The Conservative Party will have to renew itself
By Swapan Dasgupta
Future historians may well look upon the second Elizabethan age as the time Britain lost its certitudes. The period between the death of George VI and the possible accession of Charles III will have encapsulated more change than is usual for a country that never tasted either foreign occupation or political revolution. The “orderly management of decline” that began with the loss of India in 1947 may have been well choreographed, but it has not been without trauma. The unchanging Britain of long summers, aggrieved shop stewards and smug aristocrats has yielded way to binge drinking, boarded-up Woolworths and a strange form of multiculturalism that celebrates every identity, as long as it isn’t English. With 14 prime ministers under her belt, the new Old Queen has reigned over a country that has changed unrecognizably: ethnically, religiously, linguistically, sartorially and, most important, emotionally.
For the disappearing tribe of Anglophiles, there were just a handful of institutions that lived up to the cravings of nostalgia and good taste: Radio 4, a Test match at Lord’s, Prime Minister’s Question Hour, the public library and, above all, the Conservative Party.
In many ways, the Conservative Party personified the soul of Britain. Sometimes dubbed the ‘stupid’ party, it celebrated the British penchant for tradition and common sense and the corresponding distaste for abstruse ideology. Apart from a short spell under Margaret Thatcher, when a particular economic doctrine dominated its thinking, the Conservative Party was only nominally right-wing. It stood for orderly change, social mobility and a nebulous Britishness — highly personalized attributes that were clumsily transplanted to politics. It was a party of privilege in so far as it attracted the propertied, cricket lovers and those who regarded politics as a minor feature of existence. The foot soldiers of the Conservative Party in the ’Shires were invariably stalwarts of the local Women’s Institute, those concerned with the quality of food and gardening rather than the profundities of governance. The Tory party was never an acquired taste; it was an instinct you either possessed or didn’t.
The Church of England used to be described as the Tory party in prayer. The analogy was appropriate. Like the Conservative Party, the national church in its heyday — before the Book of Common Prayer was abandoned and the clergy began thinking of themselves as NGO activists — was ferociously non-doctrinaire. Its only real commitment was to the congregational singing of robust hymns composed by noble Victorians and the belief that God is a good chap.
Whether the post-war decline in Anglican church attendance played a role in the slow displacement of the Conservatives as Britain’s default party is a subject for future historians to consider. What is certain, however, is that far-reaching social changes such as massive immigration from the New Commonwealth and the European Union, the erosion of deference resulting from indifferent schooling, the Americanization of mass culture and the breakdown of family values played their part in the dramatic eclipse of the Conservatives during the triumphant reign of Tony Blair. The Tory defeats in 1997, 2001 and 2005 meant more than an inability to resist the charisma of Blair and the contemporariness of New Labour: it suggested that Britain had moved from natural conservatism to securing what Gordon Brown shrewdly detected was a “progressive majority”.
In the normal course, 13 years of accumulated anti-incumbency and a fiscal crisis of enormous magnitude should have seen David Cameron walking triumphantly into 10 Downing Street on the morning of May 7 and delivering an oration that would have at least matched Thatcher’s invocation of St Francis of Assisi in 1979. Instead, despite making phenomenal gains from a dispirited Labour and preventing a Liberal Democratic surge, the party fell short of an absolute majority by 20 seats in a House of 650.
In his post-resignation address to the Labour faithful last Tuesday evening, Brown blamed himself for his inability to translate the impulses of the “progressive majority” into a parliamentary victory. But, at least, he gloated, Labour denied Cameron an outright victory.
In defeat, Brown was being entirely truthful. The last-minute consolidation of Labour votes, particularly in the marginal seats, prevented Cameron from securing the outright victory he so desperately hoped for. But it was always a difficult journey. Even if the 18 seats of Northern Ireland, where politics is unrelated to the concerns of Westminster, are excluded from the calculations, the Conservative Party was a non-player in all but one of the 59 Scottish seats. Sadly, this wasn’t always so. In 1959, for example, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in Scotland and even the Thatcher administration boasted Scottish stalwarts such as Teddy Taylor, Ian Lang and Malcolm Rifkind.
A manifestation of what is called the “West Lothian question”, after a question posed by the Labour member of parliament, Tam Dalyell, in the Commons in 1977, has meant that the Conservative Party has a winnable presence in only England and Wales. In last week’s election, the Tories won 305 of the 573 seats in England and Wales, a tally that would have given it a clear majority had it not been for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The growing Englishness of British conservatism symbolizes one of the major concerns of a party that has historically stood for the unflinching union of the four countries of the United Kingdom. For all practical purposes, Scotland has emotionally detached itself from Westminster. Its primary focus is the Scottish assembly in Edinburgh and even the Union Jack has become a novelty, if not a provocation, after Gretna Green. And although the Union Jack still serves as a badge of identity in large tracts of Ulster, Irish Unionism has become an embarrassment to England. Irish Protestants are the Britons the rest of Britain would rather do without.
Coming in the wake of the larger social transformation of Britain, the crisis of Unionism has undercut a key political plank of the Conservatives. The party can still connect with one or the other faction of the Ulster Unionists but its claim to represent Britain is punctured by the hostility of Scotland. Had Cameron won an outright majority on the strength of gains in England and Wales, it would have given Scottish separatism a huge fillip.
The Conservative Party has to renew itself, but without discarding its traditional commitment to doing “the right thing”— a Cameronian expression that means so much and so little. It has to connect to a new generation of Britons whose Britishness is a shade too cosmopolitan and who have acquired a sense of entitlement that is dependent on an unaffordable welfare State. Cameron’s concordat with the Liberal Democrats may have struck many die-hard Conservatives as a reckless sell-out. However, it has given the party an invaluable entry point into a Britain that is unmoved by traditional Toryism.
Throughout its history, the Conservative Party has reinvigorated itself by drawing defectors from other political traditions. The grafting of Joseph Chamberlain’s municipal activism to the high Toryism of Lord Salisbury and the accretion of the self-made Essex man to the party vote bank by Thatcher are just two recent examples. The addition of the social compassion of the Liberal Democrats to the Conservative kitty has the potential of undermining the “progressive majority” that the Labour Party believes will secure its recovery. A coalition government is a novelty for Britain, but it offers British Conservatism the best chance for a long innings in government.
The Lib-Dems have both a Liberal and a Labour pedigree. To reinforce the May 6 gains, Cameron has to absorb the Gladstonian inheritance of his coalition partner.