Professor Tim Bale is Chair of Politics at Queen Mary University and is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron and of The Conservatives since 1945: Drivers of Party Change.
The Conservative Party only has itself to blame for the rise of UKIP – not because it ignored the pet peeves that drive Nigel Farage’s ‘people’s army’ but because, in the electorally-desperate early 2000s, it pushed the populist button itself (‘foreign land’, fuel-protests, Tony Martin, travellers, ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’), then suddenly vacated that ‘nasty party’ territory after 2005, only to end up in 2010 making an unrealisable promise to the electorate about reducing immigration to the tens of thousands.
In short, the Conservative Party couldn’t have teed things up more beautifully for UKIP if it had tried. That doesn’t mean, however, that Tories should vote for it.
One thing you’ll often hear from those who have done and say they’ll continue to do so is that UKIP is the party the Conservatives used to (and still ought to) be. I beg to differ – big time. If we look at what this government has been doing since 2010, the party that the Conservatives used to be is – surprise, surprise – still the Conservative Party. Just look at the evidence.
You believe in making the nation’s books balance? You’ve got a Chancellor in George Osborne who’s pursuing the single most ambitious fiscal consolidation this country has ever seen – and doing it for the most part by cutting spending rather than raising taxes, and by rolling back the welfare state but in such a way as to protect the nation’s senior citizens.
You want to preserve law and order? Does anyone seriously think it’s at risk with Chris Grayling and Theresa May at the helm?
You believe in traditional rigour and teaching methods in education? That’s exactly what you’re getting from Michael Gove. And from David Willetts you’re getting a higher education system where the money follows the student and where the cost is borne by those who benefit most directly – a system that hasn’t, by the way, put people from lower income backgrounds off following their dreams.
You want to preserve the integrity of the UK? David Cameron knows that he’s not the most popular man in Scotland and leads a party for which independence would be a positive, electorally speaking. Yet he’s still going into bat for the Union.
You care about Britain’s national sovereignty? Fewer governments have pursued more opt-outs and said no to more initiatives from Brussels than this one, and no-one else has a chance of delivering an in-out referendum so the country can make up its own mind.
And finally, you want to know that the UK is back in control of its borders but doesn’t cut its nose off to spite its face by denying entry to people who will make a vital contribution to the country’s future? This government, subject to its international obligations (and, yes, such things should and do matter), has done everything that’s practically possible to balance control and Britain’s long-term economic interests.
Given all this, the only small-c conservative voter who might still be tempted by UKIP is one who believes that the proverbial man (or woman) in the street really does know better than people with experience and expertise, who prefers direct over representative democracy, and who believes in privileging the principles of libertarian non-interference over the government considering matters case-by-case.
Whatever you think of these ideas, no-one could seriously argue that they are conservative. Indeed, any true Tory should be highly suspicious of a party which privileges ideology over facts, which dismisses the value of knowledge and judgement, which can’t admit the inevitability of historical change, and which defies the common sense on which it continually (but erroneously) claims to have some sort of monopoly. Parties that do that end up denying climate change, wanting to do away with the NHS, the minimum wage, and health and safety, and campaigning to bring back grammar schools – none of which are supported either by evidence or, for that matter, by a convincing majority of the public.
No, the essence of conservatism lies not in rejecting but in coming to terms with realities rooted in social change and changing popular preferences, the better to ensure that we preserve what’s worth preserving. Not for no reason is Edmund Burke a Tory hero: it was he, after all, who warned that ‘a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.’
Conservatism, unlike what’s on offer from UKIP is and always will be a living, breathing governing philosophy rather than a kneejerk, nostalgic response to whatever it is about contemporary life that people don’t like. ‘We’ll stop the world, and help you to get off’, is UKIP’s central message. To pinch a phrase from a famous Labour politician, Nye Bevan, who spent the last few years of his left battling populists who likewise wanted the impossible and wanted it now: ‘You call that statesmanship? I call it an emotional spasm.’