Modernisation is fine, but the Conservative leadership must never forget to listen to the grass-roots.
The strength of the Conservative Party has always been in its intellectual flexibility and diversity. There are certain uniting principles – free markets, constitutional integrity, family and country – around which conservatives coalesce, but they by no means coalesce around all of them; just believing in one or two is more than enough to bring you into the Tory fold. More importantly, these principles are not prescriptive, which means that on matters such as education and healthcare, conservatives rarely have a particular view about the way these services ought to be provided; they are far more interested in whether those services work or not. In other words, it is ends rather than means that defines the conservative mind.
This flexibility means there is, and has always been, a rich pool of ideas within the Conservative Party. This is what has made it often the most intellectually exciting party in modern British politics. A chronic problem is internal division, but, ironically, because the Conservative Party has disagreement in its DNA, over the decades and the centuries, it has been quite effective at dealing with it. What other party could tolerate libertarians and social conservatives, Thatcherites and One Nation Disraelians, dries and wets, and not destroy itself within a generation? The reason it has survived is because those who come to the Conservative Party have always been respected and listened to and engaged with in debate rather than ostracised and ignored. And this free and open debate within the Party is complemented by adherence to certain uniting principles around which agreement and compromise can be constructed; the essential ingredients needed to inspire confidence in voters and to govern effectively. This allows new ideas to be given their place, old ones to be challenged, and the entire to present a united front when it matters.
What is the Conservative Party’s historic strength has always been the Labour Party’s historic weakness. It is hamstrung by its underlying ideology, which is so wide-ranging and all-encompassing that means are everything and results are irrelevant. Consider the case of the NHS. Conservatives have been more than happy to accept and maintain the fundamental NHS model created by the Attlee government because it seems to work. At the same time, plenty of people within the Conservative Party have advocated alternative systems, such as the Singapore model, and found an audience for their views. The Labour Party, by contrast, is ideologically constrained by Attlee’s model, and has always found it difficult to question it even when it has resulted in some catastrophic failures for patients.
It took the total electoral failure of 1983, 1987 and 1992 for the Labour Party finally to compromise its intransigent ideology. But it has never been completely comfortable with the changes that Tony Blair made. For example, Blair was able to introduce some free market mechanisms and private sector involvement into the NHS in an attempt to improve the service. These innovations have seemingly been abandoned by the Labour Party under Ed Miliband, not because those innovations have failed, but because they don’t conform to the ideological underpinnings of the NHS.
In the same way that Labour, under Tony Blair at least, learnt to be ideologically flexible from the Tories, the Conservatives appear to borrowed the ideological inflexibility of the old Labour Party under David Cameron in the guise of modernisation. The essential problem with this phrase is it creates a distinct divide between old and new, us and them, which is not helpful when trying to hold an ideologically diverse party together. What makes this modernisation so tricky for the Conservative Party, in a way that One Nation Conservatism or Thaterchism was not, is that it has attempted to claim for itself particular ideological competence.
What is striking about the modernisation programme is how, for example, it emphases its commitment to the NHS. A unifying principle about healthcare in the Conservative Party has always been that it can run healthcare better than the Labour Party. Then, within the Party, there has been a vigorous debate about how to run it better. The modernisation programme, however, has tampered with this equilibrium by saying that the only way the Conservative Party can provide the British people with better healthcare is through the NHS. This narrative shift is not accommodating but exclusionary. A major reason for Tory defections to UKIP is not that the leadership of the Conservative Party does not do what its hard right want; it is that it no longer seems even to listen to them either. It is the perennial problem of political correctness (of which the modernisation programme is undoubtedly a product): you may remove the rhetoric, but you do not remove the thoughts; and so, instead of being challenged openly, they simply go underground (or, in this case, to UKIP).
This in no way means that the modernisers should not be part of the Conservative Party. Their presence is just as important as any other faction. Under David Cameron, the problem has been that the modernisers have presumed to speak for the entire Conservative Party. Many within it disagree with the modernising agenda, and sometimes from opposing positions, from the social conservative wing on the one hand and the libertarian wing on the other. The leaders of the Conservative Party should remind themselves of their strength: it is individual members speaking for themselves from a variety of hymn-sheets allowing it to accommodate as many people of a conservative persuasion as possible under its banner, and to listen and to learn from each and every one of them. At the moment, it has sacrificed its freedom of thought, and its loss of long-term supporters has been the price.