The Conservatives: Do We Really Need Them? by Sean Gabb, 5th November 2002

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Issue Number 74
5th November 2002

The Conservatives: Do We Really Need Them?
Sean Gabb

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There comes a moment in any institution’s decline after which common stupidity can no longer be distinguished from sabotage. So it appears to be with the Conservative Party. It may be that Iain Duncan Smith will in the next few days be driven from the leadership. If he does survive the next few days, my friends in the Party assure me that he will not survive a leadership challenge—or if he does survive that, it will be on the sufferance of enemies who hate each other too much to combine effectively against him. If he is replaced, no one expects a new leader to deliver victory at the next election: the best he faces is to get through this Parliament without either another leadership challenge or a formal split.

The effect this is likely to have on an already weak showing in the opinion polls hardly registers on the majority of Conservative Members of Parliament. There are few of them left. Most of them are now in unsafe seats. Uppermost in their minds as they run about Westminster like terrified lost sheep is a personal desire to keep the seats that raise them above the mediocrity that would otherwise be their due in life. How they will behave during the present crisis is beyond rational calculation. But if their past behaviour is any guide, they will do nothing very effective—either for the Party or for themselves.

Of course, if Mr Duncan Smith’s leadership really is coming to an end, it may be no more than he deserves. He was elected last year to bring about a Conservative revival after the wasted years of John Major and William Hague. His job was to ensure an ascendency of the conservative mainstream within the Party and to reach out to an electorate increasingly dissatisfied with Labour. But where is this mainstream ascendency? Where are the new policies? Where is the keen and steady opposition to Labour? I cannot see them. Others normally willing to look for every sign of revival cannot see them. I can even understand the regret that some are beginning to feel for the past leadership of William Hague. He led the Party here. He led it there. He led it to many places. He never led it anywhere with much of a strategy, nor anywhere for very long. But at least he led it. Under Mr Duncan Smith, it seems to be going nowhere.

Earlier this year, I did briefly persuade myself that there was a strategy. I was not happy with it, but I could see its Machiavellian charm. It strikes me as obvious that the whole mission of the Conservative Party should be to govern a free people in an independent country. From this, it follows that the leading objective should be to prepare for withdrawal from the European Union. Now, the best way to prepare this is to talk about it and to get withdrawal onto the political agenda. Big changes of policy in a democracy can seldom be made except after a long public discussion, in which the principle has become accepted, or at least has lost its ability to alarm the uncommitted, and preferably in which all but the incidental details have been settled among the committed. There is always an electoral risk in proposing big changes. But this one has actually been prepared for the Conservative Party. There is no reason to believe that advocating withdrawal would much surprise the electors – nor even to believe that most of them would strongly disagree.

All this strikes me as obvious. But, like Moloch, “my sentence is for open war: of wiles more unexpert I boast not”. That does not make me right. I am, after all, a polemical writer, not a politician who goes about knocking on doors and trying to look pleasant. I therefore persuaded myself that the principle of withdrawal had been tacitly accepted, but that it was unprofitable in electoral terms to advertise the fact, and that the present objective should be to win the subsidiary debates on health, welfare, education and law and order. These being won, the Conservative Party could then win an election across the whole range of issues, rather than gamble all on a single issue that might not be uppermost in the public mind come the next election.

Unfortunately, for all my partiality to the English tradition in politics, I may have been led astray by my rather French belief in the ability of people to see the logic of their position and to act accordingly. Perhaps there was no strategy, and I had fallen into some variant of the anthropomorphic fallacy. Or if there was a strategy, its execution was bungled. Certainly, if there was to be a focus on subsidiary debates, it was reasonable to expect some kind of victory in them. If there was to be talk about schools and hospitals rather than about Europe, the talk should have been interesting and convincing. All we have had instead is leopard skin shoes, ethnic minorities, commitments to public service reform that are already on the Labour agenda, and some fatuous talk about fighting crime by winning the war on drugs—this last a big disappointment, as I had expected more from Oliver Letwin than plans to turn us into a nation of police informers.

