Leading Article: Will the real Tory parties please stand up?

Share
Related Topics
The fate of the Conservative Party is not a private matter. Yes, Tory MPs' preoccupation with place and personality is understandable; the disarray of Central Office and the party in the country follows naturally from Thursday night's dramatic turn of events. But Tory MPs should not lose sight of their constitutional duty. They are Her Majesty's Opposition. They may share the task of keeping Labour honest with the Liberal Democrats and, in Wales and Scotland, with the nationalists. In these heady days, with their support in the House of Commons so assured, Labour ministers might be tempted to abuse their power; in their inexperience they might break rules. Labour will, we hope, engage quickly with the task of constitutional renewal, especially the reformation and modernisation of the House of Commons itself. But until it does, the old adage holds: proper procedure is the best protection we have against executive tyranny and the Tories, truncated and demoralised as they may be, have a vital job to do, for example in revitalising the Public Accounts Committee and the select committees of the Commons. Recent Tory experience of the corruption of office ought to make them all the more alert to its first signs on the Labour benches.

Yet the political effectiveness of the Conservative Party depends on its honesty about itself and the meaning of the electorate's rejection at the ballot box of its stands on Europe, social policy, parliamentary probity. Tory MPs may rush ahead and elect a new leader but the contest, however exciting, cannot substitute for the ideological re-working that must take place. That in return requires stern contemplation of the possibility that the Tories may never again be a united party. John Major deliberately precipitated this scramble by announcing his immediate departure - and his action was all the more calculated since he knew the very infrastructure of the parliamentary Tory party had been destroyed. Pique or revenge? Whatever his intention, he is the impresario of a brawl. The Marquess of Queensberry has evidently not been invited to write the rules. One of yesterday's choicer cuts (unnamed ex-minister on William Hague's likely hair loss and hence unelectability): "this guy is a golfball".

The Tories owe their country and the millions who voted for them last week better than this. Conservatism is evidently not going to depart for an extended away-day and produce some "mission statement". Inevitably the Tories will be tempted merely to react to the Blair phenomenon, trying like alchemists of old to discern how the base metal of Old Labour was turned into political gold. There will be calls - we have heard them already - for the appointment of a Tory version of Peter Mandelson, for the stiffening of Central Office's authority over unruly local associations, for feminising the Tories' pin-striped ranks. But these are means to an end - which is what?

The old answer, that the Tories wanted power broadly to maintain the position of the "haves", just won't do. Too many of their "isms" clash and conflict. Are the Tories to be a party of an intellectually consistent conservatism, one unfriendly towards change in the way the government is run but which also dislikes change (for example lost jobs) brought about by the operations of the capitalist system?

Abstract thought comes most easily to the likes of John Redwood, but all the Tory contenders are obliged to work through some key ideas. What is it exactly that the governments of nation states can do to affect their comparative advantage in the face of global tides of trade and investment; why are the French right wrong in asserting that globalisation demands a stronger European federation not a weaker one?

The Thatcher-Major years bequeath two great puzzles to Tories. One is how to justify their refusal to modernise our politics when advocating wholesale change and renewal in the economic field. To argue, for example, that trades unions are the enemies of economic progress without accepting that the operations of a landed syndicate in the House of Lords also constitutes a barrier to forward movement in government is not merely inconsistent, it is self-defeating. The other deep paradox is not new. Since the Victorian era, Toryism has tried to be simultaneously liberal in economics and illiberal in social affairs. The task becomes ever harder. Post Major, in the light of this election result, the Conservative Party must think through the consequences of the fact that there is such a thing as society.

And above all there is Europe. There is nothing inevitable about Toryism as a single political formation. That there will always be one or more political parties which espouse the interests of the possessors of property - that is a reasonable prediction based on the structure of politics in all the advanced democracies. But not all such parties are nationalist. The property or business party could easily define itself stoutly in favour of Europe, single currency and all. Why not two parties of property, divided by their European attitudes? If Labour were to seize the hour and make an indelible mark on the history of this country by reforming our electoral system, the entire basis of party affiliation might change. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that in a post-ideological age Michael Howard and Kenneth Clarke might as well lead different parties - Mr Clarke said as much about John Redwood yesterday. The party of Rorke's Drift (yes, that was the key historical reference advanced by Mr Howard in a Sunday newspaper) cannot surely be the same as the pro-business, socially concerned, pro-European entity Mr Clarke has spent his political life trying to build.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition