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Andrew Lilico

Andrew Lilico: Why don't the "modernisers" seem authentic?

As regular readers of mine will know, I was an opponent of the 2001 and 2005 campaign positionings adopted by the Conservative Party, having advocated a form of modernisation since a series of articles I wrote in 1998 on the topic.  I was, however, always concerned about the Cameroon positioning, also.  My contention was always that Cameron had not changed the Conservative Party enough from its 1997-2001 stance, and that it had continued with a version of essentially the same error - believing that Conservatism could not win if offered whole and entire to the voters and that, instead, one needed to distract people from what Conservatives actually believe by moving the debate away from mainstream issues such as the economy and public service reform (where Conservative views were regarded by our leaders as unacceptable to the public) onto other ground where we could fight at less of a disadvantage - in 2001 and 2005 Europe and immigration; in 2005-2009 green issues and gay rights.

Paul Goodman suggests that what we had in 2001 and 2005 was the "meat" (issues appealing to core Conservatives) whilst what happened in 2005-2009 was we took on the "greens" (issues appealing outside the Conservative core) but decided to throw out the meat, when what we actually needed was a balanced diet of meat and greens.  I agree with much of what Paul says but I think his analysis here is incomplete in two main ways.  First, a platform of Europe, immigration, gay rights and green issues would still continue to be a platform that avoided the central issues of the economy and public service reform.  Merely talking about more things other than the key things is just another way of evading the issue.

In 2001, 2005, and 2005-9 the Conservative hierarchy quite deliberately and explicitly disavowed the interests of its core intellectuals in economic issues and public service reform.  The economy played virtually no role in the party's platforms in 2001 and 2005.  Remember Oliver Letwin going into hiding when it was suggested he might believe we should cut spending?  Remember Howard Flight being deselected for suggesting public spending might be cut?  From the late 1980s until 1997 Party intellectuals had all kinds of ideas for public service reforms.  Remember Peter Lilley's Basic Pension Plus scheme?  In the 2001 and 2005 manifestos there were, of course, references to public service reform and the economy, but they were half-baked (in the classical sense of not being properly developed and not having minor problems addressed) precisely because the Party had eschewed engagement with Labour on the economy and public services.  The polls said Labour led nearly two to one on the economy, so the decision was made to engage elsewhere.  It simply isn't true that we offered any kind of right-wing message on the economy or public service reform in 2001 and 2005 other than the unpleasant "right wing" message that we didn't care about these questions enough to make them a priority and think through and argue for our beliefs properly - it was the "I'm all right Jack" version of Conservatism.

Second, I think Paul's contention is incomplete in that it does not really account for why the Cameroon message seems inauthentic.  After all, many right-wing Conservatives fear that the problem with many of the Cameroons is that they really mean it - that they are only too authentic.  Their priorities really are "modernising" the constitution by introducing fixed term Parliaments, abolishing the House of Lords, making it possible for the (then-purely-ritual) monarch to be a Catholic, abolishing classical (sex-regulating) marriage to replace it with civil-partnerships-for-all.  By contrast, issues such as renegotiating our relationship with the European Union, increasing the sustainable growth rate of the economy, introducing sustainable reforms in the NHS, enhancing the country's transport infrastructure, and placing our defence forces in a position where they can project British values around the globe are "distractions" or "third-term issues".

Furthermore, Cameron was elected Party leader by a solid majority and has never faced any serious threat to his leadership from within.  So it's hard to claim that the Cameroons don't speak for the Party.  Why, then, does the Cameroon position - the Conservative Party position - appear "inauthentic" as opposed to just "wrong"?

Here's why.  Classical political theory analysed the Conservative Party into four main groups: the classical whigs (believers in a sovereign elected legislature under the British Crown, free markets, toleration and ordered liberty); traditional tories (believers in an ordered hierarchical society driven by moral purpose and duty); paternalists (tories who felt there were special duties for those that had to care for those that had not); and corporatists (believers in a social compact whereby the state oversaw bargaining between labour and business to promote and balance prosperity and social justice).

Every successful Conservative positioning reflects a balance of two of these groups, one dominant and one allied, with the other two groups de-emphasised.  Traditionally it was thought that classical whigs and traditional tories could almost never ally, but all other alliances were feasible.  After World War II the main alliance began as being between tories and paternalists, then gradually drifted into a parternalist-corporatist alliance.  Thatcherism overturned this establishment position with a novel alliance between the apparently irreconcilable whigs and tories, united by Thatcher for a moment in time over the issue of Statecraft.  Statecraft united these groups because tories feared the threat of the unions to order and hierarchy, whilst whigs disliked inflation and the loss of the prestige of Parliament.

But as Statecraft brought her to power, so Statecraft brought her down - the loss of order of the Poll Tax, combined with the rise of inflation in the late 1980s, being her undoing.  (Europe was merely the rallying cry of her (mainly corporatist) opponents, not the reason her allies deserted her.)

By the late 1990s, I was arguing that to return to power the Party needed a new alliance.  By that time, whigs had the overwhelming numerical superiority and intellectual force in the Party.  Indeed, much of the tensions of the mid-1990s between the Party hierarchy and the membership and intellectuals was precisely because we were all whigs whilst the Party hierarchy - the Clarkes and Heseltines - were corporatists.  The key to Blairite success had been in peeling off much of the paternalist segment of Conservatism.  I argued that we needed to get back the paternalists.  I said the way to do that was to have a policy platform that reached out to paternalists from our whiggish core, by saying we would use whiggish methods to address paternalist concerns.

By 2005 (having failed to address the issue for two Parliaments, despite my imprecations), everyone agreed that we needed to reach out to paternalists.  But there was then a split as to how.  One section of us wanted to reach out to them as I had recommended six years earlier - by applying methods that were identifiably Conservative to concerns that were identifiably paternalist.  That was my preferred form of modernisation.

Unfortunately the path we pursued reflected what was, in my view, a key strategic error.  Instead of reaching out to paternalists as whigs, we instead tried to become paternalists, dragging the whigs along with us on the basis that they had nowhere else to go.  There are many problems with that, but for the moment I want to focus on one: it made the Conservative Party inauthentic - as I had said in the late 1990s would be the drawback of that strategy.  We are whigs.  No-one, of course, uses that term - it's a term of art in political theory.  But everyone knows the content.  Everyone knows that the true beliefs and priorities of Conservative Party members and Conservative intellectuals revolve around a sovereign elected British legislature, free markets, toleration and liberty.  Any attempt to position the Party that does not clearly and identifiably reflect those beliefs and priorities is not authentic to the Party's spirit and will be seen as inauthentic by the voter.

The voter will never trust us when she knows that, in our heart and soul and core, we itch to pursue a fundamentally different programme from what we say we do.

To be seen as authentic, we have to be true to what we are.  To be seen as relevant, we have to engage on the most substantive and material issues of the day - even if the voters do not immediately agree with us on those questions.  To say these things is not to oppose "modernisation".  The Conservative Party's problem is that it has not modernised enough.  The leadership is still stuck in a sterile tactical debate mindset from 1995-99.  Some of the membership (and, even wierder, some Cameroons) still talk the language of "thatcherism" - a historically bizarre coalition that could never last and has almost zero relevance to today's context.

I want to modernise.  I always did.  I want to attract paternalist voters.  I always did.  But I want to attract them as an authentic (whiggish) Conservative.  I always believed we could.  The problem with some in our Party is that they have never really believed this could be done.


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