For what a political party is supposed to be, one should turn to Edmund Burke (the man who is often cited as the founder of modern Conservatism), who produced the classic defence of political party – defending it from the charge that is was simply a ‘faction’, a despised term in the 18th century and before, of people out for power.
Edmund Burke argued that a political party, as opposed to a faction, was a group of people allied around a set of principles – i.e. they were interested in how government acted, not just in who got power.
Burke’s argument was made more credible by the fact that the leader of his own party (the Rockingham Whigs) was the second Marquis of Rockingham.
Rockingham was well known to be uninterested in the financial benefits of political power or influence, his being one of the richest men in the land may have aided him in his disinterest, as may have the fact that his wealth came from his unsubsidized landed estates, and the Marquis was well known to be uninterested in power for its own sake (he would much rather give up office and return to running his estates or just watching horse racing, than commit any dishonourable act).
Rockingham was no weakling or fool (contrary to what is sometimes said, I hold him to have come to his principles before he met Burke rather than Burke having imposed principles upon him – they shared principles, neither imposed principles on the other), but it was clear that whatever led this man to politics (indeed to be the leader of a party and twice Prime Minister) it was neither financial advantage or lust for office or power.
Nor was it some vague ‘desire to serve’. Rockingham was loyal to the King – but he would not take office other than on his own principles. The Rockingham Whigs held that the power of the King should be limited, but they (or rather Rockingham and Burke and some others) held that government itself, whether from the King or Parliament, should be limited. That there should not be wars for trading advantage (as the older Pitt was alleged to have supported) and that taxes, government spending and regulations should be kept as limited as possible, and there should be no special projects for interests in the land whether those interests were rich or poor.
Rockingham was not good at writing or clever talk, indeed he had the strange English vice of never wishing to seem more intelligent than anyone he was talking to, and not pointing out an error in what someone was saying if he thought that doing so would undermine them or make them sad, but Burke was a good talking and writing and took up the task of explaining the principles of the Rockingham Whigs.
Sadly Burke was mistaken in thinking that all the Rockingham Whigs shared the same principles and this was to be seen after Rockingham died in 1782.
It is often said that the party broke up over the French Revolution. With most of the party following Charles James Fox, but some (such as the Duke of Portland and Earl Fitzwilliam, eventually coming to side with Burke on the Revolution), however the strain was clear years before the French Revolution.
Pitt the Younger proposed free trade (more or less) between Britain and Ireland whilst the Rockingham Whigs (led by Fox) opposed his bill. BUT Burke, and those who thought like him, opposed it on the grounds that it included a tax on Ireland, whereas Fox opposed it on the grounds that he did not wish to allow Irish goods free access into Britain.
More broadly, Burke (and those who thought like him) defined freedom as limited government (freedom from government), whereas Fox (and his followers) defined freedom as the rule of Parliament (a rule in the interests of ‘the people’ of course)… freedom as a ‘free government’.
Whilst the goal was to limit the power of the King, or rather of ‘the Crown’ as it was the interests around the throne, not George III himself that were the threat, there was common ground – but over time the basic difference in principles made itself felt. The French Revolution (in Burke’s eyes unlimited state power, in Fox’s eyes a new people’s government freeing itself from the King and ruling in the general interest) was just the great issue that made the clash of principles obvious.
So what is this all got to do with the modern British ‘Conservative’ party? Well simply that this entity has no basic principles – in short that it is not (in the terms Burke defended party) a political party at all.
On my table downstairs is a publication by ‘Conservative Way Forward’, now these people would hold that the ‘Conservative’ party does have principles – namely the defence of national independence against the European Union and the restriction of the size and scope of national government itself.
But these are not the principles of Mr Cameron and his supporters. If they have any principles, they are much closer to those of Fox (i.e. cooperation with the main European power of the time, which in the time of Fox was Revolutionary France, in the time of Cameron is the European Union, and the use of government power at home for the ‘benefit of the people’).
Mr Cameron and his followers have said again and again that they will take no power back from the EU (which regulates in most areas of national life) and they have said again and again that they are not interested in rolling back the state at home – on the contrary they will spend more and more on the various ‘public services’, and they will pass any regulation that they hold to be in the ‘general interest’ against the selfish interests of private property.
Mr Cameron and many of his friends are rich, but many of the friends of Mr Fox were also rich, although not the spendthrift Fox himself, and aristocratic (for example the very wealthy Duke of Bedford might well have been robbed and murdered by the forces of Revolutionary France – but that did not stop him supporting these forces for years), wealth and coming from a ‘good family’ means nothing in terms of political principles.
As I have pointed out above, the principles of Mr Cameron and his friends (if they have any) are not compatible with the principles of such people as ‘Conservative War Forward’ (however much both sides say they are), so this is not a political party – i.e. a group of people united around basic principles, and as a result sooner or later it must break.
A ‘broad church’ is one thing, but a church where some people believe in God and others do not will not prosper. Conflicts over details are one thing, but this is a matter of not holding the same basic principles.
Now it may be that the ‘Conservative’ party will one day become a political party, but I suspect that it will not be a Conservative one – as the forces of Mr Cameron seem stronger than those of his enemies (most of whom seem to lack the guts to even declare that they are his enemies). Indeed Conservatives are leaving the ‘Conservative’ party every day (it has lost a least 10% of its members over the last six months) – so if it does become a party (a group of people united around political principles, rather than just a corrupt alliance or faction of people out for the money and prestige of government office) it will be a Social Democrat one, like the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats.
When Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox clashed in the House of Commons over the French Revolution. Fox (with tears in his eyes) said that, whilst they differed, there was no “loss of friends” (i.e. they were still in the party). Burke at once got to his feet and said that there was indeed a loss of friends. He understood that people who hold fundamentally different political principles can not be in the same political party (if it is to be a political party at all).
It is time for those Conservative who remain in the ‘Conservative’ party to follow Burke’s example.