Even though conservatism is a philosophy that by its very nature attempts to avoid dogma and ideology, it is hard to ignore the profound effect that the trend of New Right conservative thinking has had on the British Conservative Party. Margaret Thatcher’s ideas reshaped the Conservative Party during the eighties, embodying the New Right divide of neo-liberal free market support and the revival of traditional neo-conservative moral values.
Abandoning the established mixed economy of the Post War Consensus, Thatcher was committed to a rigid strategy of privitisation, putting confidence in the virtues of the market to provide competent public services. Such a commitment to the private industry has continued with following leaders, with John Major choosing to privatise the railways and more recent leaders proposing ‘passport’ schemes for pupils and patients have also invited competition and free market values into the realm of public provided services.
Although this neo-liberal preference is still present in the modern Conservative Party, such an approach has become less radical, and a preference for free markets seems currently entrenched in British political culture. The Conservative Party seems conscious that such territory seems occupied by Labour, and have at times appeared to be retreating back towards their One-Nation roots. Iain Duncan Smith expressed his desire to change the direction of the party and to help the ‘vulnerable’ within Britain.
However, the current Conservative party seems to be firmly under Thatcher’s order to ‘get the government back off of business’, with Howard’s recent speeches describing business as ‘the lifeblood of Britain’. Tim Yeo also followed the neo-liberal philosophy when he spoke out about the rising minimum wage. He showed concern for the rising wage warning that it would cause high inflation and would be detrimental to the interests of business.
This seemed to echo the concerns of neo-liberal economists such as Friedman and Von Hayek, who saw inflation as the prime economic evil. The Thatcherite demand for lower taxes appears to be a continued theme in the Conservative Party. Howard’s election campaign highlighted lower taxes as one of its key manifesto pledges, still following Thatcher’s assault on the Welfare State and the resulting ‘dependency culture’. Indeed tax and public spending has often seemed one of the areas in which the modern Conservative Party has been most uncompromising.
Howard has also described a small state and a large individual as one of his key beliefs, which seems to sit well with Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society, only individuals and their families’ rhetoric. Such a belief also seems to fit more comfortably with the ideology of neo-liberalism, than conservatism. Traditionally conservative thinkers have viewed society as organic, as a collection of institutions between which obligation and interaction is paramount to the moral fabric and order of society, and the state has often been as having an important role in this.
While it would not be particularly unconservative to call for the shrinking of the state, conservatives would inevitably prefer that this process be taken upon cautiously and moderately, rather than Thatcher’s urgent call to ‘Roll back the frontiers of the state’. Economically, it seems that the accusation that the Conservative Party still display Thatcher’s neo-liberal philosophies could be justified, although there are equally convincing arguments against this.
Despite the opposition shown by Tim Yeo towards the minimum wage, the Conservative Party have sometimes appeared to have come to accept the advantages of two of the Labour government’s two major economic policies, the minimum wage and the independence of the Bank of England. When William Hague appointed Michael Portillo to the position of shadow Chancellor in 2000, Portillo quickly reversed years of Conservative opposition to those two policies.
Also, despite the suggestion that his proposals were somewhat of an anomaly in the current Conservative party called for a ‘Fairer Deal for All’, in speeches which sounded both to be returning to the One-Nation idea and alluding to attractive liberal language of ‘Equality of opportunity’. Duncan-Smith also showed concern for those that had been ‘left behind’ by the government, those who he claimed that suffered at the hands of poor public service provision and were unable to reach their potential.
Thatcher is perhaps unfairly remembered for her ‘No such thing as society’ rhetoric, but the post-Thatcher Conservative Party seems not only conscious of the existence of society, but has tried to strengthen the bonds of the community and society. The election campaign of 2005, suggested that Howard’s Conservative Party were now employing a much more collective approach, respecting the unity of the community and the nation, rather the demands of the individual.
Although traditionally conservatives have seen upholding order within the community and the nation as perhaps their most important goal, it appears that Howard is trying to reach a third way between the two opposites. As a reaction to the permissive attitudes of the sixties, Thatcher’s government attempted to restore order and cohesion with a socially authoritarian approach to issues of what had previously considered issues of private choice.
