Conservatives still lack a strategy for the future
John Stuart Mill once described the Tories as ‘the stupid party’. On the evidence of The Modernisers’ Manifesto, published last month by Bright Blue, a self-described pressure group for liberal conservatism, the party is not dead from the neck upwards. However, the ‘modernisers’ have some way to go in reclaiming a position of intellectual ascendency. Moreover, there are ideological fissures within modern Conservatism which appear irresolvable.
The manifesto is portrayed as merely the next instalment of a pragmatic Tory tradition in the mould of Harold Macmillan and RA Butler, espousing competence and social order rather than rigid ideology. Matthew D’Ancona vividly describes the contaminating impact of the new right’s ideological doctrine on the electability of the contemporary Conservative party.
As such, there is serious thinking going on here, but firmly cast within a technocratic ‘what works’ mindset that avoids issues of ideological controversy. Members of parliament such as George Freeman and Laura Sandys address the goal of an innovation-led economy going beyond conventional measures of GDP. The Tory modernisers are determined not to cede the battleground of public services to the left. There is wide-ranging analysis of the challenges facing the NHS, schools and higher education. The environment, poverty, drugs policy, global security, and gender equality feature too.
Nonetheless, the absence of ideological self-questioning only serves to underline how deep run the battlelines in a party which is still to come to terms with its Thatcherite legacy. On the question of the size of the state, there is little sense of what the strategic objective of a future Tory government would be. In the past, Conservative politicians talked openly of a ‘35 per cent state’, a position incompatible with modernisers’ support for a taxpayer-funded NHS.
Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that high levels of public expenditure were at the heart of Britain’s relative economic decline has been buried. But what replaces it? The question of whether Conservatives should accept public spending commitments that match the northern European average is side-stepped, while the modernisers appear similarly reluctant to address future taxation. The most politically contentious issue of all for the right, Britain’s relationship with continental Europe, is left to an academic to disentangle.
The Tories have lost the will to self-destruction that led to three consecutive defeats after 1997, but the party lacks a compelling project for the country anchored in a strategic vision. Regaining intellectual self-confidence and moving beyond Thatcherism, developing a unifying political purpose, appears some way off.
Patrick Diamond is lecturer in public policy at Queen Mary University of London
The Modernisers’ Manifesto
Edited by Ryan Shorthouse, Kate Malby and James Brenton
Bright Blue Campaign | 192pp
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