Politicians like Francis Maude think the party should cling to the 'spirit of the age'. Come the election they may be in for a shock
Reading the headlines in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday – “Swivel-eyed loons” hit back at PM – as well as all the articles in the newspaper relating to the well-publicised gulf between the Tory part of the Coalition and the Tory grassroots, made me think again about what a conservative outlook is all about. In my rather disordered files I unearthed a good article by “chalcedon451” who posts on All Along the Watchtower, written on the last day of last year. It is worth quoting from.
Chalcedon takes issue with Francis Maude, the Conservative Cabinet Office minister, who had stated that the “Conservative Party must modernise or face extinction”. Maude was convinced that the party risked “electoral oblivion” if it failed to keep pace with new “social norms”. It had to be a genuinely “contemporary party” if it hoped for electoral success. Maude believed that “If we fail to keep pace – fail to understand and influence the spirit of the age – we will be rightly punished by the electorate.”
All these very untraditional Conservative sentiments made Chalcedon wonder how Maude would define the Tory party to show its difference from Labour or the Lib Dems; he thought it would probably relate to economic policy, tax, welfare reform and so on. He observes, “But [Maude] misses, as all modernisers do, the point: these things are means, not ends. If a Conservative Party is not willing to make the case for prevailing social norms, then what is its point? What sort of society does this Conservative want? He doesn’t know, he’s happy to go with whatever flow is going – as long as he is in power.” This lies at the heart of the gulf between the modern Conservative Party and its grassroots members.
Chalcedon suggests – and the Sunday Telegraph headlines bear him out – that Maude’s attitude “marks a dangerous division between him and many who vote Conservative”; they sense that “there is an assumption here that there are no real norms, no standards other than those of the market.” He points out that if Maude’s views were widely shared “there would probably be no Conservative voters”. He makes the classic case for voting Tory, saying that most people in the country at large who do so do it “because we wish to keep the best of what is. We are sensible enough to know that change happens, but we wish to make it as difficult as possible, to ensure that only essential change happens.”
Chalcedon then comes to the matter in hand – the news that will dominate the newspaper headlines for the next few days: the same-sex marriage Bill, which is to be debated and voted about today and tomorrow. He comments: “What are we to make of a Conservative Party which brings in a bill to legalise same-sex marriage? There was no evidence that anyone much wanted it, and even in the manifesto the furthest the party went was to say it would consult on the issue. The consultation has shown that many people do not want it. But our Conservative leaders will bring it in anyway. That way they show how ‘modern’ they are.”
He concludes by saying that although he has worked for the Tory Party for decades, they will no longer get his vote. He writes: “If that brings in a socialist government all well and good. I expect socialists and liberals to want to move with the times and the new social norms, and would rather they did it than so-called Conservatives.” Many ordinary conservatives would agree with him; Maude and his Cabinet friends are taking a very large gamble; if they think that trying to keep up with “the spirit of the age” will appeal to the rank and file of the party – generally older voters who do most of the voluntary work at the time of general elections – they might be in for a shock.