In the run up to the 2015 general election, it was interesting to note that the Independent, the Economist and the Financial Times all made the same endorsement. It was not for a single party, but rather for the continuation of what was then the current two-party coalition government. What these publications were pining for was the perceived fiscal competence of the Tories combined with the social liberalism and internationalism (into that pro-Europeanism) of the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, a continuation of that coalition wasn’t something that anyone could actually vote for directly. In the face of fear of Miliband and the SNP, England voted for the Tories, often to the detriment of their now former coalition partners.
I mention all of this because the endorsements by those publications actually say something about what large portions of the centre-right craved. Above all else, from an objective point of view, these newspapers didn’t think the Tories on their own had enough to offer. Or at the very least that the Tories on their own, while being better custodians of the economy than Labour, had gaps in their profile that they thought the Lib Dems covered admirably.
This begs the question then: why can’t the Tories just become that party the Indy, Economist and FT all admired? A lot of Conservatives, Lord Ashcroft being amongst them, have been talking since polling day about the shy Tory effect, and why can’t they become a party that people aren’t embarrassed to admit they’ll vote for? It’s essentially an economically liberal, outward looking, socially liberal party. Early signs that the Tories might have absorbed any of this aren’t good: the newly installed Minister for Employment is a strong advocate of the death penalty, as a for instance.
I suppose the hint is in the name of the party: it is very difficult for a “conservative” party to ever become a totally liberal one. After all, conservatives have every right to say that it’s their party. I was chairing a panel at Tory conference a few years ago, and I recall a woman standing up and saying something along the lines of, “All the metropolitan economic liberals in the Conservative Party, like George Osborne, should reform the Liberal Party and get out of our hair!” She got a standing ovation. I suppose if that’s where so much of their party members are ideologically, the miracle is that they ever elected leaders who were capable of forming the Coalition in the first place.
So the conclusion of all of this is this: it is possible we end up with the Tories in government trying to get rid of the Human Rights Act; a Labour Party that is economically protectionist and social conservative; and the Lib Dems becoming a shadow of the Green Party. All of these are worst case scenarios, but within the realms of possibility. What happens to we liberals then?
Edward Wynn says
Interesting. The Tories. Could go quite far right but for one thing. They won or held their ground in the aspirational social class c-e group. That’s fine but that group, in my view, will have a limit on how ‘tough’ it is acceptable on the deserving poor. Tough on immigration is ok. Tough on benefit justification ok. Bedroom tax hitting disabled, not to improve state schools to give the leg up would make them shift back if Labour gets its act together. Being seen to be unnecessarily harsh on what the c-e think are the deserving poor will be punished. The bedroom tax was theoretically sensible but laid them open to the charge of them being genuinely unfair. Do enough.of the senior Tories have the right ‘touch’?
Nick, this is an issue the Tory leadership has been staring down the barrel of since Clarke’s failed bid for the leadership -followed by Hague and IDS’s disastrous spells in charge which involved the active embrace of anti-Europeanism – in 1997. I fully expect them to duck it again and again until it’s too late.
I think the Tory gradually giving up of the territory that was held by Conservatives like Clarke and Heseltine has caused an ongoing issue for the Lib Dems – many LDs recognise that there needs to be a party of the moderate centre-right in Britain, but don’t want their party to be it.
I still don’t really see how the Conservatives can claim anymore to be – for example – the party of Harold Macmillan. But I don’t see that tradition being all that compatible with Liberalism, for all it is a centrist, internationalist perspective.
The rumour that the SNP are talking to the Tory left about the repeal of the HRA already can only point to a lot of schism on the Tory benches over the next few years. If Cameron seems to be letting himself be pushed about by his headbangers, any collection of disaffected Tory liberals with half a brain could work out that a majority of 12 minus seven of them could put them in pole position to start asking for things.
That, or they walk, and then I’d bet all this trumpeting of obeying the law somehow not being enough to be a member of society would go away very, very quickly.