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So where do we on the political right go from here? Unless we are to grow comfortable with the prospect of unconstitutional action, we do need a party that will eventually dislodge this present Government. Bearing in mind the difficulties of starting a new party—let alone a successful one—that must be the Conservative Party. But it is not the Conservative Party as it now exists. I could be wrong. I am told that a deal has been made between John Redwood and Michael Portillo to take over the Party as soon as a leadership election can be forced. Perhaps the alleged charm of the latter will be combined with the alleged solidity of the former to bring about a revival. But note the doubled adjective. I have seen too many Messiahs come in with loud hosannas and go quietly out crucified and unresurrected to believe that even a committee of them will do any better. It seems reasonable to predict that, failing some great and unexpected change in politics, the Conservatives are doomed to irrelevance for the rest of this Parliament, and possibly for the one after this.

And so, what are we to do? The question is not so gloomy as it might sound, as the answer has already been given. This is that we should go on without the Conservative Party, just as we have been going for several years. Politics without a formal opposition may be alarming to those who think only in terms of what happens in Westminster. But there is an opposition to Labour in the country at large, and a pretty good one. It is an informal coalition of Eurosceptics, country dwellers, and libertarians of all shades. We are held together by a vague commonality of principle and by cross-membership of the main campaigning organisations. We discuss and coordinate our strategies over dinner tables and via the Internet. Since no one leads us, and there are so many of us, we cannot be bribed or threatened into silence.

We face a government that is committed to any number of terrible things, but that is committed above all to its continued and fairly easy enjoyment of power. Therefore, the fuel protests led to a withdrawal of the petrol tax escalator. The countryside protests have led to a feverish search for compromise on the hunting issue. The passionate denunciations of the European Union have led to a probable dropping of Euro membership. Perhaps this last was mainly caused by opposition within the City—but, as with the move to free trade in the middle 19th century, it was reinforced by the perceived weight of public opinion. Indeed, on the whole European issue, the Judges have recently turned Eurosceptic, ruling that no foreign treaty of any kind can be entrenched against the express will of Parliament. I doubt if this was a unilateral act by the judiciary. The judgment in the Metric Martyrs case must at least have had wider discussion within the Establishment. Labour is even taking note of the public disquiet about the return to mass immigration, and is talking language that, heard from others, the Ministers would once have called in the police to suppress.

I cannot personally endorse every point of the loose opposition to Labour. Nor can I pretend that we have collectively been as successful in stopping bad laws as a good parliamentary opposition would have been in our place. But we have had our successes, and have in consequence a Labour Government that is better than we might once have expected it to be.

And so we can probably do without the Conservatives for the foreseeable future. Doubtless, when the leadership election starts – in whatever formal or informal shape it may take—there will be the usual apocalyptic talk about why this candidate is better or worse than some other, its purpose being to interest us in the outcome sufficiently to make us give freely of our time and money. But should it really matter to us which candidate wins or keeps the leadership and holds it until the next challenge? These people are almost without exception unprincipled or second rate. Of those few who are neither one or the other, most are simply both. Whether from inability or lack of inclination, no probable candidate for the leadership will do much to defend our threatened causes.

This being so, I suggest that our duty is to give only brief attention to the frantic struggles now breaking out in the Parliamentary Conservative Party, and get on with the jobs to which we are already committed. Like the chance combination of atoms in an Epicurean universe, these struggles may produce an unexpectedly favourable outcome. But I would not lay money on this. If the Party remains a legitimate object of our attentions, it must be so over the long term. Any attentions must be to help ensure that more honest and intelligent candidates are selected for the election after next. To this end, I am now actively working on a revival of my Candidlist project. But there is a difference between helping to make the Party worth electing at some time in the future, and giving a blank cheque to whatever clique presently holds or soon may hold the formal positions of leadership.

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