Potentially the Conservative Party is at a moment of “etiolation”. Like those Christmas poinsettias made red-leaved through forced-feeding and with a tendency to rapidly decline thereafter, so the Conservative Party must force itself to see beyond the “blossom of Brexit” and see what it may have become in its pursuit.
Disraeli’s originating definition for today’s One Nation Conservatism is a far distance away from its understanding now. He said that, ‘It is community of purpose that constitutes society. Without that men [and women] may be drawn into contiguity but they still continue virtually isolated’, leading to the creation of two nations between whom Disraeli saw, ‘no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were inhabitants of different planets: the rich and the poor’.
Disraeli argued that a society with such a division is inherently unstable, and that a social obligation exists upon the privileged to ameliorate the conditions of the less well-off.
Disraeli’s abject poverty of yesterday are our “pathways to poverty” today, which our former Leader, Iain Duncan Smith, explained in his 2006 report Breakdown Britain: https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/core/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Breakdown-Britain.pdf and teaching us that “modern poverty” is to be found wherever there is homelessness, educational failure, family breakdown, alcohol and drug addiction, indebtedness and worklessness.
Divisions are Infections
Conservatism might more credibly displace Labour, not by becoming the “party of the people”, but by re-defining itself as the natural party of government and as the custodian of “ageless politics” and hope, to make our country great, certainly, but to eradicate modern poverty too. A definition of government is enabling “stability and hope”, of our Parliamentarians, “the ability to educate and lead” and of our Party to “be the nation’s pathway to dignity, greatness and peace”.
To govern honourably, we must understand implicitly the “two nations” that are still within us across our country and apply one of the very words present in our own political name too: Unionist. Only then might we begin to repair each of the divides between the nations that comprise our forward-facing United Kingdom too.
The enemy may appear to many in the Conservative & Unionist Party to be Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but our greater one may be in ourselves. For many it is as if an infection has come upon part of our membership, and who can only speak of that part of the electorate, that offers the highest prospect of electoral gain but in itself comprises merely a minority of our nation and neglects too many who deserve our care and too much of our economy which depends for much of its confidence on ours.
This infection offers an unnecessary prospect, post-Brexit, of a “Thatcherite-One Nation” divide in its stead. The former articulated by those too young to recall its entirety and the latter by those too poorly schooled in Party history to understand that its original definition has as much application today as it did then.
Our National Interest
Our national interest is in global prosperity, and its founding enablers are global security and global stability. For the first time in our modern history we have the opportunity to re-balance the 5 pillars of the UK contribution to global prosperity in our relationships with the USA, the EU, the Commonwealth, the most allied nations of the rest of the world and the multi-lateral organisations and agreements we are a leading creator of and participant in. Global prosperity enables our national prosperity and the latter delivers societal cohesion and domestic stability, and our wealth finances the ability of the UK to contribute to global stability and global security – the pre-requisites for our national interest. This is the “prosperity continuum”, articulated by Liam Fox.
If one extends this then its logical conclusion is that we face an exciting future. One where our virtues in diplomacy, development, defence and security can be balanced by those in our trade, finance, culture and intellectual capabilities and all of them applied in a coherent “whole” that would place the UK at the helm of global thought. And if we do that overseas then it should be done at home too.
For if we believe in a rules-based international order, which is the key component to global stability, and therefore an essential element of our national interest, as Tobias Ellwood MP reminds us so well, then our devotion to the rule of law, and peoples equal access to the law when it is needed most, as Alex Chalk MP makes clear, for both combined are the most essential basis for equal opportunity in an “ageless” form of politics to “govern well” for our people from “the cradle to grave”. Rule of law is thus the primary basis for all other values – equal opportunity, racism, diversity - in our country and the “thread” that enables our Constitution and the relationship between its component parts, of Monarchy and Parliament, the executive and the legislature and their relationship with the people.
Avoiding Future Division
Our party is undergoing a period of turbulence; one with great risk as to what we become. In spite of our party’s historic reputation for pragmatism and statecraft, it is now a party divided not just over Brexit but at a far deeper level that may yet prove its undoing. As Philip Johnston of the Telegraph writes, “This civil war could destroy one of the most successful and enduring political parties the world has seen.”
Many believe that once we leave the EU the Party will automatically begin to heal; old divisions between Europhile and Eurosceptic will dissolve; and perhaps many of the newly independent ex-Conservative MPs will gingerly embrace a return to the party. This is potentially wistful thinking.
The division in the Conservative party today is not one of single-issue politics, but a broader ideological rift that sits at the heart of what it means to be a Conservative. On the one hand, there are those who call themselves Thatcherites, on the other there are the so-called One-Nation Conservatives. We have seen this before in the “drys” and the “wets” and it always ends in failure for our Party.
As Conservatives we rightly revere both Thatcher and Disraeli, but so too must we accept that their messages are often misinterpreted. We must learn from their insight, be guided by them certainly, but never to govern by their past ideologies.
Baroness Thatcher, for instance, emphasised privatisation and deregulation of the economy, but many have incorrectly taken this to mean she championed the very abolition of the social institutions that support the poorest of this country.
Her biographer Charles Moore said, “Neither at the beginning of her career nor when she was prime minister, did Margaret Thatcher ever reject the wartime foundations of the welfare state, whether in health, social policy or education. In this she was less radical than her critics or some of her admirers supposed. Her concern was to focus more on abuse of the system, on bureaucracy and union militancy, and on the growth of what later came to be called the dependency culture, rather than on the system itself.”
Thus, while Thatcher was decisive, she was also pragmatic and conscientious towards the institutions that ensure our country is a stable one. Her actions served less to overturn our social institutions but to free them from the impotence with which they were afflicted, just as Disraeli’s actions encouraged the organic growth of these institutions in the first place.
We might consider British Conservatism less an ideology and more a disposition. As the great political theorist Michael Oakeshott stated, “To be conservative… is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible… the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss." In summary, Oakeshott rejected grand ideals in favour of those which worked, just as Disraeli did in his rejection of an engineered society and Thatcher in her privatisation of ailing government industries.
The origins for both lie in our history. I warmly commend all of you to join The Conservative History Group at https://conservativehistory.wordpress.com/journal/ . It will give hope and we must always “keep hope alive”. As Baroness Thatcher said, “May this land of ours, which we love so much, find dignity and greatness and peace again.” And as our party said in 1979, “Don’t just hope for a better life. Vote for one.”
Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter OBE