British politics comes with a tangled web of philosophy, scholarly treatises and, in the case of Disraeli, a dash of fiction. Yet how relevant is all this to the modern Conservative party?
Today’s young Conservatives remain strong proponents of fiscal discipline. But the old orthodoxy that economic conservatism goes hand in hand with social conservatism no longer applies. One example of this was over the issue of gay marriage, where polling showed that a comfortable majority of Conservative members under the age of thirty supported a change in the law.
Personal freedom is no longer seen as a tradable commodity for the greater good of a more ordered and stable society.
The once powerful ideological constraints have all but vanished under the weight of the new politics, with most Tories having severed the ideological umbilical chord by the time they leave university. As the American sociologist Daniel Bell once commented: ‘Ideology has become irrelevant among sensible people’.
It is pragmatism that now defines the modern young Conservative.
Pragmatism is far from being an alien concept. The New Right may have galvanised passion for a more ideological approach to governance, yet previous Tory leaders such as MacMillan and Heath were intensely practical. Nor should pragmatism be confused with a lack of principle or weak leadership, a charge that has been unfairly levelled at David Cameron.
Indeed, it was precisely because of the party’s pragmatism that is was so electorally successful in the 20th century.
Ideology can provide a useful framework within which to build policy. A steadfast vision was needed in the 1980s to push through Lady Thatcher’s economic and regulatory revolution. Yet in more sedate times, ideology is a political straitjacket rendering one out of touch and unelectable. The Conservative must always keep in mind his or her core principles. Yet evolution is the key to success.
The European Question continues to be a source of great tension. There are concerns, quite rightly, about the erosion of UK sovereignty and the fact that, although we signed up to a single market, Britons have not had a say on whether we should be part of a European political entity.
It is encouraging, however, that most young Conservatives can see through the bluster on Europe. At a recent Tory youth meeting in Essex, there was resounding support for continued EU membership. Was this because the attendees had been indoctrinated into a statist agenda? No. It was because they saw that EU migration has brought economic and social benefits to the UK and that migrants perform many of the unwanted jobs in our economy. More importantly though, they saw the opportunities that the EU presents. Yes, the EU needs reform. But the opportunities, particularly for young people, are huge.
In a world increasingly dominated by trading blocs and the BRICs, it is vital that Europe stands together as this is to the benefit of all its Member States. And with a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in the east, Putin would be only too glad to see a divided Europe.
The Conservative party has been tugged to the right, both by an exuberant press, and in an attempt to match Nigel Farage’s rhetoric. Similarly, Labour have swung to the left with bizarre talk of an energy price freeze and the distasteful notion that the public cannot be trusted with a vote on Europe.
Despite all this, the next generation of Conservatives are less concerned with the ideological struggles of today, and are more interested in the opportunities of tomorrow. And that, ultimately, is what really matters.