Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Cameron's Losing Battle Against Tory Puritanism

With Tory cabinet ministers - led by the ubiquitous Mr. Gove - scrambling over each other to assure their party of their out and out Euro-scepticism, it is tempting to wonder what all the fuss over UKIP is about.  Apart from a matter of timing, it seems they are all united on a referendum approach.  But, of course, there is more to it than this.

UKIP is not just a repository for those who are anti-European.  Indeed, Europe is merely the hook on which to hang a whole panoply of other concerns, making UKIP essentially a protest party.  For disillusioned Conservatives in particular UKIP offers an unrepentant leader in Nigel Farage, who contrasts nicely with the rather more nuanced Mr. Cameron.  Tory members - both grassroots and a significant number of backbench MPs - are not happy in coalition, hate the thought of Tory moderation and dislike the grey shades that come with compromise.  In their black and white - or blue and red - world, there is much virtue in Tory puritanism and Mr. Cameron's great crime is that he fails to see that.

Mr. Cameron, of course, is trying to work in the real world.  His Toryism derives from his upbringing rather than any form of deep political conviction, and it was never honed through a party activism that might have brought some deeper, grittier understanding of the party he leads.  His Toryism is more instinctive, and thus more inclined to accommodate itself to the demands and pressures of the world outside the bubble of the Conservative Party.  That was what was behind his chaotic but worthy pursuit of 'modernism' and it still lies behind his desire not to take knee-jerk approaches to such complex issues as membership of the EU.  Mr. Cameron is, at heart, a Tory pragmatist of the type that used to dominate in the twentieth century heyday of the party.

The party he leads no longer resembles the triumphant machine of last century.  It is debateable as to how far this change is down to the legacy of the party's first truly ideological leader - Margaret Thatcher - and how much would have occurred in any case as a result of a growing sense of alienation in the modern world.  Whatever the cause, the Conservative Party today is a beast of puritanism, railing against the many iniquities of the world but not hugely capable of propounding broad-based solutions.  Like 16th century puritans, today's Tories take comfort in their purity and isolation and want nothing to do with the murky waters of compromise politics.  Even before the halfway mark of the Coalition, many Tory backbenchers had been restlessly pushing against the constraining walls of joint-party government.  They have managed to breach some of them now, even to the extent of proposing Bills that challenge their own government's legislative agenda.  But then, it is difficult at times to distinguish backbench Tories from a brand of opposition MP.

Europe - or rather, its forced removal - is the great prize.  Mr. Cameron has tried to feed that hungry appetite but has found its gaping maw remains open for more no matter how much he tries to satiate it.  He is facing the same problem as the last Tory premier, John Major.  Paul Goodman makes the comparison on Conservative Home, and puts the issue down to a failure of leadership on the part of both men.  But this is not the whole story.  It is not really possible for any outward-facing Tory leader to lead his party.  No-one who is not a died-in-the-wool euro denier has a hope of gaining the support of the Tory backbenchers, and yet when such men are put into leadership they fail to gain the country as a whole.

Europe, however, merely represents the high water mark of the Tory Party's desire to become an unadulterated and unrestrained party of the right.  They envy UKIP its easy positions and rather want them for itself.  There are many Tories now who would prefer purity to election.  Mr. Cameron is no longer simply struggling against the euro monster.  He is struggling against a much wider desire to retreat to a position of political comfort, a position which he tried to force the party to leave when he became leader.  It is possible that his failure was due in part to the incoherent nature of his modernisation project, which was too Blairite in nature and could have had more success if it had taken stronger account of the historic position of One Nation Toryism.  The big question is whether, if Mr. Cameron does in the end fail - and the signs are that he has - there is ever going to be another chance for the Tory Party to be a broad-based party of the centre-right, or whether it will simply take UKIP's mantle, and stay on the fringe.  When your likely successor is Michael Gove, it doesn't look like it.


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