HISTORY PROVIDES LITTLE COMFORT FOR CONSERVATISM’S DETRACTORS
Difficult times politically.
Even in victory, the Conservatives are forced to remember that their majority is only twelve, and they will tread a minefield as they try to appease their own right wingers whilst trying not to embolden the Scottish Nationalists until they are so autonomous that they have de facto independence. However, the Tories won the election outright in spectacular fashion and for the time being, the focus is on the vacancies in the opposition parties’ hot seats. So where does non-conservatism go from here? History suggests that in the short term at least, it’s usually into turmoil.
In the UK, we live in a liberal democracy, which is a hard fact, and awkward for some to admit. However despite this the party with its defining name is redundant. Since the 1990s, having been through their own agonies and mergers, the Liberal Democrats have been perceived as Labour-lite or Tory-lite – acceptable to supporters of either where pragmatism was needed. Now they are simply “–less”. Leaderless, directionless, possibly even pointless. With their collapse, and the failure of the Labour Party to take on conservatism or the Scottish version of centre-left democracy, Britain has very little left in opposition to conservatism and the precedents do not offer much to be optimistic about. Time is the enemy and a quick fix looks unlikely.
An insider’s perspective of leftism comes from the comic Alexei Sayle, who once made this observation of Communism:
“…as in all cults, what’s central to the Communist Party is the belief system and the elimination of nuance. From there you’re very slowly led down the road to fanaticism and mass murder.” He also noted that when he was a young party member, despite hating the System and Thatcher, most of all communists hated each other. It seems that for the last 35 years, the left in general has indulged in factionalism, and even when they coalesced around New Labour, it was for some begrudgingly. Since stepping down as PM, Tony Blair is persona non grata amongst many in the Labour party, despite three election victories. Back in 1980-81, the party was riven by disputes leading to the breakaway of four key members to form the Social Democrats, because they thought Labour was now too left-leaning. Michael Foot as leader presided over an even more catastrophic defeat in 1983 than in 2015, following the publication of its manifesto, which was dubbed from within as “the longest suicide note in history”. When Neil Kinnock became leader later in 1983, the in-fighting continued. Two election defeats, and lots of internal wrangling may sound familiar. If not today, it will soon. Kinnock’s era saw the expulsion of the Militant wing of the Labour Party, but his defeat in 1992 when Labour was expected to overturn a fractious Conservative Party, lead to more anguish and recriminations.
Usually the debate for Labour is whether it should head leftwards or rightwards. Nudging to the right, under Kinnock, Smith then Blair proved successful eventually, suggesting that the UK’s voters wanted a party with the appearance of moderation and coherence to run things, rather than an operation at loggerheads with itself and presenting radicalism. This does not fully explain the 1992 result, as the Tories appeared to be universally unpopular before the election and again within weeks of winning. The media lined up against Kinnock but Labour’s own strategy of pre-emptive celebration and presumption of power made them look arrogant, and somehow Kinnock, having evolved from a firebrand CND member to a business embracing wannabe PM, was never fully convincing to the electorate.
In 2015, what are the options? History suggests that heading leftwards is not the answer, but there will be a significant body of thought that wants a clear ideological divide from the Tories. In 1980, and even in 1992, the global capitalism we now live with was not so entrenched as a way of life, so to make demands for workers rights, to be anti-bosses and perpetuate an image of the noble working man had not yet lost all currency. In 2015 to propose a political system of high regulation and taxation for business will be unlikely to gain a footing, even with the general, employed public. Defeat in 2010 empowered the left of the party. Defeat in 2015 will do the same for the right. Unlike conservatism, leftism gets caught up in indignation and the principle of principles. Any apparent sacrifice of such a point heads easily towards “…the elimination of nuance” and loses sight of the possibility that there can be a principled position that is a broad church of opinion appealing to the mainstream. Tony Blair once reminded his party “Power without principle is barren but principle without power is futile”. It seemed to work for him and the party for a while.
British conservatism is far less likely to wrangle interminably in public, offering reassurance to the public that they can keep their house in order and present themselves as more competent. Michael Portillo once demanded “clear, blue water” between Labour and the Tories, when the Tories were heading for the drain anyway, but the political right appear more at ease and more likely to be supported in any rightward lurches they may have to make. Theresa May once went public on the need to soften the Tories’ image as “the nasty party”. Apart from this, Conservatives are better at towing the line. Even in the mid-Nineties during their hopelessly inept spell in government, when John Major challenged his critics to “Put up or shut up”, they were unwilling to do any more laundering in public, so they shut up. In opposition and seemingly out of power forever, they remained relatively coherent.
It is painful for many to admit, but without adopting Tory policies, Labour and the Lib Dems could do well to adopt Tory habits. Failure to do so could mean that in UK politics for a whole generation, there is very little left.