labor’s behalf, equivalent to the Conservatives’ own suicidal coup d’état against Margaret Thatcher in 1990, for help to come from the other side. The Tories have to position themselves so as to be attractive to Labor doubters once again.
A Modern Failure
In recognition of this, there is no end of suggestions as to what the Conservatives should do. The central debate over the past few years has been between the “Mods” and the “Rockers.” The “Mods,” or modernizers, believe that the Tory party has to reflect the norms and values of post-’60s Britain. This has led to a concentration on social issues, with a socially liberal message. The typical Mod believes in gay rights, the equivalence of cohabitation and marriage, and affirmative action to get more female, gay, and ethnic minority candidates for the party. He believes in positioning the party to repudiate its past beliefs so as to admit that the party of Margaret Thatcher and John Major was “the nasty party,” a phrase actually used by a former party chairman, Theresa May. By apologizing for conservatism past, he believes, he can win over voters who regard conservatism as a dirty word.
The Rockers, on the other hand, have exemplified the denial alluded to above, believing that a naturally conservative British people will return to the fold of their own free will. They remain unabashedly Thatcherite and have devoted much of their energy to fighting not Labor but the European Union, which, probably rightly, they see as the greater threat in the long run. Unfortunately, because the true extent of Brussels’ takeover of the legislative process is unappreciated by all but a small segment of the British electorate, this has been seen as weirdly obsessive. The schism of the Euroskeptic right between Tories and single-issue fringe parties has not helped either. The occasional foray of the Rockers into social policy has tended to be portrayed as insensitive or mean-spirited.
Thankfully, this fruitless argument between two sides arguing past each other seems to have ended as the factions line up in the current leadership election. Alan Duncan, the openly gay shadow transport secretary and leading Mod, found no support for his unreconstructed Mod platform and withdrew from the contest at an early stage, after contributing only a few fatuous suggestions. The most strident Mods have therefore thrown in their lot with Kenneth Clarke, a hugely divisive figure who has failed to become leader twice, once when the MPs had the final say and once when the party members had the final say.
Clarke is, and always has been, a leading “wet,” a paternalist who played a leading role in persuading Mrs. Thatcher to step down in 1990. She describes him in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, as “not someone on my wing of the party, but an energetic and persuasive bruiser, very useful in a brawl or in an election.” It is precisely those qualities, unchanged in 20 years, that have drawn so many Mods to him now. They see Clarke, an ardent Europhile and vocal opponent of the Iraq War, as the “big beast” who can win back many voters. Sadly, he is so out of touch with the party base that his election would surely split the party (of which more later).
The more moderate Mods, to coin an infelicitous phrase, are backing a much more likely candidate. David Cameron is 38, about the age Tony Blair was when he assumed control of the Labor party. By contrast to Blair, who had a high profile role as shadow home secretary, tackling issues of crime and immigration, Cameron has been out of the public eye. Yet his obvious intellect and charm have won him many supporters. In his thoughtful speeches to date, he has stepped back from the usual Mod arguments and made very positive remarks about the role of the family. He has been hawkish on Islamic terrorism and fiscally conservative when it comes to things like highway and hospital construction, arguing that users, not just the taxpayer, should pay for them. He has even described his new stance as “Modern Compassionate Conservatism.”
Rocking the Boat
The Rockers have also been more thoughtful than their record suggests. Their leading lights have brought forward a modernization strategy based on concern for the poor rather than social liberalism, a different kind of modernization that should resonate better beyond the dining tables of Notting Hill. David Davis (currently the favorite to win the election) has suggested modernization in a number of areas. One key supporter, John Maples, has said that the need to identify more with people who are put off by the party at present is crucial. In this respect, Mr. Davis’s background is important; as one of Labor chancellor Gordon Brown’s aides told journalist Matthew d’Ancona, “A Tory who was raised on a council estate by a single mum and talks like an ordinary person when he goes on television is trouble for us. It presses a lot of buttons.” Yet Davis’s ordinariness is also his biggest drawback; he can look unsure and unimpressive.
