Tories need a vision to stay on Earth

October 10, 1997

ASTHEY gathered in Blackpool this week, the Tories resembled nothing so much as Mir - an ageing, crumbling listed building in outer space without a working guidance system, from which bits occasionally fall off, and whose ground control crew are arguing among themselves.

Today, the British conservatives may think the eyes of the world are on the new Labour government. But the fortunes of the German Christian Democrats, the United States Republicans and the French right partly depend on which way the British right moves.

To regain the lost generations aged under 50, the Conservatives need more than just a facelift. In every generation since the early 19th century, conservatism has reinvented itself in one of two ways. Sometimes it has chosen the high Tory route of becoming the party of statecraft, dividing and dominating its opponents and persuading the electorate that it has the ruthlessness to govern competently (viz Disraeli, Salisbury, Thatcher until 1987).

Alternatively, it has become more ideological, offering a story about what modernity could be like (see Peel, Joseph Chamberlain, the early MacMillan, Heath, Thatcher from 1987). Neither strategy works indefinitely, but without embracing one, the Tories drift helplessly (vide Neville Chamberlain, the later MacMillan and Heath, John Major).

Contrary to the recent advice of Oxford political theorist John Gray that there is no chance of a new Tory big idea, and of Cambridge historian Maurice Cowling that conservatism should look backward, it seems to me that Conservatives must devise a forward-looking tale of 21st-century life for the British and hope that the chance for statecraft will follow. Statecraft alone will not bring back the younger cohorts whose values are more socially liberal and less government-centred than today's ageing Tories: only a vision can do that.

How to build it? Social science may help. Anthropologist Mary Douglas and the late US political scientist Aaron Wildavsky argue that there are four basic world views from which all politics is made up: hierarchy, egalitarianism, individualism, and fatalism. Blair's Labour has shifted the balance in its traditional treaty from egalitarianism towards hierarchy, with occasional splashes of individualism.

When conservatism reinvents its vision, it produces a new but temporary treaty between the poles of individualism and hierarchy: this can be a powerful axis to work along. Thatcher's combination of strong nationhood, family and Victorian values with free markets was one such; Peel's Tamworth manifesto was another. Sooner or later, events take such treaties apart.

The European nemesis of Thatcherite nationhood and the conflict between industry's need for women's labour and the hierarchical imperative for full-time motherhood broke hers, just as the Irish famine broke Peel's. But there is no choice but to forge a new one.

The Tories' problem is that they are not working on this axis, but rather on the weaker one between individualism and fatalism. The high Toryism of Cowling and his ilk is based on deep pessimism about human beings, society, and the capacity of the state to achieve any substantive objectives at all. This butters no electoral parsnips, motivates few activists, and is even harder to make coherent than Thatcher's or Peel's strategy.

Conservatism still knows something about how to project a tale of modernity at the pole of individualism, although it now faces a world where it has no monopoly on the articulation of business interests.

Its deeper problem is to work out an account of what authority means in a world of interdependent states. The hardline Europhobes refuse to accept the problem, hoping that somehow the imaginary past of sovereign nations can be recreated. A previous generation of Tories would have understood the problem better, seeing in Nato, GATT, even Bretton Woods, a model of multilateral authority building. Perhaps the next generation of Tory modernisers will too.

Blackpool, where the Tories met, has reinvented itself, after years of decline, bizarrely combining its roles as the individualist gay and transvestite Mecca of the north and a more staid and hierarchical retirement city for an ageing society. The Tories should look around the town and reflect that it may offer them more lessons than Mir.

Perri 6 is director of policy and research at the independent cross-party think tank, Demos.

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