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David Cowan: The current division inside the Conservative Party is between the “Old Whigs” and the “High Tories”

Picture 13 David Cowan is an intern at the Institute for Economic Affairs and will be going to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in the autumn to read History.

There has been a public debate over the divide between “liberal conservatism” and “mainstream conservatism”. The focus has been on policy differences rather than the philosophy of the Party. If we choose to look at the philosophical outlook of the Conservative Party then a dividing line between the “Old Whigs” and the “High Tories” becomes clear.

Conservative strands of thinking are firmly rooted in “love”. That is not just romantic love, but also love of companionship, love of family, love of community, love of nation, and love of God. They are the bonds between us and give meaning to our lives. It is not a view which embraces the harsh utilitarianism, brutal modernism, and rampant libertarianism of modern society. It is a view based on trust and cooperation. The state is an intruder as it denies freedom and coerces us.

Adam Smith recognised that we are not just motivated by “self interest”, but also by “sympathy” for one another. We emotionally invest ourselves in others by trying to make them happy, consoling them, or sharing their sorrow. Roger Scruton argued that Conservatism understands the human condition and recognises humanity's evolutionary nature as we develop traditions, values, and a culture which passes from one generation to the next.

The Conservative Statesman must seek to protect and articulate what the Conservative Philosopher values by focusing on family, education, and work. Of these the most important is family. It is the best social institution in which an individual can develop and be loved. For without love in our lives we cannot grow as individuals. Education also acts as a key part of our emotional development. It is the means of passing down knowledge, the appreciation of beauty, and self expression. At school we are elevated beyond our base instincts and learn about our history, culture, and morality. That is why it is essential that everyone has access to a decent education.

Once we leave education, it is important that we find a vocation which can be an act of emotional fulfilment and can give us purpose. The welfare system must allow work to pay, reward enterprise, and give independence. David Cameron has managed to abide by these principles.

The “Big Society” is at the heart of David Cameron's Conservatism. It is about cutting back the state in order to allow the voluntary bonds of community to thrive. The overbearing nature of the state has caused Britain to become a consumer society dominated by a focus on the individual's needs, alienated from our neighbours as communities become atomised, and a lack of clear meaning in our own lives. This has happened because the state coerces us into being charitable by taxing us in order to redistribute wealth and provide services.

We then conclude that we have done our bit for society and can thus focus our energies on the pursuit of our own happiness rather than the happiness of others. The “Big Society” is the means by which we can cooperate voluntarily for the public good without coercion from the state. That is not to say “self interest” is a bad thing. Adam Smith's example of the woollen coat is a classic example of how “self interest” results in mutual benefit. But, the principle of “sympathy” has been eroded away by the state.

However, David Cameron has not protected traditional Tory values. Ken Clarke's “Rehabilitation Revolution”, deep defence cuts, Constitutional vandalism, and increased European integration are the key examples. It is the erosion of the British concept of the nation state, and it is the Liberal Democrats who have forced this assault on Tory principles, thus allowing cover for ministers, like Ken Clarke, to pursue Liberal policies.

However, the tide may start to turn as the recent motion on prisoners' right to vote and other Tory rebellions have proved. The “High Tories” are seeking to reassert the Tory principles of the Rule of Law, National Security, and Parliamentary Sovereignty. They have their roots in the reactionary wing of the Party which has produced a minority of the Conservative Party’s leaders, though its most prominent alumni are Lord Salisbury, Lord Curzon, and, arguably, Margaret Thatcher.

They believe in the moral values expostulated by David Cameron but their loyalties to British tradition, culture, and patriotism are much deeper. They vehemently reject the modern Liberal consensus that David Cameron and the modernizers have sought to accommodate. This struggle between the “Old Whigs” and the “High Tories” may well define the course of this Parliament.

David Cameron is very much an “Old Whig” Conservative in the tradition of Burke, rather than a “High Tory” Conservative in the tradition of Lord Salisbury. He has sought to take Conservative values into the 21st century by placing the focus on family and community, and by reforming education and welfare.

However, we have also witnessed his willingness to allow the erosion of Tory principles in order to appease the tensions of coalition politics. This is where the dividing line lies. The “Old Whigs” who wish to protect traditional values but also to accommodate with the Liberal consensus, and the “High Tories” who wish to conserve the British Nation State and a traditional way of life.


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