Published:

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute.

I was recently credited on a website with dividing the Conservative Students of the 1970s-1980s into the three groups of “wets,” “dries,” and “shits.”

In reality, I did not coin the term “shits,” though I did write about it in my book, “Think Tank.” The term was coined by the student Conservatives themselves and was used to refer to the group on the right who opposed the state planning and controls of the “wets,” but who had no time for the free market libertarian views of the “dries.” They tended to be more paternalistic, even authoritarian, tough on crime and immigration, and assertively patriotic. I never discovered why they merited the term “shits,” unless is was simply an expression of abuse by their opponents.

None of those three terms is in use today, although the Conservative Party is, as it has always been, a broad church of different groupings on the centre right of the political spectrum. The “wets” were swept away by the success of Thatcher’s successful revitalization of the British economy following its decline under the postwar consensus. And if the term “shits” were used today, it would describe people who share not a political grouping, but a personality trait.

There are, however, the successors of the “dries.” These are those who embrace the capital-C Conservative political tradition. They do not oppose change, but want it to be spontaneous and organic, rather than directed according to a preconceived plan. What they want to conserve is not any particular state of society, but the means by which it changes. They seek to conserve a process rather than an outcome. And if the shape of society is to be determined by the choices people make, it follows that they must be free to make those choices. Necessarily, therefore, they support free markets and individual liberty, and most would support free trade. If they were given a descriptive name, it might be “libertarian Conservatives.”

Another group, by no means insignificant, might be called “traditionalists.” They emphasize patriotism, moral values, strong defence, law and order, and stability. Many of these are small-c conservatives, with an aversion to change and a disdain for some of the changes to society that have arisen from people choosing to behave in less rigid ways than did their predecessors.

A further group might be called the “managerialists,” or perhaps “pragmatists,” seeing the role of the party as one of solving problems that arise with empirical solutions that they hope will work in practice. They make a virtue of not being limited by any particular philosophical outlook, but free to approach each situation on its merits. They listen to public discontents and try to redress them with policies simply designed to deal with them one at a time, rather than being part of a unified outlook. They stress making society’s institutions more efficient, rather than looking to see how they might respond to the wants and needs of its citizens. Fundamentally, they want to make the country work better, as they see it.

There is also, of course, a fourth group that is always there, composed of those who pursue personal ambition and advancement ungoverned by any set of principles that might impede those aims. They are the parliamentary Vicars of Bray, who align their views with the current leadership, changing them as the leadership changes, just as the legendary Vicar of Bray changed his religion and his political allegiance several times to correspond with those of the monarch of the day and the government of the day.

While these broad groupings might be a good way to categorize those who currently call themselves Conservatives, it should be stressed that many of them refuse to be simply pigeonholed into one narrow category, and instead see themselves as embracing the values of more than one of the groups. It should also be noted that personality as well as philosophy plays a part. Within each of the groups there are traits separating those optimistic about humanity and its future from those more pessimistic, who seek only to hold off bleak possible outcomes. There is also a divide separating those who embrace spontaneous change from those suspicious and even fearful of it.

There is, however, one belief that has always united all of the groups within the Conservative Party, and which still does. It takes it as a given that the Conservatives are the party of government. They believe they do it better than the alternatives do or could do, and aim to continue doing so.