Here’s a cliché: the bluff northerner. She’s direct to the point of being blunt. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She prefers principle over fancy manners. She assumes anyone paying excessive compliments is after something. She disapproves of debt. She thinks you should keep your good deeds quiet. She likes her church plain and her mantlepiece decorated. She’s suspicious of anyone south of Birmingham or north of Berwick.
She is, in other words, pretty much everything the Conservative Party hierarchy sought actively to alienate and to marginalise from the mid-1990s on.
When we debate struggles in the Conservative Party between “modernisers and traditionalists” or “authoritarians and libertarians” or “ideologues and pragmatists” or whatever other categories we pick, a standard concern has been to what extent in reaching out to the “centre” the Conservative Party has in some way lost touch with its “core vote” or its “right wing” and lost voters to Ukip. Then, on another day, as if it were some separate conversation, we wonder how we might appeal to ethnic minorities or to Northerners. But it is no real surprise that we have lost our appeal to Northerners – for the sort of Northerner that the Conservative Party used to be good at appealing to is in key dimensions very much like that sort of “right wing Conservative” that our now intensely Southern party has sought to marginalise.
Of course, there was not a deliberate effort to alienate Northerners. Far from it. What the Party sought to do was to restore its appeal in key Southern and Midlands seats that Blair’s New Labour took from us. But one way to think about how we tried to do that was by our becoming extremely and relentlessly Southern.
We stopped being allowed to be direct or plain. Everything had to be nuanced, spun. And that’s all very well if you’re a fancy-pants Southerner who thinks it’s clever to use long words with Latin endings and to boast of how subtle you are.
We stopped being “ideological” and instead proclaimed how “pragmatic” we were – how all we cared about was what works. Which is all very well if you’re a European-influenced voter who automatically imagines that “ideology” has its end game in the Somme or Auschwitz or the Gulags or September 11th, and for whom responsible government consists in recognising shades of grey. If your instinct is the more natural Northern clichéd one of assuming those without transparent guiding principles are deceivers who are either trying to cloak their ignorance or incompetence or to pull some scam by using fancy excuses to “pull the wool over our eyes”, then proclaiming how non-ideological you are isn’t going to go down so well.
Now some folk reading this will think the answer must be to be more principled and less mannered and so on. But that’s not really going to work as an answer either, unless one feels one can take for granted those Southern voters or Southern-minded Northern voters that think of “cool” and “sophisticated” and “pragmatic” and “latte-loving” as compliments, not insults. Instead, I think, we need to reflect more upon the point that all successful political parties are coalitions, the implication being that there should be more than one (proper and appropriate) way to be a Conservative. Purity is the prerogative of pressure groups.
This is not an especially novel thought, and it is easier to say than to do. We have lived until recently in an age of broadcasting – especially via television. Politics in Britain has responded by becoming progressively more and more presidential, focused upon the leader and the manifesto, to the point that we even (contrary to all Parliamentary logic) had leaders’ debates in 2010 and seem set (alas!) to repeat that constitutional abomination in 2015. That tends to drive uniformity in message, which in turn drives a narrative of greater control over the statements of candidates (yes, yes, I know that rebellions in Parliament are more common than in the past, but that’s not what I’m referring to here). The party leaders are expected to own or disown the comments of their members, who are expected to be endorsed or disciplined.
Yet in a country of diverse tastes and priorities, a party can only have “one nation” appeal if it is prepared to say different things to different folk in different places and to accept that there is more than one way to reflect the parties’ philosophies. I have urged for more than 15 years that the Conservative Party must, to win a majority again, grasp that it is a coalition and also grasp what the authentic core of that coalition is in today’s Conservatism. It is a mistake to think that in order to appeal to new voters that we wish to reach we must make our one true message that we are all just like them.
Perhaps the internet, with its increased opportunities for “narrow-casting”, might allow us to reinvent our appeal with much greater diversity – so that there can be one kind of Conservatism that appeals to Northerners and Ukippers, a kind that appeals to fancy-mannered Southerners, a kind that appeals to paternalists, and another kind that appeals to internationally-oriented business types.
The Conservative Party is a coalition. That means there must be more than one legitimate way to be a Conservative.