Three Tribes Go To War – the historical divides within the Tory Party

Three Tribes Go To War – the historical divides within the Tory Party

Charles on the various tribes of the Tory Party

“I support this measure as a measure of reform; but I support it still more as a measure of conservation … the voice of great events is proclaiming to us, “Reform, that you may preserve”

Three years before the Tamworth Manifesto, Macaulay’s speech on the Reform Bill prefigures the Conservative party’s core philosophy. Peel’s pledge to ensure “the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances” while resisting unnecessary change for fear of “a perpetual vortex of agitation” is one that all Conservative leaders have cleaved to ever since.

It is this, rather than any mystical belief in the monarchy or union that defines the Tories: as Lord Liverpool wrote of his government: “it is almost unnecessary to observe that the British Government … could only be a Whig Government … for [it means] nothing else than a Government established by laws equally binding upon the King and the subject”.

Similarly the Union is a product of history, not some eternal verity: it brings immense value and should not be abandoned lightly, but if the people of either Scotland or England decide to do so then so be it.  The same goes for Northern Ireland: prominent Liberal Unionists, such as Edward Carson, were opposed to special treatment for the six counties in the first place.

Instead of some driving political philosophy – as Hailsham put it “the only policy of a Conservative Government is to pause for thought” – the Conservative Party comprises a patchwork of traditions that can be grouped into three strains: Ultras, Paternalists and Radicals.

Ultras oppose change but are left behind as the bulk of the party comes to term with the realities of modern life.  They may enjoy temporary prominence (who remembers Richard Vyvyan?) but can do no more than glower from the backbenches before fading into irrelevance. My prediction: Jacob Rees-Mogg will never lead the Conservative Party.

Radicals, who look to Gladstone not Disraeli, are the most philosophically coherent of the Tory Tribes. The state should have a limited role at home (both economically and in personal matters) but abroad they seek a global role for Britain and free trade. Intellectually they are aligned with the Orange Bookers, but find the mushiness of the modern LibDems unappealing.

However, their excessive fervour and preference for theory over practice limits their appeal: they provide intellectual energy but few leaders. They claim Thatcher as one of their own, but her choice to mark her election with St. Francis’ Prayer (“where there is discord may we bring harmony …where there is despair, may we bring hope”) was pure One Nation Conservatism. My prediction: David Davis will never lead the Conservative Party.

The remaining group – the vast majority of the party in the country and Parliament – are the One-Nation Conservatives. At its heart this is the belief that societies develop organically and members have obligations to each other.  Paternalism (the Big Society) is one form, but it also underpins everything from the welfare state to the desire that immigration should be moderate and selective. They are sometimes accused of a lack of principle, but One-Nation Tories see compromise in pursuit of social stability as a positive virtue not something to be condemned.

The challenge of Brexit for the Conservatives has been that it split this group down the middle: the Hedgers feared the risk of leaving, while the Whigs saw the requirements of membership as incompatible with their duties to the people as a whole.  Post Brexit, however, the fundamental desire to accommodate to the reality of life will reassert itself and the party will unite once again.  It is this group that will provide the next leader: my personal view is that if the decision is in 2020 it will be Hunt; if it is after 2022 it will skip to the next generation.


Charles is a longstanding contributor to PB

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