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Time for an SDP moment

02 Jul 2007 - Bruno Prior

The tensions that have been festering in the Conservative Party since the end of Dave Cameron's brief honeymoon (and, indeed, much longer than that) are breaking out into open sores (again), following the unfortunate coincidence of Tory cock-up (on grammar schools) and Brown bounce. Tim Montgomerie's ToryDiary, usually the most loyal of the high-readership Tory blogs, offered measured criticism of a piece by Michael Gove in The Observer, and the response from Tim's readership has been all-out warfare between the "don't rock the boat" crowd and the "where are our principles" crowd. The same debate occurs in response to most posts on the future of the Tory party.

It's time for an SDP moment. The Tory party isn't a broad church any more, it's schizophrenic. The comments in the Tory blogs make that clear. There are (at least) three separate philosophies within the Conservative party, which I cannot see being reconciled - conservative, social-democrat, and (for want of a better word since "liberal" got hijacked) libertarian. Being part of the same tribe isn't enough to hold them together any more.

What has made the current discontent so strong and persistent is that it's not clear (for lack of policy) where Dave Cameron stands philosophically, but most of the "mood music" is social-democrat, which has got both the conservatives and the libertarians up-in-arms. To alienate one branch of the party is unfortunate. To alienate two could be considered careless.

Social-democrats and conservatives have managed to compromise in the past, in the One Nation tradition. Libertarians and conservatives cooperated in the form of Thatcherism. It is not clear that there has ever been a successful alliance of social-democrats and libertarians within the Tory party (if one deletes the word "successful", that is more the domain of the LibDems), let alone of all three.

Before Lady Thatcher, the libertarian wing was sufficiently insignificant (and without alternative home) for the party to pursue the One-Nation approach for decades without widespread discontent. After Lady T, the libertarian wing was so numerous that it could no longer be ignored. But finding a policy framework that could satisfy all three seems to be very difficult, which explains the essential vacuity of the Major years. The response to these impossible tensions has either been to say as little as possible about principle (Major and Cameron so far) or to position oneself between two of the philosophies (Hague, IDS and Howard). The choice seems to be to alienate the party or the electorate - usually both. Dave Cameron's strategy of "moving to the centre-ground" has no more addressed this problem than did any of his predecessors.

The tuber of a water-lily can outgrow the resources of its environment, at which point the plant begins to atrophy. The solution is occasionally to lift the tuber, divide it, and replant the separate pieces in their own space. Each new water-lily will, after a year or two, prosper more than the overgrown original.

It is time for the Tories to give their various philosophical strands the space to grow.

Organisations: UK Conservatives

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