Monday, 30 May 2011

So... what is a Conservative?

Apologies if this reads a little muddled, I'm writing it as I think about it which is rarely conducive to perfect clarity. If it does read oddly or could use work please just leave a comment and I'll cast fresh eyes over it and tidy it up.

An odd question, I'll admit, but its been puzzling me lately. It comes up whenever a debate I'm having with a fellow member of the party gets heated, which happens from time to time. When the argument has raged for a while, with myself and my interlocutor expressing wildly divergent views, almost inevitably one or the other of us accuses the other of just 'not being a Conservative', or asks why on earth the other is in the party at all. A recent example of this would be my reaction to Dean's post over on New Right wherein he supports social democracy, 'positive' discrimination, Keynesian tax-and-spend policy and all manner of other frankly left-wing things, but I don't want to single Dean out - this happens with other people too. He's just a convenient, linkable example of what I mean.

I thought it might be interesting to address this on the blog because I've been on both sides of the looking glass in these circumstances. Sometimes, I'm arguing with somebody who to me seems completely, sopping wet or an outright traitor. They might be supporting the abandonment of grammar schools, positive discrimination, all-women shortlists, breaking up the UK or abolishing the monarchy, and I'll be filled with righteous fury that these people purport to be Conservatives. Other times, I'll be arguing with someone who I hold to be a complete dinosaur - they might be obsessively anti-Europe, anti-immigration, an absurd aristocrat, a closet UKIP supporter or a die-hard Thatcherite ideologue. To these people I maintain the line that the party has to modernise, that every generation of Conservatives sees the death of 'its' party, and that digging into an ideological ditch and waiting for the British people to come around is a delusion. I dismissed as ridiculous their claims that they represented 'true' Conservatism.

It was a little while ago that I had the obvious-in-retrospect realisation that my treatment of these two groups of people is entirely at odds with itself, and that it is grotesquely hypocritical of me to claim great swathes of my own beliefs as inviolable Conservative doctrine while lecturing those I perceived to be political fossils that there was no such doctrine at all. I remembered how angry I got when wets told me that there was 'no such thing as an inviolable Conservative principle' while trying to excise things I believed in passionately from the party program and realised that I was exactly the same in the eyes of those Tories to whom I appear a ruthless moderniser.

Although my love of debate - combined with an unfortunate tendency to let my passions get the better of me when arguing about deeply held principle - means that I've not become markedly less vigorous in my skirmishes with opponents, the insight has allowed me to take a better-informed look at my position within the Conservative Party, and the position of ideology within the Conservative Party itself.

For example, I'm a monarchist. Not simply a supporter of the British monarchy for reasons of profit or tradition, but a genuine believer in the benefits of constitutional monarchy and its general superiority to the republican form of government. I consider royalism - if not the pan-monarchism bit - to be a natural and inseparable part of what the Conservative Party stands for. Yet I have met a (very) few republican Conservatives. Who is to say that they are any more wrong than previous generations of Tory rebels, some of whose actions - such as the Peelites - I support? Who is to say that in a century or two's time, the Conservative Party politicians of the day will not look back on monarchism the way we look back on the limited franchise, the supremacy of the Lords, or the Corn Laws?

The end result of this - long and slightly rambling - thought process was the realisation that nobody, regardless of their views, can ever claim to be a 'true' Conservative. Unlike the Labour Party and perhaps even the Liberals, there is no font of ultimate ideological authority or legitimacy that any single strain of Conservative thought can draw upon as a trump card. Attempting to de-legitimise an argument by claiming that it deviates from 'true' Conservatism is wrong.

Yet this does not mean that the Conservative Party stands for nothing, or that any view can be considered incontestably at home within it. Rather, the identity of the party and its beliefs are defined consensually. The core of the party, if one exists, is a sum of those areas where the great majority of its members can reach a consensus over a long period of time - and I mean a long period of time. Beyond this core, the philosophical outlands of the party consist of those areas where there is divergence and debate, but within broad, commonly accepted parameters.

For example, it is generally accepted that you can be a Europhile Conservative, rare and much disliked as we might sometimes be, whereas radical redistribution of wealth and support for trade union militancy lie without the accepted parameters of the Conservative debate. To demonstrate the vital importance of time to something becoming a 'core' value, I can point out that Thatcherism has not killed off entirely the more left-leaning brand of Butskellite Conservatism, nor has Cameroon doctrine eradicated Thatcherism, nor yet has Euroscepticism become an inviolable article of faith. On the other hand, aristocratic High Toryism is essentially dead, for it has been outside the Conservative debate too long, and defence of the monarchy is still taken as an article of faith by the great majority of Conservatives as it has been since our party was founded.

So the parameters of these contested areas are still defined by a rough consensus of the membership. In this way, when I claim that Dean's membership of the Conservative Party is illogical, it is not because he has strayed from some 'true path' of Conservative doctrine, but because so many of his deeply held beliefs - social democracy, positive discrimination, republicanism, near-separatism - fall outside the discourse of  contemporary Conservatism, and there are other parties which better match him. I'm not so much a Pope excommunicating a doctrinal heretic as a priest bemusedly watching a man recite the rosary inside a Hindu temple and suggesting that there are other, more suitable places for him to pray. An avowed social democrat in the UK has two relatively social democratic parties to choose from, after all.

In this reading, there are no rigid absolutes in Tory thinking but that doesn't mean that anything goes either. Those who seek to change the party can do so, but only by winning a debate with the party, effecting change, and then retaining support enough to consolidate that change. If you having a vision of how you want the Conservative Party to be, you can make it so, but you have to fight for it. Similarly, you can't simply de-legitimise an argument you dislike on narrow, doctrinal terms.

The other realisation I had - and I might do a full post on this - is that you can't simply divide the party into 'modernisers' and 'reactionaries'. As my own case demonstrates, any Conservative can be one or the other depending upon the extent to which any change impacts upon their own beliefs. In my instance, I'm generally on board with moving the party with the times but only as long as we try to move the times with us as well. I'm also pretty fervent in my defence of many things that might be considered traditionally Conservative, and I'm an utterly committed unionist. Similarly David Cameron, Dean, and other people that I and others might perceive as 'modernisers' must have been drawn to the Conservative Party by something, and if that was threatened I fancy you'd see their 'reactionary' sides too.

P.S. I've been finishing up my exams, hence the lack of posting. Normal service has resumed. 

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