British Conservatism: Where Next?
To judge from the British media's treatment of the General Election result, from 5th May (2005), one would have thought, unless one hesitated, that Tony Blair's Labour Party had just suffered a defeat - such has been the slumber of British politics since his first election in 1997. Much stress, correctly, was placed on the return to credibility of the Conservative Party and the further progress (albeit frighteningly slow) of the centrist Liberal Democrats. Yet, net gains should not mask the simple truth that the past 8 years have been wasted for the Tories and that it is policies, in the main, that continue to condemn them to another term in opposition.
Much praise has been heaped on Michael Howard's leadership. Certainly, he has made the Conservative Party look as if it can one day return to power. The campaign he spearheaded was thorough and professional. However, his failure to increase the party's share of the vote (to any significant extent) from the elections in 1997 and 2001, whilst Labour's support plummeted, should be admitted as a very serious failure. The ‘dog whistle' approach may have secured that the committed turned out, but how many former supporters from the Thatcher and early Major days have been returned and what is the Party's strategy towards those under 40?
With hindsight the biggest error of the Conservative Party, during the 1990s, was their shift to the right at the very moment when Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party. With this move a very significant part of the ‘soft right' of British politics was handed, almost without a blink, to the very social democratic ‘New Labour'. Apart from the obvious fact that the Tories remained in power too long, instead of refreshing and offering the British electorate an ideological hiatus, they turned to securing ‘clear blue water' between themselves and Labour.
Perhaps they were destined to lose in 1997 anyway, but they failed to grasp the obvious in the run-up to the June 2001 election - focussing on saving the pound sterling - and in 2005 selected immigration, which, whilst certainly an issue that needed to be tackled, smacked of mild xenophobia and for every elector (probably already a Conservative) that it attracted, it probably turned off two. In the end, the familiar and rather hackneyed totems of policemen on the beat and lower taxes failed to excite interest.
History's judgment of the Blair years is beginning to form. It is certain to be highly critical and, whilst admitting that it was well-marketed, will almost certainly conclude that a decade of opportunity was wasted. Yet, it has taken the Conservative Party almost the length of that decade to once again reflect on policy. What should follow is the first thorough review of what the Conservative Party is and should represent since the mid/late-70s. This review should not be hasty and supercedes the importance of the election of a new leader - although, without question, it will be impossible for the Party to put a stamp on its identity until that new leader has been elected.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the British electorate is very different to the one presented to Margaret Thatcher at the time of her first victory in 1979. Britain is now a highly multicultural society, its post-war immigrant population very successfully integrated into the society (a much under-stated international success story) and its younger population fearful of continued harm to the environment, having been sheltered from the labours of post-World War II recovery. Still, this does not have to be a hopeless situation for the Party.
During the early 1990s, the politically literate began to identify the British Conservative Party as the most formidable election winning machine in the liberal democratic world. This ruthless desire for and to remain in power may have proved vindicated, in the short term, with their surprise victory in 1992, but in the medium term the ‘regina-cide' destroyed that other most crucial component for electoral success - party discipline. Consequently, for a decade now the Conservative Party has been riven with factionalism, often seemingly more divided within itself than with any other party. Now it rests upon the current party leadership to determine the philosophy and direction of the Party for, probably, the next twenty years. Thus, it will finally have to decide its position on Europe, whether to be positive or largely negative. Choose whether it wishes to be an essentially conservative (with a small ‘c') and somewhat authoritarian party, or one embracing a modern liberal message. It will also have to define the importance it places on maintaining healthy public services versus wider tax cuts, and, of course, its approach towards the environment.