The Conservative problem

By Dr Will Jennings, Politics & International Relations

We are just over a month into 2013 and already two major issues have revealed the fault lines that run through the modern Conservative Party.* First the EU referendum, then the same sex marriage bill. Each reflect the deep conflicts within the Conservative Party, but also on the right of the political spectrum more broadly. Any mainstream political party is a coalition of diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, crafted as a the minimum possible (and sustainable) winning majority — designed for electoral success, but giving away as few concessions as possible. However, for more than thirty years there has been a silent war between what have been characterised as different wings of the Conservative Party. Yet this characterisation misses the distinct polarities of Conservatism as a political philosophy and the spatial (geographical) distribution of politics in modern Britain. Inevitably due to the nature of political debate and the mass media, these debates are personalized in the spectre of Thatcher and in the travails of Cameron (and his predecessors) when far more deep-seated, and irreconcilable, tensions are at work.

Historically, Peter Oborne recently argued in The Daily Telegraph, the Conservative Party “gained its strength and durability from its deep provincial roots rather than its metropolitan centre”. Oborne is arguably wrong, however, that “Mr Cameron and his allies are disdainfully trashing the organisation he leads in order to promote his own popularity.” Rather, there is a much deeper conflict between on the one hand the modernising, metropolitan Conservatives, and their favouring of economic growth through the city (embedded in the context of global capitalism and its modes of political organisation at the transnational level), and on the other the provincial Conservatives out in the shires, just a train ride from London, but also a social and economic time warp away. These provincial forces exhibit an almost Govian nostalgia for 1950s Britain – a world of leafy suburbs, small businesses, country pubs, village greens, strict classrooms, obsequious deference to authority, and the friendly local policeman — the world of Dixon of Dock Green. This is ‘conservatism’ in its truest ideological sense, of conservation of the status quo — treating tradition as sacred and viewing change with a sceptical eye. For the modernisers, the growing interconnectedness of our social and economic lives, and the onward march of cultural liberalism, is something that must be adapted to and embraced. These tensions have been exacerbated under the auspices of austerity, as the Coalition government has introduced swinging cuts to traditional Conservative issues — defence and policing — leaving some Conservatives scratching their heads as to what they stand for any more. In their provincial electoral strongholds, issues such as immigration and same sex marriage are viewed differently than by the metropolitan elite — despite the continued cultural influence of collective memory of old Britain even in metropolitan life.

Neil Brenner has described the ‘rescaling’ of political space — as cities and city regions have become a focus of the transformation of statehood, leaving provincial centres on the periphery, providing country retreats and playgrounds for the metropolitan classes, but condemned to long-term economic decay (as evidenced in the death of the British high street and retailers). Political and economic space is being continuously stretched — with cities now the hub of networks of transnational political organisation. There are parallels here with much older forms of political organisation — the city state — linked through globalised networks and elites that transcend the familiar territorial basis of representation. It is no wonder, then, that there is a disconnect between citizens and a distant political elite — with growing distrust in politicians and other key institutions, and confusion over lines of political accountability. This is manifested in the issues such as immigration and the EU, where the economic imperatives of ‘growth at all costs’ for modern (neo-)conservatives clashes with traditional conservatism and its unease at fundamental change or the giving away of political sovereignty for economic gain. The troubles of the Conservative Party today are, it can be argued, a symptom of much wider challenges, not just a small cadre of modernisers trying to bring the party kicking and screaming into the twenty first century.

*One can observe distinct but equivalent schisms underlying New Labour, though arguably these are less active/profound due to the decline of industry and the working class (and low turnout/participation in those old strongholds), which has been reflected in their reduced influence over the Labour Party – but with nowhere else to go.

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