Despite the growth of liberal and socially inclusive values within the current political climate, it seems that the current Conservative party are uncertain as to whether it would benefit them to maintain such neo-conservative attitudes or to follow the Conservatives’ pragmatic trend and adjust their moral attitudes. While Michael Howard may have suggested a departure from such values, enthusiastically declaring his immigrant background and visiting areas which have a high immigrant population, it seems the party is reluctant to risk losing the support of it’s core values, those who appear further on the political right.
David Davis’s speeches have attempted a conservative-nationalist appeal, warning that immigration is detrimental to ‘British values’. The idea of the family has always been a pillar of conservatism, particular valued in the traditional notion of an organic society. Thatcher’s government called for the strengthening of the family, and held it as a blueprint for other institutions within society.
In some respects this attitude is still present, John Major tried to revert the nation ‘Back to Basics’ in a campaign widely interpreted as reintroducing Thatcher’s authoritarian stance towards personal morality, Iain Duncan Smith was criticised for describing his style as ‘kitchen Table Conservatism’, as it appealed to the outdated notion of the traditional family, which was not considered an appropriate strategy to increase the electoral appeal of the party and escape from what Theresa May called ‘the Nasty Party’.
Under the reign of Iain Duncan Smith David Willetts boasted that ‘the Tory war on lone parents is over’, a suggestion that the Conservative Party was flirting with a much more socially liberal attitude. Despite this, Iain Duncan Smith did not hesitate to impose a three-line whip on a controversial vote over the issue of gay couples being allowed to adopt children, a confusing move which has been followed by a silence from Howard concerning family issues.
The Conservative Party has also maintained Thatcher’s tough stance on crime, although it can be argued that this was a conservative priority before the inauguration of the New Right. The election campaign has seen Howard make speeches calling for the recruiting of more police officers aswell as tougher prison sentences for burglars and drug dealers. Such a stance is one of the areas in which the current Conservative Party has maintained an intrinsically conservative approach, untainted by neo-liberal thinking.
In this area in seems that it is the only language that has changed, while the attitudes have remained firmly the same, from Thatcher’s call for ‘short, sharp shocks’ to young offenders, to Howard’s infamous claim that ‘Prison works, to Major’s need to ‘condemn a little more, and understand a little less’ and the current call for tougher police forces. In conclusion, it is hard to form a judgement of the current stance of the Conservative party as they remain in opposition.
Many criticise the party for focusing more on adversarial tactics than a consistent policy approach, and it does seem that Howard has enjoyed opportunities to attack Blair from both the left and the right, and even sacrificing what would be regarded as a quintessentially Tory polices to be gain more support. For example, with the issues of university top up fees; where the relief of the tax burden from the masses would be favoured by most conservatives, but Howard’s party stood in bold opposition to the government over the issue, perhaps preferring to reach out to a lower middle class vote.
The Conservative party also seems to be struggling with the predicament of risking the support of their core voters, many of which are often considered further to the right that the party chooses to present itself, in an attempt to increase it’s electoral appeal. Iain Duncan Smith’s interest in renewing one-nation principles was met with hostility by many of the members of the party.
Although some claim that a new approach would benefit the party, it seems that the fear of losing their core support aswell as the party’s moderate and cautious attitude are holding the party back. The modern Conservative Party has also had five leaders in the last thirteen years, of which some have implemented their own personal style and charisma into conservative thinking, while others have been tainted with the stigma of their predecessors because of their own lack of personality.
There is both strong evidence to suggest that in many respects the current Conservative party is still defined by it’s New Right heritage, and also to suggest that it is taking a new direction. Although the Conservative Party pride themselves on being pragmatic, it seems their pragmatism is struggling to provide the flexibility for the current party to achieve mass support. It seems that perhaps this is because of the public image of the party has been damaged, whether fairly or unfairly, as a result of the party’s Faustus-bargain of neo-liberal thinking.