How a dying party was resurrected
By Swapan Dasgupta
There is a school of thought that sticks to the notion that political behaviour is almost entirely culture-specific and governed by the principles of exceptionalism. Therefore, what happens in one country, while interesting in itself, has little or no relevance in understanding either behaviour or trends in other societies. Some have extended the logic of uniqueness to even suggest that national politics is an amalgam of divergent localism and that aggregation runs the risk of missing out the rich experience of community action. Subjecting the small guy to what Edward Thompson once described as the enormous “condescension of history” has acted as a deterrent to cross-cultural perspectives, at least as far as the study of contemporary politics is concerned.
This irreconcilable clash between narrow empirical scrutiny and grand theorizing has also been conferred an unlikely ideological dimension. Marxists professing internationalism have been enthusiastic in drawing parallels and even learning from the experiences of ‘struggles’ elsewhere. There has been a marked reluctance, however, on the part of the adherents of the so-called national ideologies to extend the learning curve beyond the nation-state. In India, for example, despite the impressive history of cross-fertilization of ideas prior to Independence, political practitioners have been loath to draw upon the experience of their counterparts elsewhere.
Given the plethora of self-constructed walls and the underlying belief in the uniqueness of cultures, it is hardly surprising that last week’s elections to local bodies and the European Parliament in Britain has evoked little interest beyond the mundane coverage of a distant, foreign event.
For the shrinking tribe of Britain-watchers, there were two points of interest. First, the European Parliament election led to the victory of two members of the far-Right (some would say neo-fascist) British National Party, an event that has triggered consternation in liberal and multiculturalist circles. Of course, it is recognized that elections to the body in Brussels is governed by proportional representation. This means that it is extremely unlikely that the BNP will prevail in the first-past-the-post system that holds true for Westminster. Secondly, the European Parliament election saw the relegation of the ruling Labour Party to third place nationally. The main opposition Conservative Party won most of the seats but the surprise runner-up was the United Kingdom Independence Party made up essentially of Conservatives who favoured a more forthright assertion of national sovereignty.
The humiliation of the ruling Labour Party has, quite predictably, grabbed most attention. Despite warding off a challenge to his leadership last Monday, Gordon Brown has been more or less reduced to a lame-duck prime minister, and there is international concern over his ability to lead Britain in its hour of economic crisis. A general election is not due for another 12 months and there is fear that the interregnum could witness a state of drift.
How Britain governs itself in the run-up to a general election that many feel should be called immediately is, of course, a great concern. But the story of Labour’s sharp fall from grace — including its loss of pre-eminence in Wales after 81 years — has obscured an equally fascinating story: the Conservative Party’s recovery after three successive general-election defeats. Extrapolating from last week’s vote, pollsters now suggest that a snap election could well witness a 30-strong Conservative majority in the next House of Commons.
The suggestion that the Conservative advance is part of the larger European rejection of the Left and socialist parties is well taken. However, it is pertinent to recall that just four years ago, after Tony Blair cruised to his third successive triumph for New Labour, the political obituary of the Conservative Party was also being written. It was then argued that the Conservatives had been reduced to being a party of southern England, with no meaningful presence in the big cities and with no support in multi-racial, cosmopolitan Britain. Like the other two pillars of the erstwhile British Establishment — the monarchy and the Church of England — British Conservatism was thought to have outlived its role. In Blair’s Cool Britannia, Toryism was thought to be an archaic, reactionary phenomenon and about as relevant to contemporary Britain as the gentleman’s clubs and the Book of Common Prayer.
The story of the Conservative comeback is fascinating for a number of reasons. At a superficial level, it is a story of how a 42-year-old David Cameron, a leader from a privileged background (Eton and Oxford), carried out his mandate “to change the party and change the country”. But it is more a story of how the new leader adapted an old party to new circumstances.
It is striking that in terms of policy, the Conservatives made only nominal adjustments. The party recognized that it had to dispense with some of Margaret Thatcher’s more unpopular assaults on the welfare state. It has now recognized the importance of the National Health Service and state-sponsored schooling. But apart from these corrections, the Conservatives have stuck to the defining facets of the party: commitment to individual excellence and family values, support for entrepreneurship, low taxes and tough policing. There has been precious little revisionism and no reinvention of the fundamentals of Conservatism. Unlike Tony Blair, who had to jettison some of the more abrasive facets of Labour’s socialism, Cameron’s Conservatism has been free of ideological hiccups.
Cameron’s most notable success has been in the arena of image management. He has made the Conservative Party more electable by making it more contemporary. Blair shifted Labour’s centre of gravity from the moribund working class culture of a declining industrial Britain to the trendy, college-educated middle-classes of, say, Islington. Cameron did nothing so profound. He just ensured that the prevailing image of British Conservatism was no longer that of the upper class male with a plummy accent or the retired colonel cultivating roses in Cheltenham. The sartorial norms of traditional Conservative dinners were relaxed from black tie to lounge suits. In fact, Cameron often took care to appear at many party functions without a tie.
Interestingly, this image makeover involved relatively less of a social shift than what Labour experienced. Cameron attached greater emphasis on nominating professional women as prospective parliamentary candidates and garnished it with some symbolic representation for Britain’s ethnic minorities. In short, he opened up the party to a wider social milieu.
One aspect of Cameron was more radical: he consciously steered the Conservative Party away from issues of identity. Unlike the party’s post-Thatcher preoccupation with immigration and national identity, which were responsible for the party’s marginalization under William Hague and Michael Howard, Cameron stuck to conventional social and economic themes. He formally recognized that Britain had changed from the time Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan ruled the roost and that the Conservative Party too needed to change. It was not the reinvention of a party but a renewal. Those with a sense of history may even see it as Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservatism overwhelming the Marquis of Salisbury’s “illiberal” Toryism.
The devotees of national exceptionalism would believe that the Conservative example is a narrowly British experience. A more commonsensical look at how a dying party was resurrected without a revolutionary overhaul, however, suggests that there are elements that have the potential of wider application. The form may be different, but India’s beleaguered conservatives could take inspiration from another similar tradition.