A tradition dissolved by new liberalism

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TO EXPECT anything like fresh thought in the Conservative Party in advance of the next general election is not realistic. True, the dawning realisation that the Major government cannot stay on neo-liberal autopilot and hope to win has begun to concentrate the better Tory minds; but there is little prospect at present of a new Conservative vision emerging.

The discredited creed of market liberalism has almost routed traditional Tory concerns and has now an unchallenged hold on thought and discourse in the Conservative Party. If the electoral risks of market ideology are now increasingly palpable, the Conservative response appears to be to trim and tinker, rather than to attempt at this late stage to rethink the intellectual framework of public policy in Britain.

The goal seems to be to coax panicky Middle England back into the Tory fold, with a judicious (but unsustainable) mixture of tax cuts and soft-pedalling on the underlying policy objective of sweeping away the middle-class entitlement culture. This strategy suggests mere electoral engineering rather than any kind of new thought.

Conservative strategy will also deploy other elements of Tory culture so as to gain another lease on life for neo-liberal economic policy. There are already signs of seismic shifts in Conservative attitudes which pivot on the changing nature of Britain's national culture.

In domestic terms the Conservatives find expression in a combination of constitutional immobility in Scotland, with a bold peace-making initiative in Northern Ireland - a two-pronged manoeuvre that may in the electoral short-term prove to be almost inspired.

It is in Britain's relations with Europe that a renewed Tory emphasis on nationhood may pay the largest political dividend. British, and especially English, fears of overmighty European institutions will be tapped and relentlessly exploited, both in the run-up to the European Union's Inter-governmental Conference in 1996 and in its aftermath. There is in fact every prospect of a neo-nationalist strategy emerging in the Conservative Party in the wake of the economic failures of neo-liberalism. Its electoral prospects will be brightest if Labour commits itself to an uncritical endorsement of European institutions.

In the longer historical perspective of a decade, the Conservative recuperation of the politics of national culture will create as many problems as it solves for them. The project of protecting a distinctive national culture consorts badly with an economic policy which is one of passive adaptation to global market forces.

If the Conservatives seek to distance themselves from Europe in order to preserve British nationhood, they will confront in a new form the Tory dilemma on free trade. In today's Conservative Party, Euro-sceptics are typically uncritical supporters of global free trade, whereas the old Tory policy of protecting economic life from world markets can now only be pursued in a larger than national context - for Britain today, inescapably, the European context.

Economic liberals in the Conservative Party are nowadays neo-nationalists, while those who might favour the old Tory policy of protection are friendly to forms of European integration in which national sovereignty is surrendered. This split in the party makes a sustained revival of the politics of nationhood highly problematical.

The Tory politics of nationhood, as it is likely to develop over the next decade, is problematic for other, more domestic reasons. The national sentiments and resentments it invokes are above all English - a fact that mirrors the Conservatives' electoral support.

Britain, however, is a multi-national state; an artefact of monarchy, not an expression of Englishness. The Conservative embrace of politics of English nationalism is hard to reconcile with the Tory commitment to the defence of the Union. This tension is perceptible even now, as a faint shadow cast by the prospect of a new settlement in Ireland. It is likely to become more urgent as the legitimating bonds of monarchy in Britain further loosen.

As the Conservative Party seeks over the next decade - in government or opposition - to shake off the incubus of neo-liberal dogma and return to its Conservative roots, it will be forced to confront a paradox: that the modernising forces that market liberalism strengthened and reinforced in Britain, have dissolved the overarching political culture that traditional Toryism existed to renew.

The author is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.