The same cannot be said of Liam Fox, Davis’s chief rival on the right. Fox is an assured, charming, urbane speaker with the advantage of a Scottish accent that sidesteps the class question (unlike Cameron, who looks like, sounds like, and is a product of Eton and Oxford). He has also made several excellent speeches, including one to the Heritage Foundation, on Britain’s role in the world in his capacity as shadow foreign secretary. As such, he has been able to speak about the key notion of what it is to be British, a question that became central to the political response to the terrorist outrages of 7/7. As journalist Fraser Nelson has pointed out, he has suggested “three pillars of Britishness: culture, history and institutions. He also risked naming Christianity as integral to Britain’s DNA.” By contrast, when Davis is asked about British values, “He seems lost for an idea of what these values should be, other than nebulous ideas of tolerance and kindness.”
Also advancing the intellectual cause on the right is David “Two Brains” Willetts, who has always been regarded as an intellectual inside the party but who has often failed to portray that impression to the public. He certainly seems to be using both his brains now, as his June speech to the Social Market Foundation was a brilliant synthesis of how the most prominent strains of conservative thought–economic liberal and social traditionalist–can be reconciled again. Citing Burke and his famous comment about the partnership between the living, the dead, and those who are to be born, he argued that people have two central aspirations: first, “freedom and opportunity . . . the Conservatism of our historic liberties and of a flexible economy,” but also, “roots and identities . . . the Conservatism of cohesiveness and community . . . [T]he nation state and good government must be part of that.”
Willetts is on to something. As he stresses, “Conservatism is at its most dynamic when it holds in creative tension these two principles: our belief on the one hand in individual freedom, private property, and the market economy; and on the other hand a commitment to maintaining the institutions which hold our nation together . . . Our aim must be to not just make the British economy stronger but British society better.” Unfortunately for Willetts, he comes across to the public as a wonk, a clever man but not a leader.
Finally, there is the Cornerstone group of traditionalists, who flatly reject social liberalism and who believe that Conservatives must strongly defend traditional moral values. They are considering fielding a candidate such as Edward Leigh MP, but they are unlikely to garner much support. There is a strong case that “values voters” are much more important in British electoral considerations than most commentators give them credit for, but they seem more likely to be attracted by values questions framed in terms of patriotism and Britishness, as Fox is doing, than in questions of morality.
There are other potential candidates, like former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind and Theresa May, but their support in both parliament and in the party is marginal.
A Not-So-Conservative Conservative
This brief summary should be enough to demonstrate that four of the main candidates–Cameron, Davis, Fox, and Willetts–are arguing along very similar lines. They have their different emphases, such as Cameron’s on public services and Fox’s on Britishness, but they have all accepted the idea that the two traditional wings of the party–liberal and traditionalist–must be accorded equal respect.
Clarke and his supporters, on the other hand, seem to take a very different line. They reject both strands of conservative thought by standing for economic centralism and social liberalism. There is little in their putative platform that can be thought of as conservative, never mind Tory. Indeed, it is hard to see what they offer as any different from Tony Blair, with one exception. In his first speech after announcing his candidacy for the leadership, Clarke clearly made opposition to the Iraq war his main selling point.
Clarke has also suggested that the party should put power before ideology. This suggestion has attracted many party activists who despise Blair so much that they are willing to do anything to turf him out, even hand over the reins of the party to someone they have previously despised. Yet at the same time, many in the party remain steadfastly opposed to a man they see as profoundly unconservative, so much so that there have been moves by figures probably sympathetic to a Clarke victory to restore final say in the leadership election to MPs, rather than party members.
A victory for Clarke could well alienate much of the party base. John O’Sullivan, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher (and NR editor-at-large), has suggested that that base is made up of three main groups: patriots, economic liberals, and moral traditionalists. Patriots would be appalled at Clarke’s Europhilia (and would not be fooled by his tactical dropping of the subject); a good number of them would also be turned off by any suggestion that British troops should be brought home from Iraq. Economic liberals will not soon forget Clarke’s economic paternalism. Moral traditionalists, meanwhile, while probably not put off by Clarke himself, will find the agenda of his fellow travelers objectionable.
