Roger Scruton: The Conservative Party is failing to define and promote its vision
Roger Scruton is a writer and philospher.
When in office the Labour Party applies itself not only to the task of government, but also to the more long-term business of developing and advancing its vision of British society. It loses no opportunity to promote its supporters to positions of influence, and invents quangos and committees to replace the old-fashioned associations of volunteers to whom the Tory party would occasionally make appeal. These quangos and committees speak not for civil society but for a new class of professionals, usually paid by the state and committed to its expansion. The Labour Party also uses all avenues of patronage (including the honours system) to create a favourable establishment, and to persuade its followers that ‘the long march through the institutions’ will benefit them just as much as it benefits the Party. As Baroness Ashton discovered, you can start off as secretary to CND, and then leap from quango to quango to become European Commissioner for foreign affairs, provided you are a member of the Labour Party. All this has proceeded apace under New Labour, with results that are everywhere visible today – a damaged constitution, universities, schools and cultural institutions wedded to a kind of soft leftism, and a civil service that has internalised the belief that it is not there to govern Britain but to change it.
In the face of this we all breathed a sigh of relief when David Cameron became Prime Minister. We naturally hoped that the Conservative Party would take the opportunity not merely to arrest the quangofication of our country, but also to define and advance a real alternative to the left-liberal orthodoxies. We know that Conservatives are reluctant to think philosophically. As Edmund Burke taught us, philosophy is dangerous, since it tends to define politics in terms of long-term goals and ideals, to the detriment of the real work of government, which is the reconciliation of individual freedom and inherited order. Nevertheless, politics requires a foundation of beliefs, values and affections, and it is to those that the Tory party has in the past made appeal. It has defined itself as the Party of the nation, representing the national interest abroad and our inherited constitution at home. It has stood for free association against bureaucratic control, and for a thriving civil society protected by a constitution that acknowledges and reconciles the conflicting ambitions of its members. From this stance it is possible to derive a philosophy; but it is the stance, not the philosophy, that matters. And it is a stance that has been radically jeopardised by the coalition.
Things would have been better had the Conservatives followed the precedent set by the Labour Party and turned their attention to the business of defining and promoting their vision, instead of improvising in response to the daily emergencies of office. We find ourselves in a country where, despite the prevailing conservative sentiments of voters, our institutions and establishment figures, our civil service and our universities, speak out only for the socialist orthodoxies. The new establishment represents not England or Britain but abstract ideas, such as multiculturalism, social inclusion and equality – all of which, on examination, are names for the State. Yet the Conservative Party takes no opportunity to begin the long, slow but necessary task of replacing that establishment with something more in keeping with the national spirit.
The fact is that the Tory Party has lost touch with its constituency, through ignoring the long-term standpoint that they share. I don’t doubt David Cameron’s sincerity or his underlying conservative instincts. But there is a case to answer, and he must answer it. How is it that a government dominated by the Conservative Party and with a Conservative Prime Minister devotes its energies to issues that are calculated to alienate its supporters, while failing to address the real matters that concern them?