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Mainstream Conservatism v Liberal Conservatism? Or Coalition Conservatism v Majority Conservatism?

by Paul Goodman

Like Sarah in the Bob Dylan song, conservatism is "so easy to look at, so hard to define".  A French conservative is very different from a British one.  So's an American one, though less obviously.  One man's conservatism can be another's socialism, and though the same's true the other way round, the former is more local, and therefore - I believe - more diverse.

This variety is the spice of life, as David Willetts appreciated, and presumably still does.  In the darkest days of the Major Government, he suggested to the drained Prime Minister a novel means of reviving the Party: that each Conservative MP sum up his own vision of conservatism on a single side of paper and send it to Downing Street.  Major reacted as though Willetts had dropped his trousers.  A friend of mine defines  conservatism as being -

  • Eating chicken tikka masala in an Indian restaurant...
  • ...While reading a copy of Clarendon's History of Rebellion...
  • ...And drinking half a pint of snakebite.

I've been thinking of Major, Willetts and my friend while reading Tim, Andrew Lilico, Graeme Archer, Daniel Finkelstein, Fraser Nelson, Peter Hoskin, Iain Martin, Alex Massie, Fiona Melville, David Skelton, Janet Daley and others on the Mainstream Conservatism v Liberal Conservatism debate.  It goes without saying that their view of conservatism is wrong and mine is right.  As is yours too, at least most of the time.

I believe that at the heart of conservatism is realism about human nature; the conviction that the state's more likely to mess up than people, whether acting alone as or working together in, and that Britain's way of life, expressed in its institutions, should be conserved.  Strictly speaking, this is Toryism rather than conservatism.  But you're going to come along in a moment and explain why I'm wrong, too.  As is my friend.  And maybe David Willetts, into the bargain.

This isn't to say that conservatism can be anything that anyone wants it to be.  Like aphophatic theologians wrestling with the idea of God, we can say what it isn't.  It isn't the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange (though Tories were once largely anti-free trade).  It isn't anarcho-capitalism (though there are anarcho-c's who view the Conservatives as the lesser of two evils).

It isn't liberalism, let alone liberal democracy.  But, as Toby Baxendale has suggested, the modern Conservative Party is a merger of conservative and liberal traditions and thinking.  This is an indication that though conservatism and the Conservative Party aren't one and the same, they've rubbed along together for a very long time - despite some conservatives saying, as others always have, that the Conservative Party has sold out.  These have occasionally turned out to be the same people that later led it.

Which, in turn, reminds us that the Mainstream Conservatism v Liberal Conservatism debate isn't a single discussion.  It's concerned with two different, though related, matters at once.

The first is what conservatism is and isn't.

The second is whether the Conservative Party should try to prolong the coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the next election (and work to that end before it).

I will leave some Mainstream Conservatives to say that they're actually Liberal Conservatives, because they believe in a small state and personal freedom; some Liberal Conservatives to say that they're Mainstream Conservatives (sometimes because there's an organisation called Mainstream which, arguably, isn't); some Mainstream Conservatives to say that they're traditional conservatives, because they speak plainly; some Modern Conservatives to say that Mainstream Conservatives aren't modern, and some Post-Modern Conservatives to say that Modern Consevatives aren't modern enough, and everyone to say that in quoting Bob Dylan I'm showing my age.

I want instead to pose a question: namely, which discussion's more important to the future of conservative measures - the repatriation of powers, tax cuts, immigration control, welfare reform, free schools, that sort of thing?

In short, do ideas (such as, say, a belief in free markets) shape what governments do (such as who goes into government with whom), or vice-versa?

Let me give an example each way.

The 1987 Conservative manifesto proposed what was to become the mainstay of Kenneth Baker's education reforms - the National Curriculum: "We will establish a National Core Curriculum. It is vital to ensure that all pupils between the ages of 5 to 16 study a basic range of subjects - including maths, English and science."  Here we have a picture of a politician (or group of politicians) considering an idea, working it up for a manifesto, and then implementing it in government.  Ideas shaped events.

The same manifesto said not a word about what was to become the mainstay of Ken Clarke's health reforms - G.P fundholding.  To cut a long story short, Margaret Thatcher became exasperated by the unrelenting rise in NHS costs, Clarke ran with the fundholding idea...and fundholding - which Andrew Lansley wants, some 20 years later, to expand - came into being.  Here we have a picture of politicians responding to circumstances and taking action that their manifesto hadn't envisaged.  Events shaped ideas - or at least their implementation.

These examples help to demonstrate that the relationship between ideas and events is of course seldom clear-cut.  If a less pushful Education Secretary had been in place, the Thatcher third term education reforms might not have happened, or at least been watered down.  If the fundholding idea hadn't then been current, Clarke might have had nothing else to run with, and confined his review to hospitals.  But although the relationship between ideas and events is complex, it's surely worth probing.

In this case - the current debate about the future of conservatism - I believe that putting events (or at least possible future events) before ideas makes the big choice clearer.  I think it's best described as being between Coalition Conservatism and Majority Conservatism.

  • Coalition Conservatism means governing next time round with the Liberal Democrats, backed up by a prospectus rather like the Coalition Agreement.  This would mean no repatriation of EU powers.  A prisons policy led by rehabilitation.  A 50p top tax rate.  The global warming consensus view.  The Human Rights Act.  The West Lothian question unadressed.  No inheritance tax cuts.
  • Majority Conservatism means governing next time round with a Conservative manifesto, backed up by a manifesto not unlike the Party's last one.  I doubt if a Cameron Government would ever push vigorously for the repatriation of powers.  But it''s not hard to envisage such an administration implementing a prisons policy based on public safety first, scrapping the 50p rate, cutting inheritance tax, bringing in a British Bill of Rights and introducing English votes on English laws (in some form).

Our polling suggests that Party members believe that David Cameron should be preparing, as the next election gradually draws nearer, to pursue Majority Conservatism rather than Coalition Conservatism after it - assuming that we gain an overall majority, that is.  For what it's worth, I agree.

Majority Conservatism is viewed by Party members as a better course to pursue as we prepare for the next Parliament than Coalition Conservatism (with its strong points, such as the deficit reduction programme and the Gove/Duncan-Smith reforms, as well as its weak ones).  That's certainly how I feel about it.

It can of course be argued that the Party's more likely to prolong its hold on office if it sticks with Coalition Conservatism - more likely to win an election if it fights with the Liberal Democrats as a single force, and then able afterwards to make permanent a broad centre-right alliance that would condemn Labour to opposition for a general election.  The core of this case is that the likelihood of having half a loaf is better than the possibility of having none.

But that's to debate tactics.  Or strategy, if you like.  Part of the broader discussion, a consideration to be supported or reviled as you prefer.

All I'm trying to do is to clarify the choice.  Is it between Mainstream Conservatism and Liberal Conservatism?  Or Coalition Conservatism and Majority Conservatism?


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