Who would Clarke attract instead? Antiwar voters already have the Liberal Democrats to turn to. It is perfectly conceivable that Clarke will attract many centrist voters as a Tory “out of the ordinary,” although one can be sure that Labor and the Liberal Democrats will waste no time in tying him to the old Tory party of John Major, in whose government he was a significant figure. Polling data suggest that Clarke would actually attract few new voters, while alienating old ones. The supposed benefits of a Clarke leadership are questionable, while its costs would be disastrous.
The sensible participants in the leadership election should therefore unite behind a single figure. As already mentioned, despite differences in emphasis, Cameron, Davis, Fox, and Willetts all seem to be arguing for the same thing, a party that respects the main traditions of the party and supports re-branding itself to address its image problem. Deciding which is best placed to do so requires an understanding of modern communication techniques.
The Foxy Choice
To be sure, as research by party board member Lord Ashcroft recently indicated, the real core vote of the Tory party is a coalition of professionals, women, and aspirational voters with the traditional Conservative base. As the late social theorist Aaron Wildavsky found, voters can be split into three groups in terms of motivation: those who desire order (hierarchists), those who desire freedom (libertarians), and those who desire fairness (egalitarians). In the U.K., the Tories probably already attract many social-order hierarchists (and would never attract the economic centralists who form the rest of the class). Equally, they probably already attract many of the libertarians, and are in a position to attract the free-market wing of the Labor party, as a recent pamphlet by one of the leading figures of that wing, Stephen Pollard, has suggested.
The main battleground is therefore among the egalitarians, who currently form the bulk of the British electorate (many who would describe themselves as libertarian are in fact egalitarians, for they are motivated by a desire not so much for freedom as for equal treatment of certain groups). For the egalitarian, it matters not so much whether a policy helps the social order or increases economic or social freedom as whether it is fair to everyone. This is, in retrospect, exactly the message that the Tories have failed to articulate. They have claimed their policies will make Britain better, but they have never stressed how their policies will ensure a fair result for everyone.
This does not mean that their policies must be based on the principle of fairness, merely that their marketing must illustrate that they have not ignored the British public’s desire for the quality. Thus a policy aimed at strengthening the family should be presented as helping downtrodden women and children, and must not be capable of being characterized as victimizing single mothers.
That the Tories have failed to appreciate this is clear. For instance, in the last election the eleven word manifesto–more police, cleaner hospitals, lower taxes, school discipline, controlled immigration, and accountability–said nothing about fairness. Four of the policies were aimed squarely at hierarchists, one at libertarians, and the final one, accountability, was meaningless to most people. It is no wonder that the Tory vote stalled. Its message said nothing to the people it needed to attract.
The Tories therefore need as leader someone who can address that fairness issue. Of the three realistic contenders (ruling out Willetts) other than Mr. Clarke, only one is currently doing this. Liam Fox, in his capacity as shadow foreign secretary, has been outlining a coherent vision of a confident Britain engaging in world affairs. His “freedom agenda” for the developing world contains not just the usual conservative blend of liberal economics and institutional reform, but also contains the crucial egalitarian perspective of respect for human rights.
As Fox says, “The issue of human rights has been too low down the Conservative agenda for too long. As a party, we have allowed ourselves to be portrayed as purely pragmatic, with too little principle. We Conservatives have a duty, as members of a strong and free liberal society, to speak up for the oppressed and for those who speak up for themselves often in the face of considerable dangers.” This is exactly the sort of message the Conservatives should be delivering in other areas. Its message adds to and does not substitute for conservative philosophy. Fox appears to be the only one of the main leadership contenders to realize this. The leadership race would become much more substantive if other contenders followed his lead; David Davis, for example, seems well suited to advance egalitarian themes by virtue of his background.
The current crisis within the British Tory party presents an opportunity to repackage traditional conservative values in a way that will appeal to a whole new generation. There is enough talent in the younger reaches of the party, and enough good thinking going on at the top, for this leadership election to represent a rebirth of conservatism in the U.K. Unfortunately, there is a chance that a misunderstanding of electoral considerations will lead the party to opt for brash populism rather than a thoughtful re-branding of conservative principles. This truly is a make or break moment for British conservatives.
– Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.