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Page last updated at 15:56 GMT, Monday, 30 January 2006

True blues

By Brian Walden

Brian Walden

Does Margaret Thatcher or David Cameron best embody the Tories? Brian Walden returns to his weekly broadcast and column, and considers the nature of traditional Conservatism.

If you asked people at random in a supermarket, or a bar, to name a Tory leader who summed-up Tory values, I think the name you'd be given most frequently would be Margaret Thatcher.

Everybody has heard of Winston Churchill, but though many regard him as the greatest Englishman who ever lived, they seem to sense instinctively that he wasn't at any stage in his career an orthodox Tory. They're right. Churchill was, at heart, an 18th century Whig aristocrat.

So Thatcher, not Churchill, would be the choice of friend and foe alike as a rigid and uncompromising upholder of Tory ideology. A lot of people didn't support her and a lot more didn't like her, but even her enemies are mostly inclined to say that she was the embodiment of Conservative beliefs and that surely nobody can deny that?

Baroness Thatcher
Was Margaret Thatcher out of step with the essence of Toryism?
Well I can. Never, at any time, did I think Margaret Thatcher epitomised Toryism. In fact, I didn't think that intrinsically she was a Tory at all. I thought she was a Victorian Liberal. Her thinking was quite close to that of Mr Gladstone and she would have sympathised with Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League.

Natural Tories don't have immutable ideological beliefs. They tend to be natural administrators, who won't find time to sit around theorising. Margaret Thatcher wasn't in tune with the essence of Toryism.

Holding power

The Conservative Party, throughout its long and largely successful history, has adopted a variety of programmes. It doesn't take these programmes too seriously, because what it really believes in is holding power. That's meant as an explanation, not a criticism.

I could put the matter more favourably by quoting what a One Nation Tory Prime Minister told me. "We want to steer the ship of state in a sensible way in the best interests of everybody. The Conservative Party exists to govern wisely by going with and not against the grain of society."

The Conservative Party used not to be too choosy about where its votes came from
I think it's important to establish the fundamental purpose of the Conservative Party because, at the moment, a substantial number of Tories believe that their new leader, David Cameron, is deserting the true Toryism of Margaret Thatcher to appeal to voters from all over the place. I take the opposite view.

I think Cameron is returning to traditional Toryism, which always took great care to appeal for votes from all over the place. From the squire and the poacher; from the landlord of the local pub and the vicar of the local church; from the owners of Birmingham factories and the people who worked in those factories; from those who were Cavaliers by disposition, but also from innate Roundheads.

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The Conservative Party used not to be too choosy about where its votes came from. It's a Marxist belief that social classes are irreconcilably opposed to each other. It isn't a Tory conviction. Just as it claims not to represent any one social class, the Conservative Party never represented one set of opinions.

In the old days active Tories used to have a pint in the "Dog and Duck" with the local bookmaker prior to dropping in at the Women's Institute discussion on the evils of gambling. They didn't regard such conduct as cynical. They thought it was a realistic acceptance of the fact that the Conservative Party should be in touch with all important strands of public opinion.

One obvious question arises. As that was the way the Conservative Party conducted its affairs throughout most of its history, why are some Tories so disturbed by Mr Cameron's approach to winning votes?

Tory disquiet

I think there are several reasons for this disquiet. In the first place, David Cameron has come to the leadership from nowhere. Mr Cameron's elevation is extraordinary and quite unprecedented. I'm being accurate and not deliberately offensive when I say that even as recently as last year's General Election most voters had never heard of him.

David Cameron photographed from outside a car
Much of the electorate do not believe the Tories are interested in public services
Naturally, he was well-known in the parliamentary Conservative Party, but even there only a handful saw him as the man who would be leading the party in a few months. What's unfamiliar can often be rather alarming. Mr Cameron's novelty is in many ways a great asset, but his long-term intentions are bound to be in some doubt.

There's a second reason why many Tories find Mr Cameron's tactics difficult to grasp. They know the Conservative Party has been unpopular, but they don't realise the depths of that unpopularity. David Cameron doesn't start with a clean slate. He's only to glance at the Tories' own private polls to spot the truly frightening number of voters who think the Conservative Party doesn't believe in public services.

Mr Cameron has a huge problem with the electorate's perceptions on this subject. No wonder he's guaranteed a free National Health Service and no new grammar schools. He'll be forced to keep repeating how much he loves the public sector, because so many voters start by thinking that he hates it.

Leaders can't always explain publicly why they don't touch a particular issue. Once, in private, I fumed at Jim Callaghan for not trying to reform the law on trades unions - then heavily implicated in the running of the Labour Government.

Eventually, Callaghan had had enough of this nonsense. "Look," he said, "nobody is going to believe that anything we do about trades unions is honest and straight. It isn't a Labour issue. Let the Tories do it."

