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November 17, 2005

Politics Today: Jeremy Black on what the Conservative Party must do if it is to have a serious chance of forming the next government

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - suggests what the Conservative Party must do if it is once again to have a serious chance of forming a government. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Leadership is thrust to the fore both by the presidential character of modern Prime Ministers, particularly the current one, and because the media provides the drama of this "human interest" approach to politics. In practice, other developments may well be of greater importance, particularly structural ones, such as the declining ability of Britain to provide its own energy requirements and the long-term demographic, social and psephological consequences of large-scale immigration. Furthermore, while the impact of the long durée is mediated through the contingencies of current politics and the exigencies of current politicians, this impact can alter paradigms, creating opportunities and thwarting possibilities.

A good instance of the latter is provided by the debate on tax cuts. Such cuts indeed create for many a sense of independence that is a social and political good, and it is sensible of the Conservatives to argue that they are the political party that has most consistently supported them as a goal. However, the consequences of an aging population make such cuts implausible. The problem, instead, is to prevent tax increases, and to do so honestly without, as Labour does, disguising the issue by switching burdens elsewhere, for example onto local taxation.

Similarly, in the face of reliable predictions that the population will increase by seven million in the next quarter century, it is sensible for the Conservatives to argue that immigration is one of the key issues in the short, medium and long term, and one that bears no necessary relationship to issues of ethnicity, but rather focuses on concerns about sustainability. At the same time, it is necessary to face the fact that the loss both of sovereignty and of political power to un-elected jurists makes it difficult to deal with this (and other) issues unless the government is willing to reverse this loss.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that politicians prefer the Tony and Gordon show or its current Conservative counterpart. Comparing the two shows throws much light on the inherent strengths of the Conservative tradition. The Conservatives have a choice between two good leaders, each with considerable ability and potential, while the long contest has also thrown into greater prominence the ability of a number of other Conservative MPs, for example Andrew Mitchell and Michael Gove. This is important because it contrasts with the unwillingness of Labour to hold a public debate over leadership and policy, and, instead, its preference for Chinese style rule by factions and whispers.

Furthermore, for years, many Conservatives in the country have been dismayed by the calibre of at least part of the parliamentary party and some of the candidates. In my part of the world, it is widely believed that results over the last ten years in Exeter, Teignbridge and Torbay would have been more satisfactory for the Conservative Party if they had better candidates. At the national level it is difficult to feel that the contribution of Conservative spokesmen has necessarily been particularly able. What for example is the point of Nicholas Soames?

The new Conservative leader will have a mandate his counterparts in other parties lack, that of recent choice at the end of an open, unrigged contest. If the Conservatives are to prosper, it is important for them not to throw this away by allowing Labour to define the subsequent political battlefield. The Conservatives need not only to win over supporters from other parties and to recruit backing from a portion of the new voters, but also to energise their base, the latter, the route followed by both presidential candidates in the USA in 2004.

A series of aspirations and themes, including the national interest, a society of opportunity, a defence of freedoms, and a sense of responsibilities, offer the possibility of wrong-footing a divided Labour Party that has lost its way, as well as the increasingly trivial Liberal Democrat leadership, but, in drawing up detailed policies, the Conservatives need to understand the structural shifts already referred to: they are drawing up policies for the late 2000s and 2010s not reprising ones that may well have been appropriate and popular in past circumstances but now lack the basis of feasibility.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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