Editorial: Where next for Conservatism?
The editorial for edition 22.3 of Juncture looks ahead to the near future of the Conservative party: what are the tensions and critical debates that will shape the leadership contest, whenever it arrives, and what ideas might help an outsider to better understand – or even learn from – the right's position today.
Despite the summer row over tax credits, looming divisions over foreign policy, and the forthcoming EU referendum, the Conservative party currently enjoys near complete political dominance in England. Labour’s disarray, the electoral weakness of the Liberal Democrats, and internal divisions in Ukip mean that the Conservatives command the political terrain. Yet their dominance has cracks: the party’s majority of 12 in the House of Commons is relatively small, there is significant opposition to further cuts to public spending, and splits over Europe run deep, both within the party and outside it. The path to another majority with a new leader is not a clear and straight one.
The ideological currents flowing through the modern Conservative party will shape how the contest for its next leader unfolds. As Kate Dommett argues in her essay for this edition of Juncture, the party’s relationship with ideology is complex and often contradictory, with a rhetorical commitment to ‘common sense’ and the national interest concealing very different ideological traditions and potential futures for the party. Whoever triumphs will therefore have to navigate treacherous terrain, setting out how different ideological elements – on the economy, national identity, the future of social liberalism, and Europe – can be combined into a political project capable of winning over first the party and then the public at large.
We can be certain that the cleavage between Eurosceptic ‘outers’ and pragmatic Euro-realist supporters of Britain’s membership of the EU will be central to jockeying for position, with at least one significant leadership contender likely to emerge at the head of the Eurosceptics in the party. As John Curtice finds, however, the country is deeply divided over the issue, with trouble brewing for the prime minster in whether he can secure the support of his own party and voters for his renegotiation strategy. Whatever the result of the referendum, and whoever eventually succeeds Cameron, the Conservative fracture over Europe is unlikely to be easily mended.
If debates about Europe are in part debates over representation, there is arguably no surer ‘conservative’ thinker than Edmund Burke to guide the party in the coming years. As Richard Bourke’s insightful essay shows, the study of Burke is therefore ‘not an exercise in recovering buried treasure from a time whose system of values has no purchase on our own’. Instead it offers new intellectual resources to respond to questions of representation, authority and the state that offer sharp counterpoints to the dominant political approaches of our age.
Michael Oakeshott is another intellectual typically associated with the political right. Yet Andrew Gamble in his essay shows that, as with Burke, so with Oakeshott there is potentially a great deal that the left could learn from his notion of political scepticism, whereby sustainable and well-adapted state institutions arise from experimentation and contingency rather than any grand political project.
The parallel paths of ‘progressiveness’ in rock music and politics, as explored by Emily Robinson, arguably suggests the electoral danger of the grand project pursued without passion or conviction. As she argues, both progressive musicians and progressive politicians ‘came to be associated with cold intellectualism, artificial experiments, and upper-middle-class expertise at the expense of the “authentic” expressions of either rock and roll or labourist culture’. Intriguingly, Robinson concludes by speculating whether, if punk was the reaction to progressive rock, then Ukip may well be the response to progressive politics.
In this edition, we also feature a section on Colin Crouch’s concept of ‘post-democracy’ – the idea that we now live in a society that is not undemocratic, but can no longer be thought of as democratic either. Are we living in a society in which inequalities of power and political influence are so wide that it can no longer be considered democratic in any meaningful sense? Has the concept of democracy always, in some sense, been a fiction, or is the project of deepening democracy simply incomplete? These questions extend across party lines, and answers to them will form a key part of any future efforts to ensure that politicians remain accountable, relevant and relatable to those they govern.
This article appears in edition 22.3 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.