Paul Goodman has been blogging regularly from the Davis Campaign. This is his latest entry. Michael Gove has been posting for Camp Cameron.
Will this leadership contest see the end of the Conservative Party of the last quarter-century? I ask the question because a shift seems to be taking place in the party’s view of the establishment – and, consequently, in the party’s view of itself.
The establishment is easier to name than define: indeed, there’s lots of disagreement about what it is – even about whether it exists at all. For what it’s worth, I’ll risk a description, if not exactly a definition. I’d describe the establishment as the governing class.
This class, of course, is always changing: it’s certainly changed a great deal since Henry Fairlie wrote about it in 1955. Today, that establishment is a liberal establishment. Its locations haven’t changed all that much: the Universities, the Inns of Court, the BBC, much of the world of the arts. Its attitudes, however, have changed out of all recognition – towards (for example) race, Israel, women, Christianity, markets, the United States, sex, censorship, animals, the environment and rights. There are lots more examples, but these will do for a start.
Many of these changes are clearly for the better (i.e: markets). Some of them are for the worse (i.e: the United States). Most of them have advantages and drawbacks. (A rising awareness of human rights violations abroad is a good thing; the human rights culture at home is not.) But whatever the rights or wrongs of the establishment may be, the Conservative Party’s attitude towards it has been broadly consistent since the Thatcher era: we’ve opposed it. We’ve been the anti-establishment party.
Margaret Thatcher promoted this view in government, saying that "The Lady’s not for turning". (John Major tried to buck the trend with his gentler, kinder conservatism, but this didn’t last long.) William Hague continued it in opposition with his "commonsense revolution". Only last May, Michael Howard promised support for "the forgotten majority". The incarnation of the Conservative Party as an anti-establishment force was, and perhaps remains, Norman Tebbit.
The party has won four elections and lost three since Lady Thatcher became its leader, but while its vote has strayed up and down, the nature of that vote has been consistently Tebbitised, as it were. Class categorisations can be misleading, but it’s none the less true to say that we’ve won new support among what could be called the upper working and lower middle classes, but lost support elsewhere among the wider middle class. In 2001, my first election, I found more enthusiasm for the party in houses with small drives in High Wycombe than houses with long drives in Marlow. My seat, being Conservative, isn’t typical, but I think that the illustration holds good.
Since 2001, a consensus has slowly emerged that we can’t go on like this. We’ve lost the wider middle classes, it argues, because we’re seen as the nasty party. We’re seen to care about the countryside, but not the cities and the suburbs; about the regiments, but not the threat to the environment from global warming; about Gibraltar and Zimbabwe, but not (as David Cameron has put it) about Darfur. We’re believed to care, this consensus argues, only about people like us. It claims that we lack the D-factor – decency.
You don’t need me to tell you that this belief – energetically promoted by our opponents – is untrue, or that it’s a grotesque insult to the contribution to clubs, charities, voluntary groups and faith communities made by our members up and down the land. Its wrongness and unfairness is beside the point I want to make. (And debating how it has come about would take too long.) That point, very simply, is that a consensus has emerged which holds that the voters won’t listen to our message until we change our image.
I quoted David Cameron on Darfur a few lines ago, but this consensus view is shared to some degree by both leadership candidates. One’s slogan is "Modern conservatism". The other’s is "Modern, compassionate conservatism". Are all readers sure about whose is which? When candidates’ rhetoric converges like this, you can be sure that their viewpoints converge too.
And convergence about analysis is matched by convergence on action. Certainly, there are important differences: tax and spend is a clear example. But there are also huge areas of overlap – the most noticeable, perhaps, being on social justice, and the agenda for change formed during the last Parliament by Iain Duncan-Smith and promoted in this one especially by Liam Fox.
So let me make a prediction. Whichever David wins, expect to see a sharp and sudden change in the party’s approach to the establishment – to the BBC, to the older churches, to the judges, to the residually anti-Thatcher element in the world of the arts and the media, to the liberal intelligensia. Expect to see the party become more of an establishment party. Expect to look back to the last but one leadership election, and perhaps call this change the (posthumous) triumph of Michael Portillo. And if you don’t like it, don’t complain afterwards that you weren’t tipped off in advance.
This about-turn would of course be more sudden and sharp under David Cameron. I will welcome much of it, whoever wins. Yes, the party must change. Yes, it must recover its reputation for decency. And no, we can’t go on as we are. But I also believe that the party ought to be deeply uncomfortable about the prospect of being drawn back into the embrace of the establishment. Our quarter-century as an anti-establishment party has seen many faults and flaws, but it’s been stamped none the less with a deep seriousness: impatience with what’s second-best, dissatisfaction with the status quo, an unwillingness to be fobbed off with excuses or accept that nothing can be done, a hunger to change Britain for the better. Let’s not abandon the best of the old while pursuing what’s good in the new.