They’ve come through war, the end of Empire and not a few spats about Europe. But just occasionally a special sort of row arises—one that truly sinks the Toriesby Tom Clark / June 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
What does it mean to be a Conservative? For Lord Salisbury, it was about standing firm against the “army of so-called reform.” For Disraeli, in some moods at least, it was about healing the rift between England’s two nations. And for Tony Hancock, it was an acceptable patriotic alternative to giving blood.
The lack of any agreed answer hasn’t stopped the tribe that bears the Conservative name from being, in England at least, the natural party of government; it has been a source of great adaptability and advantage. But today, as Andrew Gamble sets out, the whole European centre-right is under new pressure from resurgent nationalist populism to define itself much more sharply. And in the UK, with the clock ticking down towards Brexit, these dilemmas are particularly urgent. The Tories stand on the cusp of making decisions that will not only be fateful for the country’s place in the world, but will also define what—and who—the Conservatives stand for today.
With her “backstops,” “implementation phases” and panicked last-minute compromises, Theresa May has kicked cans down the road wherever possible precisely because she senses that any decision that gives the Tories more definition will be dangerously divisive. And she may well be right to fear the unforgivingly bright light that Brexit is casting on the party’s ideas and priorities. For the doctrinal haze that sits at the heart of Conservatism has served it well.
The long list of values that have, at one time or another, been associated with Conservative thought—including freedom, authority, community, individualism, tub-thumping militarism and world-weary pragmatism—is varied to the point of self-contradiction in theory. No wonder that its intellectuals have pleaded that Conservatism is not “a doctrine, but a disposition” (Michael Oakeshott) or “not so much a philosophy, as an attitude” (Quintin Hogg).
As for the practice, the application of all this is positively dizzying. Traditional community? It counted for little when Thatcher was consigning old industries and ways of life to the scrapheap. Militarism? The party lurched from Edwardian jingo to interwar appeasement—before it supplied Britain’s greatest belligerent in 1940. Liberty? The party suspended habeas corpus in the 19th century, but then supplied the lawyers who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in the 20th—only to regret this achievement by the 21st.
If politics was confined to debating societies, all this sliding about would spell a…