Fiona Melville

Conservatism is a broad church

Conservatism is a broad church
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A long time ago, I worked for CCHQ, David Cameron’s leadership campaign and them back in CCHQ again. We spent months trying to define what Conservatism really is. I don’t think we ever really got a pithy soundbite, because the root of its success is that it evolves to suit the times.

Perhaps the best description is that it is a pragmatic creed, wary of dogma, going with the grain of human nature, and focusing on effective policy that leads to real improvements. We have some fundamental values – a belief in individual freedom but also in social and personal responsibility, an understanding that power must be devolved as close to the people as possible, a knowledge that people do best when they have as much control as possible over their own lives, and a desire to enable everyone to achieve their true potential.

With each generation, the question is asked, “Who are today’s Conservatives?” There are two ways to answer this.

The first is to aggressively try to set up dividing lines between different ‘types’ of Conservative and to attempt to make different interpretations of conservatism into effectively different types of party. Tim Montgomerie argued this week that a differentiation should be made between “mainstream” and “liberal” Conservatives, in a belief that if only the party had been “more conservative”, it would have won a majority.

While I understand that many of those who are party members of long-standing are, almost by definition, of a more ideological and purist bent, I think the answer to the question is in fact my second option: to understand what today’s Conservatism is.

Setting up unnecessary dividing lines is ... well, unnecessary.  I am a great believer in Tim’s "politics of and" – I think it neatly encapsulates the way that modern parties need to reach out to all voters, because people are so much more willing to shop around for a party they like, and which answers their often very varied concerns.

The myth that more right-wing policies would have meant an outright majority is, I think, comprehensively debunked in several ways – not least that such platforms did not win in 1997, 2001 or 2005. Nor, importantly, in the internal leadership election in autumn 2005.

I believe that, amongst a number of reasons that the Conservatives did not win an outright majority in 2010, being too centrist was not one of them. On the doorstep, people seemed nervous about the extent to which we had changed.  Nobody seemed to believe that we had changed too much. Whether you like it or not, elections are won in the centre, and voters – and Conservatives - today are more liberal than their predecessors.

More relevant to their performance in 2010, I think is that the campaign had no overarching narrative. A central fault of the campaign was the inability to fill in the statement, "me and my family will be better off under the Conservatives because...". "We are the change," - yes, but too many people thought the Lib Dems offered better or more change; and a tendency to zig-zag on what bits of policy were emphasised meant that, for many, it was difficult to really see what Conservatism meant in 2010.

"We can fix the deficit’ – yes, but where do we get to once we’ve gone through the pain?

"Big Society" – yes, but we know the title is a bit silly, and we’re a bit shy about making a coherent argument in favour of people having more control and keeping more of their own money.

"We are proper Tories" – yes but what does that mean? Is a proper Tory the middle-aged posh lady in a headscarf who wants to bring back hunting, or the gay 22-year old who wants to save the world? These are caricatures, but today’s Conservatism means they are not mutually exclusive.

The "politics of and" is not just an electoral tool; rather, it is an understanding that all parties are broad churches, and that voters too have a broader concern than perhaps pollsters give them credit for.

Each Conservative government plays the hand it is dealt. Each Conservative Prime Minister sets out a vision which is different to the previous, or to the next, one. This Conservative Prime Minister has taken a hugely radical step in forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, as has the Deputy Prime Minister in entering government. I am supportive of the Coalition, which is making gargantuan efforts to address the problems we face in Britain today. While I would obviously like to see a majority Conservative government, this Coalition so far is governing in a way which draws on the best of both Conservative and Liberal traditions.

Being a Conservative means preserving what is good, being radical where we need to be and pragmatic where we must be. What it is not is a purist, reactionary nostalgia. Crucially, and most importantly, it means acting in the national interest, and I believe that this liberal conservative government is doing its best to do just that.

Fiona Melville is a former aide to David Cameron and blogs at
Platform 10.