Peter Franklin: I love the "and theory", but...
Peter Franklin is a Conservative policy advisor, speechwriter and contributor to The Guardian's Comment Is Free.
Regular visitors to this site will be familiar with its house philosophy, which goes by the unlovely, but oddly memorable, name of ‘and theory’ (which I think is more easily read in hyphenated form i.e. and-theory. Iain Duncan Smith defines and-theory thus:
“I have never believed that modernisation requires the jettisoning of Conservative euroscepticism, or of our belief in low taxation, or of our tough approach to crime. These principles remain enduringly popular with the public. My proposal for the modernisation of the Party is not to subtract from these core principles – but to add to them.”
In his ten point briefing on the issue, Tim Montgomerie provides a number of examples of policy positions based on and-theory:
(a) A commitment to actively support healthy, traditional marriages and fair pension and inheritance arrangements for gay adults…
(b) A bigger budget for the armed forces and an end to the sale of arms to despotic regimes…
(c) Faster, longer imprisonment of repeat offenders and more care for the vulnerable children of prisoners...
And-theory recognises that there can be no choice between shoring up the core vote and chasing floating voters, we need both in order to gain a working majority. In recent years the Conservative Party has been badly served by the ‘Mods and Rockers’ who’ve championed different halves of the winning equation.
It is now assumed that the modernising, floating-vote strategists are in the ascendancy under David Cameron. In actual fact, these are much the same people responsible for the core-vote strategy under Michael Howard. And though there is some overlap with the Portillistas of old, this is far from complete.
David Cameron, unlike Michael Portillo, doesn’t want to dump core Conservative principles. Like any good and-theorist he believes that we need to complete our conservatism, and thus broaden its appeal, by embracing issues such as environmentalism, social justice and civil liberties. However, he has discomfited many in the party with what seems like an exclusive focus on these ‘breadth’ issues. In Cameron’s defence it must be said that the voters have had year-after-year of nothing but the ‘depth’ issues (e.g. tax cuts and immigration), thus a period of rebalancing is in order.
In effect, there are two ‘and-theories’ – ‘parallel and-theory’ as championed by Conservative Home and ‘serial and-theory’ as practiced by the Party leadership. A polite debate between the PATs and SATs is much to be prefered to the Mods and Rockers rancour of previous years.
Serial and-theory got its first major test at the local elections. 40% of the vote was a good result. Though it should be said that the increase on 2004 was modest, at just 2%, and that this did follow the worst possible fortnight for the Labour Party. Nevertheless, something of real significance was achieved. In registering their dissatisfaction with Labour, the voters turned to us and not the Lib Dems . This seems to vindicate the “vote blue, go green” strategy. The voters obviously knew we were an alternative to Labour, but we needed to persuade them that we were a palatable alternative – and we did.
So much for the good news. The bad news was that the strategy didn’t work in the urban north. Does that mean that we need to take serial and-theory even further? No, because the Lib Dems didn’t make advances against Labour in these areas either. So should we return to a core-vote strategy in these areas, banging the drum on crime and immigration? Again, no. We tried this 2005 and actually went backwards in the north.
Serial and-theory, while very far from being a core-vote strategy, is shoring up the Tory heartlands – against the expectations of both its proponents and opponents. One explanation for this is that serial and-theory is mobilising our core vote, another is that it is winning back the liberal-minded professional classes. Research is needed to establish the relative contribution made by each. But neither will be of much help in the urban north, because there is more than one kind of floating voter.
Aside from the muesli-eating professionals, there are the hard-working, aspirational C1s and C2s – the so-called ‘strivers’ who once propelled Margaret Thatcher to power. These take a tough line on crime and immigration, but they don’t see the Conservative Party as being on their side. They were hurt badly by the housing crash of the early 1990s and felt betrayed by us a result. The sleaze of the Major-era rubbed salt into their wounds. Now they feel betrayed by a Labour Government that has failed to reward their hard work. This group of voters aren’t against environmentalism and the like, but it doesn’t motivate them. Their concerns are somewhat more self-interested, but not selfish. They only want what is due to them and their guiding philosophy can be summed up in a single word – fairness.
There is a third group of floating voters, further down the social scale from the strivers, and very much more dependent on the state. Once assumed to be Labour-supporters, they feel increasingly insecure and alienated from the political mainstream. If they vote at all, their votes are beginning to go elsewhere – to the Lib Dems and to smaller parties such as Respect and the BNP. As with the strivers, they are receptive to Conservative messages on crime and immigration, but what they really want is someone who will do something about their basic needs, especially decent housing and the chance of a real job outside of the tax credit economy.
All this adds up to my first big problem with and-theory. The various binary propositions, whether presented in series or in parallel, do not reflect the true complexity of the task that lies before us. If we only worry about bridging the divide between the traditionalist and cosmopolitan sections of the middle class, then we are forgetting half the country altogether. Therefore, we must also bridge the gap between the middle and working class, and, within the latter, between its self-sufficient and state-dependent sections.
So does that mean we have to start presenting complex four-part propositions in some sort of ‘and-and-and-theory’? No, because I don’t think conservatism needs a split personality of any kind. Conservatism shouldn’t be about finding the balance between liberal and authoritarian positions. It its own unified, permanent and complete philosophy. It is a genuine third way, as opposed to the opportunistic and ultimately incoherent triangulation of politicians such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Further more there should be no ‘deeper’ and ‘broader’ distinction between our various messages, no spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Environmental sustainability and social justice are as important and integral to what we believe as fiscal conservativism and personal responsibility. All spring from the same assumptions and are fully consistent with one another, mutually dependent even.
What I am proposing is and-theory without the ‘and’. This excision deals with the most serious criticism of and-theory, which is that it is dialectical. Conservatism does not result from a process of synthesis, because that requires thesis and antithesis i.e. opposing principles. Because conservatism is holistic, at least one, and probably both, of any pair of opposing principles must necessarily originate from a non-conservative system of thought. Thus the danger of any dialectical process is that it will progressively dilute true conservatism.
This is what we face now as soggy centrists and free-market fundamentalists battle for control of the Conservative Party. Rather than knitting together a programme with the help of a box full of ‘ands’, what we really need a single ‘neither/nor’. One could therefore call this the ‘neither/nor theory of conservatism’ or, even better, just ‘conservatism’.
Let me illustrate the differences between the various philosophies with a specific example: the issue of taxation:
Core-vote theory – guarantee tax cuts in all normal circumstances
Floating-vote theory – reject tax cuts to show that the Conservative Party has changed
Serial and-theory – share the proceeds of growth between public spending and tax cuts, emphasising the former
Parallel and-theory – cut taxes and, in particular, taxes that hurt the poorest most of all
Neither/nor theory – reduce the need for taxation by enabling people to be less dependent on the state
Of these five positions only the last is truly conservative. All the others fail to conserve all the key conservative principles at stake. The first two set the principles of low taxation and social welfare against one another, each taking a different side. The next two try to achieve some sort of balance, but without resolving the conflict. It takes true conservatism to get to the heart of the matter and, as such, is uniquely capable of appealing to the common good.