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.
If the ratification process goes well and, sometime during 2006, the British electorate get their opportunity to vote on the European Constitution, the Conservative Party should recommend, unequivocally, a ‘yes' vote. It will only confirm its smallness and lack of vision for the EU if it recommends a ‘no'. The draft that is currently being voted on should by no means be regarded as the last word - this is one of the major successes of the EU, its ability to morph. However, it should be embraced as the temporary template. Perhaps the ratification process has come at the worst possible moment, following the major expansion in May 2004 and coming after 3 years of woeful growth within the Eurozone, but this should not render the ratification process as anything other than essential. What the EU will then require, I would suggest, is a long debate about the final outlook of the organization, once countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Serbia-Montenegro begin to complete the map of Europe. For the British Conservative Party to fail to provide the ideological leadership for this work, by sidelining itself through any ‘no', would be a tragedy not only for the UK's influence within the EU, but for its natural supporters in Europe also.
The Labour Government is increasingly seen as authoritarian and interventionist. The Tories should reject this and promote a liberal agenda. Normally, government should exist only to protect, assist and secure, not to tell the individual how he should behave when not a nuisance to others. Responsibilities towards society, yes, of course, but this ought not to be reflected in the introduction of ID cards, undue monitoring of our private lives and the banning of activities long legal, only to fulfil some ideological distaste for certain minorities. Government will never be able to make society perfect, and it should not attempt to do so. Its role is to balance our personal freedoms with limitations on our sovereignty necessary to help maintain the aspirations of the wider society. The Conservative Party should, thus, seek to enhance civil liberty and reduce the role of government, so that it can then truly clarify for British society what the minimum standard of conduct should be. Currently, too much of the British public is simply burdened and confused.
Less government should be reflected in the level/spread of the tax burden, also. During the 1980s the Conservative Party convinced the public of this, but during the 1990s (and ever since) it has lost the argument. This was its own fault as it began to be accused of tinkering with the National Health Service (in particular), a ‘sacred cow' in the British psyche if ever there was one. The Conservatives have never convinced the British public of their commitment to the NHS, nor their willingness to adequately fund the education system. This must change. The electorate is not stupid, they recognize that the NHS has become a bureaucratic/managerial monolith, but first the Tories will need to convince them of what is wrong before they attempt to undertake certain reforms. The Major Government's promotion of grant maintained schools, City Technology Colleges and greater specialization in schools was correct and largely adopted by the Blair Government, but the British public remains unconvinced that the Tories will ever adequately fund ‘education, education, education'. Besides, Mr Howard's approach to student tuition fees was political opportunism of the worst kind, usually reserved for the Liberal Democrats.
As for the environment, anyone who has spent much time in the industrialised but still developing world (as I have) will know that nationalisation and government plans will never be the solution to climate change. A global environmental approach based much more (but never completely - granted) upon market principles will definitely have much more productive results, but has anyone even begun to explain why and how? The environment has for too long been hijacked by the left. Whilst they should be credited for bringing the matter to the world's attention, their solutions are not the solutions.
The purity of one's ideology matters little without power. Acquiring power, and keeping it, is all about winning the argument. The tragedy of Britain's recent election was that the electorate had become deeply unconvinced of ‘New Labour's' argument, but without a sufficiently credible alternative they were returned with a healthy majority almost by default. The Conservative Party needs a new vision, reflecting the requirements of the early 21st century, rather than the sensibilities of my parent's generation. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher won the argument at home, now the Party needs to lead and win the argument in Europe. At least for the time being, the British electorate appears to have marked out its tolerance level of support for public services. The essence of sovereignty and government has shifted; the Tories must either grasp this reality or consign themselves to further defeat.