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There’s little comfort to be found on Cameron’s woolly centre ground

‘It’s a brand new year’, Mr Cameron told his Oxford audience last Saturday as he launched his election campaign. 

6 January 2010

3:00 PM

6 January 2010

3:00 PM

‘It’s a brand new year’, Mr Cameron told his Oxford audience last Saturday as he launched his election campaign. 

‘It’s a brand new year’, Mr Cameron told his Oxford audience last Saturday as he launched his election campaign. Why, so it is. He also has a ‘new politics’ on offer — new, new, new — but without a coherent philosophy, Tory or any other, to underpin it; no Disraeli, or Balfour, or Thatcher he.

Indeed, at a time when many of Britain’s institutions have been debauched during Labour’s period in office, when the nation has largely lost its sense of moral and political direction, and when citizenship of an increasingly identity-less country signifies less than at any time in its history, the feebleness of the Tory response is astounding. 

Britain is not only in poor shape economically, but politically. Its parliament is discredited in the public’s eyes and has lost its authority over the polity, perhaps irrecoverably. Party organisations and memberships are in the doldrums, and the independence of the civil service has been compromised, especially by Blairism’s corruptions of it. At the same time, much of the battered country’s legislative and legal sovereignty has been surrendered to Europe.

The non-Conservative might therefore have expected genuinely conservative themes to be commanding the party’s ‘address to the people’, not least because such themes have a continuing resonance with the public. Among them are the principle of nation, the valuing of its history and traditions, and the defence of established institutions — not their dispersal into private hands. These themes also include pride in citizenship and in the fulfilment of its duties (not ‘responsibilities’), the upholding of the rule of law, and the belief that a common value system is necessary if civil society is to cohere.

Yet they have largely disappeared from the Conservative party’s current stance, or can be glimpsed only in dilute, timid or half-baked forms. It is as if the party, in its ‘modernised’, pick’n’mix condition, was embarrassed by the very impulse to conserve. But this dissolution of principle has an obvious primary cause: the dominance of the vulgar ‘free market’ ‘low-tax-and-small-state’ sales pitch, which has played havoc with the moral authority of the Conservative inheritance in Britain.

It has left a void which today’s Tory leadership has attempted to fill by waffle: about aspiration, opportunity and change — and last weekend about ‘building the big society’. There has, historically, been no Toryism as meaningless as this. Yet the nature of our times, as well as the needs of a democracy, make demands upon a Conservative party which are plain enough, or so one would think.

They are demands to defend the principle of the independent nation-state from usurpation of its powers, and to rise to the challenges of accelerating social disintegration, the implosion of the parliamentary system, and intensifying external threat. It might have been expected that the Conservative party would demonstrate qualities of command and vision which past crises — some of them of lesser dimension than those of today — have evoked in its predecessors.

Instead, the crass Tory prospectus has over the last couple of years offered to ‘repair the broken society’ while simultaneously ‘leaving people to live their own lives’. Never mind the contradiction. Make poverty history and create a more egalitarian society, just like Labour aimed (and failed) to do? No problem. ‘Strong public infrastructure’ and improved NHS, together with cuts in public spending? Of course. ‘Free business from over-regulation’ but also ‘stand up to big business’? That’s us. Wear a red tie one day and a blue one the next? On the ‘centre ground’, why not?

Why not? Because liberal democracies are more fragile than they look, and ours is in deep enough trouble without further dissolution of its moral and political orders. And when words, principles, parties and institutions lose their meanings, and a free-for-all takes their place in the name of ‘modernisation’, a weak Conservative party can only unhinge society further. Britain cannot afford its alternative party of government to be in such intellectual disarray.

Moreover, for the Tories to have lost their moorings and to be ineffectively led leaves a historic vacuum. The party has traditionally possessed an authority and even a style, which — for its foes too — helped anchor the political system as a whole. No longer.

David Selbourne is a political philosopher and theorist. The Principle of Duty is published by Faber.

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