Strands of British conservatism


The latest Total Politics contains the results of an interesting poll, which surveys the ‘ideology’ of MPs. One part of the poll asks Tory candidates and MPs “what strand of Conservatism best characterizes your political philosophy?" – Cameronism, Thatcherism, One Nation Toryism, Libertarian or Cornerstone. For MPs, One Nation Toryism scored 38%, Thatcherism 26%, Cameronism 12%, Cornerstone 6%, and Libertarian 3%. For candidates, Cameronism scored 43%, One Nation Toryism 22%, Thatcherism 19%, and Libertarian 7%. But what do these labels actually mean?

I’ll assume that readers of this blog are fairly well acquainted with libertarianism, meaning (broadly) free markets, individual freedom and limited government. Cornerstone, on the other hand, represents the socially conservative, traditionalist part of the Conservative party. Some of its members are free market, others are not.

The term One Nation Toryism comes from one of Disraeli’s novels, but is basically another term for ‘Butskellism’, the name given to Conservative acceptance of the post-war, Keynesian consensus through the fifties, sixties and seventies. This is the big government, paternalist part of the Tory party.

Thatcherism, meanwhile, represents the rejection of / opposition to the post-war consensus. It isn’t something with a clearly defined ideology of its own, but some of its main characteristics are identifiable: monetarism and supply-side economics, coupled with a belief in a strong nation state and a tendency towards centralization. Thatcherites were the ‘dries’ to the One Nation ‘wets’.

But what of Cameronism, the ‘philosophy’ that 12% of MPs and 43% of candidates believe in? I’m tempted to say that it isn’t a distinct strand of Conservatism at all, and that it is actually more of a style or marketing strategy than anything else. When it comes down to the specifics, it is little more than a fudge (call it a ‘third way’, if you like) between One Nation Toryism and Thatcherism – an attempt to keep everyone happy.

But perhaps that is a little harsh on David Cameron, because he does at least claim to have a ‘big idea’. That idea is that before the frontiers of the state can be rolled back, ushering us into a ‘post-bureaucratic age’, the state must first re-make ‘society’ – that is, use its policies to rebuild those non-governmental institutions that statism has undermined. This is really what the Conservatives are getting at when they talk about the family, about communities and charities and co-operatives and so on.

It is important to draw a distinction here between this ‘Cameronism’ (Jesse Norman’s Compassionate Conservatism provides a good introduction) and Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’. Certainly there are outward similarities – both aim to strengthen ‘society’– but in fact they are fundamentally different. Red Toryism is entirely collectivist: its proponents believe that the state and the market both exist to serve ‘society’ and should be so directed by politicians. The individual does not enter in to the equation. By contrast, Cameronism’s proponents would see the role of both the state and society (understood as ‘institutions’ rather than just a collective) as empowering the individual.

And this, to me, is the ultimate ideological divide: individualism vs. collectivism. Compared with that, all the other labels pale into insignificance.