Reform risks

My instincts tell me that reforming public services isn't a safe issue for Tories, there's just too much suspicion of their motives. My guess is that one of the reasons David Cameron has offered some assistance to the PM on educational reform is that he's genuinely in favour of it and knows, but can't say, that it's better for Labour to try to do it.

There's a third reason why some Tories disapprove of Cameron's tactics and it's the most important reason of all. Modern politics is very difficult to unravel. Even experienced political commentators often disagree with each other about its nature. It isn't easy for anybody to be sure what politicians should offer today's voters.

So it's hardly surprising that some members of the Conservative Party don't see why the good old doctrines of the last thirty years can't be wheeled out for one more try at acceptance. In the same way, there must be some members of the Labour Party who don't see why Britain can't have socialism.

Former US President Bill Clinton
Clinton, Reagan and Blair have symbolised the trend toward personalised party leadership
Sincere doctrinaires find it hard to believe that the majority can't be converted to the faith. Their answer to failure is that the leadership should say the same things, but try harder. Unfortunately that doesn't work.

Politics these days lacks evangelistic fervour, because ideology plays little part in it. When the Cold War ended and then the Labour Party got rid of Clause 4, the New Politics began.

Voters don't always bother studying policies, they get a general impression of the party's programme by watching the leader. Never have leaders borne such burdens. Not only must the leader know the party's policies and history; just in case there's a sudden interest in such arcane matters; but he must spend his time coming across as a fundamentally nice person. Knowing the details of the tax system is less important than being a Good Dad and smiling a lot.

This trend to a very personalised party leadership has developed over many years - one has only to think of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. It's the sort of politics that seems to suit prosperous Western societies. It narrows the field of conflict, so that today all major parties jostle each other for the centre ground.

But it has another characteristic less commented upon. No longer do political parties expect their policies to be the major factor in gaining power. They think victory or defeat depends mainly on their image and presentation. So in 21st century Britain power comes first and policies come later. It isn't manifestoes but events, that decide what a government does.

It's about time that the Conservative Party stops trying to sell the doctrines of the past and tries to sell things people actually want ... a stable economy, low unemployment, access to good education for all and an effective health system free at the point of access ... simple when you think about it.
Mike, Basingstoke

This is probably the most perceptive and informed article about British politics that I've come across outside of academic sources. I studied politics at university, and came to the same intriguing conclusion in an essay: that the Tories believe in whatever works in keeping them in power. When Thatcher looked as though she was going to stop providing that, they ditched her. The electoral problem the Tories have had since, I would suggest, is that they stopped knowing what would keep them in power. Perhaps this was because the Tory party started becoming polarised around ideological issues, rather than what had previously united them: obtaining power. Again, this is purely an observation and is not intended as positive or negative comment.
Dave R, Reading, UK

An article that confirms what many of us suspected. I think perhaps that the main problem with the Tory party as whole at the moment is that they are indeed administrators, they do not seem to feel strongly about any of the policies that they present. If they felt as strongly about their policies as they do about being in power we might have a Tory government.
Louise, London, UK

I just hope Cameron wins to take Tony Blair out of the political arena-and his descendents. I left England because of the heavy taxation on my wages, poor schools and a declining NHS. Hopefully the Tories have learned some lessons by being out of Downing Street, they need to be in touch with the people and do what is best for all, not for just a few rich citizens. The UK has so much potential to be a world leader, without being the US "play toy". What we need in the UK is serious politians with the country's interest at heart.
Michelle, Virginia, US

Brian Walden is correct that 'Tories' go with the grain of society. The point that the grain changes. Mrs Thatcher was elected because people were fed up with state intervention and union power. The grain will soon be changing again away from the renewed growth in those influences under New Labour. Mr Cameron appears to be fighting yesterday's battle like a proverbial general.
Michael Newland, London

While I fully agree that the ideological age is over, it is not definitively. Thatcher was the exeption to that rule, and one of the reasons why many in the Conservative party still hugely admire her. She didn't accept that western civilisation has reached its final model, that all that remained was tinkering and administration. In that sense she was not a natural conservative, but a Liberal, like many in the Conservative Party (The Lib Dems lost any connection to ideology years ago). In this day and age ther are still Liberals in the Conservative Party and Socialists in Labour who hope for a return to more idealistic politics. There is hope.
Tom Dewey, London, UK

I have always assumed Mrs T to be the epitome of true Toryism and that is why I have never voted Conservative. To me, Mrs T stood for selfish individualism and every man for himself. Mr Cameron would have a hard job convincing me that the Conservative party has changed and that it wouldn't be a case of "Vote Cameron, get Thatcher #2"
Jo Bennett, London, UK

This is a very interesting article. However, I feel that all parties are only interested in clinging to power and this is why we have the great scramble to gain the political middle ground. Parties are scared of doing something radical but maybe we need someone to break this political malaise - step forward the new Screaming Lord Sutch and wake us from this torpor.
derek sprague, chippenham

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