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15 April 2013

The lost tribes of British politics – Day 1: the Christian democrats and the Tory wets

Looking back on the glory days of Thatcherism, Conservative rightwingers may be tempted to think that it's all over. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tory right is quite possibly just one leadership election away from taking control of a major political party.

Most ideological groupings – whether of right, left or centre – would love to be in such a position, but instead find themselves far removed from any realistic prospect of power.

These are the lost tribes of British politics.

Some of them, like New Labour or the Old Tory Left used to be contenders. Others, like the Libertarians or the Christian Democrats have always been on the sidelines (in this country, at least). Others still, like Blue Labour and the Red Tories, are new comers and may yet have their chance.

In the age of the internet, you don’t need to have a political party behind you to have a voice. With an effective communications strategy and something to say, just about any school of political thought can take part in the battle of ideas. Furthermore, we shouldn’t take the existing party system for granted. Smaller parties now have the potential to breakthrough; while, in the major parties, factions that ran the show in one decade can be heading for extinction in the next.

For all of these reasons, the political wilderness is an interesting place these days. So here, for your entertainment, is the Deep End guide to the lost tribes of British politics.

This week, we’ll be featuring two each day. We’ve deliberate ignored the extremes of left and right – who thoroughly deserve their obscurity. We’re also leaving out those ideologies associated with smaller, but significant, parties like UKIP (rightwing populism), the Greens (leftwing environmentalism) and the SNP (Scottish nationalism).

For each of the ten lost tribes that we have picked we’ll be scoring on four metrics: intellectual inheritance, past glories, online presence and future prospects.

1. The Christian Democrats

Christian democracy is one of the most important political ideologies of the modern age. In the post-war period, Christian democratic parties provided the main alternative to socialism in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

Yet, in Britain, its most significant manifestation was the Movement for Christian Democracy founded by Lord Alton in the 1990s, which in turn begat the Christian People’s Alliance. Never heard of either? Our point exactly.

A mixture of centrist economics, moderate social conservatism and idealistic internationalism, Christian democracy has helped to shape the centre-right in countries across the world – but especially those with large Catholic populations.

Perhaps this confessional factor explains why Christian democracy barely figures in Britain’s political development. More important though is that, on the Continent, the conservative tradition was corrupted by reactionary, anti-democratic elements – the politics of the Prussian Junkers, the Dreyfuss Affair and General Franco. In Britain, thank God, the Conservative Party retained its moral authority, standing as a bulwark against both Communism and Fascism.

Britain is very unusual in Europe in still having a mainstream conservative party. Even if this comes under threat in the future, the Church of England has done little to nurture a native Christian democratic tradition that could take its place.

Score card:

Intellectual inheritance (largely imported): 5/5

Past glories (in a British context): 0/5

Online presence: 1/5

Future prospects: 0/5  

2. The Tory Wets

It is said that each of the main political parties is itself a coalition – because, given the remorseless logic of the first-past-the-post electoral system, they have to be. This is true, but only up to a point. For instance, the Conservative Party, though a broad church, does not encompass every conceivable stripe of centre-right opinion.

For instance, the party has never had anything that could be described as a Christian democratic wing (see above) – instead the territory on the Tory left was occupied by the wets (to use the Thatcherite term).

We sometimes forget the extent to which the wets dominated the party as a whole: Harold Macmillan, Iain McCleod, Edward Heath, Tony Barber, Peter Walker, Jim Prior, Willie Whitelaw, Peter Carrington, Francis Pym, Michael Heseltine, John Major, Douglas Hurd, Ken Clarke – these were the big beasts of the comparatively recent past.

So what happened to them? Well, obviously Margaret Thatcher did. But even after a decade of her premiership, the wets were still powerful enough to topple her in 1990 – and then run both the party and the country until 1997.

Ultimately, what killed them off was their attachment to Europe. The old Tory corporatism of the post-war period was finally declared bankrupt in the 1980s, leaving the wets in search of a new mission: fatefully, they chose "ever-closer union" and the single currency.

As Ken Clarke was to find out, this would permanently exclude them from the leadership of the Conservative Party. But it was worse than that: in the course of the Blair and Brown years, a new generation of moderate – but eurosceptic – Conservatives supplanted the wets on the Tory left; while, at the same time, the Tory right – inspired by Iain Duncan Smith – renewed the party’s one nation tradition, previously neglected by wets and dries alike.

Though some continuity is provided by the Tory Reform Group and others, the once all-powerful wets now serve as a monument to the consequences of poor political judgement.

Score card:

Intellectual inheritance: 3/5

Past glories: 5/5

Online presence: 2/5

Future prospects: 1/5



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