Why Conservative?

A package recently arrived for me in the post. It contained a book entitled Why Conservative? by Timothy Raison, which a friend had borrowed (to be kind to him) in the 1960s and was now returning. I naturally sent him an invoice for overdue library fines which, at 5p a day and after inflation, amounted to nearly £2,500. I await his cheque.  

Initially, I did not realise that the book was in fact mine. I assumed I had been sent it because the sender, having read my recent blog series The Second Crisis of Capitalism, decided that I was in need of political re-education. So, on the assumption that he did think that, and was not simply acting out of a guilty conscience, I re-read the book. Or possibly read it. Who knows whether I read it at the time? If one can remember the ’60s …

It was very illuminating. To give the context, Why Conservative? and its companion volume Why Labour? were commissioned by Penguin and published shortly before the 1964 general election. There was no volume entitled Why Liberal? That question was presumably thought unanswerable, then as now. Timothy Raison was at the time editor of the magazine New Society, and later became an MP and a minister under Margaret Thatcher. His book can be regarded as a private, informal manifesto, written from the liberal wing of the party.

Before coming on to weightier matters, and ones that have more connection with the present, it is fascinating to note the change in language and issues over 54 years and, in some cases, the lack of change. The problems with the NHS are set out exactly as they could be today, as also social care, mental illness and pensions. “The penalty that we have paid for the doctrine of full employment has been a mass of concealed underemployment” is a sentiment that still resonates today. On the other hand, immigration, race relations and the environment are not even mentioned. And Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell were radical liberals, embraced by the left of the party.

The book is entirely sexist in its language, to the extent that it could not conceivably be published today as it stands. It would also be regarded as outrageously homophobic, although Raison supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality. As for lesbianism, Raison, like Queen Victoria, does not seem to know that it exists.

Yet, in the 1960s, Raison would certainly have regarded himself as a liberal, and was regarded as such by others – a dangerous one, according to some in his own party. This is a useful reminder of how things change, and of how unwise, unfair and irrelevant it is to judge aspects of the past by the standards of today.

It is a very well-written book, with a clarity and elegance that would be hard to find now. Yet it is curiously uninspiring. Although the early chapters deal with the heritage and principles of Conservatism, the bulk of the book concerns detailed areas of policy. Here, Raison’s approach is managerial and technocratic, foreshadowing the style of Ted Heath’s imminent leadership. Reading it is like reading the prospectus for a new company.

When I first became active in politics, a few years after Why Conservative? was published, it was this aspect of Conservatism that many of us most disliked: the emphasis on managerial competence. Where was the passion? Where was the principle? Unfortunately, when the passion and the principle arrived in the shape of Margaret Thatcher shortly afterwards, I did not like that any better. I am a hard man to please, politically. Disgruntlement seems to be my permanent condition.

Raison is good on the assorted tributaries that have flowed into Conservatism over the years, that have remoulded it and sometimes diverted it. However, the greatest of the tributaries arrived after his book was published: Thatcherism. With that has come an ideological and evangelical fervour that still permeates the party today (especially the Brexiteers), that constantly seeks to destroy the sense of unity that has always been the party’s greatest strength and that (whatever its partisans like to think) is permanently divisive, intolerant and illiberal.

It is this new strain of right-wing Conservatism – so much worse than the old strain of hangers and floggers for whom I now feel an unlikely nostalgia – that continues to gnaw at the party, and at my support for it, and that will not go away. As a result, the Why Conservative? of 1964 offers few parallels to a Why Conservative? of 2018. The two scenarios are not comparable.

Even accepting the fact that current UK politics are inevitably obsessed with Brexit and little else, I still have no sense at the moment of what a Conservative government is actually for. This is not just a comment on Theresa May. Even more it is an indictment of David Cameron, who had 11 years to answer the question and failed to do so.

The Conservative Party has not recovered from its damaging assumption that, when communism collapsed and socialism was removed from the agenda, it had won the argument. Instead, it was confronted by a new argument in New Labour. Since then, it has won only one out of six elections decisively. And, now it is faced with socialism again, it seems to have forgotten how to fight it.

One can only hope that, somewhere within the bowels of the party, there is someone intelligent working to produce a dynamic manifesto for the future, based on first principles, non-ideological in its approach, capable of inspiring a broad swathe of the nation, and ready to be unveiled when the Brexit storm is over. Somehow I doubt it.

As Raison perceptively noted: “There is a deeper philosophy to the party system than an overgrown-schoolboy loyalty. It is based on the premise that the best political course over the years may be a blend of opposing opinions – not a mere compromise but a more eclectic process by which somehow or other the country may draw out of the conflicting programmes what is best suited to its needs.” At present, that eclectic process is leading to Jeremy Corbyn.

In the meantime, the question asked by Timothy Raison remains. His answer to it may not have been inspiring, but at least it was an answer. Today there is only the question. Why Conservative, indeed?