A number of years ago, before the last General Election and well before UKIP’s current rise in the opinion polls I, and a number of others, were helping campaigners in Kent. As is often the case, our hosts took us to a nice countryside pub at the end of the session as a thank you for our help and we got chatting.
The topic of Conservative party modernisation came up and it was mentioned that David Cameron wasn’t doing enough to keep the traditional wing of the party onside. A young and enthusiastic activist said in response “we can’t win the next general election with just our core vote”, to which I replied “spot on, but we can’t win it without them either”. Fast forward five or six years and I find that I am still hearing variations on that conversation.
Nick Boles’ comments to the Bright Blue think tank have triggered a lot of talk about Tory modernisers and whether they or the traditionalists are winning the battle for party. Two things strike me. Firstly that this whole debate is shockingly self indulgent. Party political belly button gazing is unedifying at the best of times and particularly so when there is still much work to be done in sorting out the economic and social ills bequeathed to us by the last Labour government. Secondly it is a false choice.
As a culture, Britishness is all about the Schrodinger’s cat of traditionalism and modernity. Don’t believe me? How about our armed forces, simultaneously full of tradition and history and yet at the cutting edge of military modernity. The City of London with it’s ancient churches, 900 year old governance structure and some of the most modern and high-tech businesses in the world, the list goes on.
Simultaneous modernity and traditionalism isn’t just possible, we Brits do it almost without thinking. It is interesting that the party’s greatest post-war leader and the icon of traditional Tories was one of the most energetic and dynamic modernisers in the party’s history. Margaret Thatcher changed the party just as much as she changed the country and we should all learn from her.
Modernisers within the party need to better articulate what we need to move towards rather than what we are moving away from, tell us what you do like not just what you don’t. Traditionalists need to remember that ours has always been the party of innovation and change from Disraeli, Churchill, MacMillan and Thatcher have all taken positions at odds with the then established consensus.
As a party we need to get on with the job of sorting out Labour’s mess and setting the UK on the path to success rather than waste time, effort and credibility on a sterile and introspective debate. If we do the former we will be rewarded at the ballot box, if we do the latter we will be punished by the electorate. And rightly so.