Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Are the Conservatives a party? Yes.

Damn your principles! Stick to your party - Benjamin Disraeli
Samizdata has an article by Paul Marks, which I came across through the Kitchen, attempting to describe how the Conservative Party is not really a party at all thanks to its lack of principle. He has two central themes:
  1. Parties are creatures of principle.
  2. The Conservatives are not Eurosceptic and, as such, have no principles.
The first point is misconceived. Parties must have some common ground, some principle, to form themselves around, however, they are clearly not the model one would choose were we interested primarily in maintaining our principles. Only independents can be principled. Anyone who joins a party must necessarily moderate their views if they are to form a common platform.

Parties are, rather, an agent for moderation. Their function is to form people into coalitions of those who are willing to put their similarities ahead of their differences. A fine example is David Davis who is now emphatically supporting the Cameron changes in the Conservative party. This is not because he is some grubby chaser of votes but because his differences with Cameron, over the timeline to the announcement of tax cuts for example, matter less to him than the similarities. This moderation is essential with the need to build popular will behind a legislative programme which will not, and should not, give anyone all of what they want.

Here we move on to the second point. The similarities which keep Davis on board are old Conservative themes: an emphasis on personal responsibility, an assertive, Atlanticist foreign policy, a distrust of state spending as a panacea for social problems, valuing the family and pride in Britain's role in the world. They are the same sorts of common values which also mean that I, having voted for Cameron, would have remained a loyal Conservative had Davis or Fox won the leadership.

All of these themes were a part of Cameron's keynote speech and the Conservative conference. By contrast, there is no reason to see policy towards the EU as so crucial. There is no way that the Conservatives are necessarily against the notion of engaging internationally; we began as an imperial party. Of course, the style of our engagement has changed but this would seem more a result of the world changing than the party. The EU is far from the only treaty we are signed up to and most of the serious treaties involve some compromise of sovereignty. There are obviously problems with the EU but there are also areas where Cameron has pledged to emphasise British rather than European solutions; moving towards a UK bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act for example.

I have discussed before how those in favour of EU independence need to acknowledge that it is an issue on which reasonable people can differ. It is important to note that the fairly radical plan I outlined in a post over the weekend for changing Britain's policy could be implemented without leaving the EU; the EU does not dominate our decision making to the extent its opponents alledge. Equally, the line that Britain cannot change the EU for the better as it has been trying since it joined and has failed is unconvincing. It entered in a weak position being a latecomer to a club whose central partnership had already been established. Recently it has done significantly better with the accession of new members constituting not just a nation building success but a boost to the idea of Europe as a looser kind of union.

The ability of the Conservatives to adjust their political approach, as Cameron is, without endangering their coalition is a testament to a strong set of central beliefs in the party not its weakness. We have never proven wrong on matters of principle in the way that the Labour left were in the 1980s over nationalisation. The Conservatives are certainly a party and a great one.

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