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Why the British ‘Conservative’ party is not a political party at all

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.

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20 comments to Why the British ‘Conservative’ party is not a political party at all

  • htjyang

    I thank Paul Marks for this very good (and also somewhat eerie) comparison he made.

    Where the comparison with the Fox v. Burke situation breaks down is that back then, Burke sided with the Pitt government which was also opposed to the strongest continental power at the time. For a while, that reduced Fox to insignificance.

    Today, the reigning forces in Britain, be they the Labour Party, the media, or that yapping little dog a.k.a. Liberal Democrats, are all in favor of the EU. There is no comparably powerful Pitt faction in Britain today that stands against an overbearing continental power.

    Furthermore, though the Foxites eventually gained power, because Napoleon was irreconcilable, they were eventually forced out of office. Whether the British people have the same wisdom and courage to throw out the pro-EU faction before it’s too late remains to be seen.

  • Howard R Gray

    “Dave” is the Tory epitome of, …….dare I say it? A TORY! No one is surprised here are they? Thatcher was an aberration, get used to it. The real work now begins, which is why I presume this web site exists. The conservative party is simply undertaking a strategic withdrawal from principle to gain power. Political recidivism is alive and well. While it isn’t a crime, yet, to plunder folks wealth and peoples pay packets for the greater good. The fact that it doesn’t do any of that much needed good just isn’t understood. Tax and spend, hell the public needs it. Dave said so.

    Mental density about principle, and why it matters, is the normal AFU situation in the Tory party. The difference between Burke and Fox is lost on these jerks, don’t be surprised about that either. Over 100,000,000 people have died in the last century in the name of socialism, a little Tory fogginess about principles is rather endearing.

    “Sick Ill Twit” of North Korea has just boomed his bomb and the Tories are to do what? No wonder Winston Churchill didn’t start his career in the Conservative party. Entryism makes sense, it worked for Winston.

  • HJHJ

    Nice piece Paul.

    You are entirely correct in that it is principles that are the key thing. Not doctrine, not detailed policies, but the laying out of principles which will guide policy. It has long been my opinion that the way to defeat this NuLabour lot is to be consistent about, and to communicate, principles. I think that over a period of time the public would understand this, instead of the current ‘we’re nicer and will run things better than the other lot’ approach.

  • Gabriel

    That there should not be wars for trading advantage (as the older Pitt was alleged to have supported)

    This is all well and good in a vacumn, but if we had not successfully prosecuted the Seven Years war, out of some moral objection, we certainly would have been far worse off. Despite all the assumptions of Mercantilism being false, the fact that nearly everyone (or nearly everyone who decided policy for European states) believed in them made them partially true. You can’t stick your fingers in your ears and repeat “Free Trade is the most efficent organiser of global economic resources” when France and Spain have conquered everwhere and won’t let your ships in.

    Had Britain not become the most successful Mercantilist nation (partly, at least, through war) we would not have been able to later switch to a policy of Free Trade, simply because we would have been shut out of all the world’s markets. We certainly would not have been able to use our economic muscle to make much of the rest of the world embrace Free Trade as well. As it was we could push Free Trade more or less unilaterally on the world, the Cobden-Chevalier treaty notwithstanding, to the benefit of us and everyone else.

    The Rockinghams remind me of the Rockwellites, generally OK, but on foreign policy they should be quiet. If memory serves, Burke’s earliest famous foray into politics was to try and cripple British rule in India.

    Or to put it another way, it wasn’t enough to have Burke and Cobden expound the benefits of Freedom, you had to have Pitt and Palmerstone to kick some butt too.

  • I couldn’t finish the article. More than half the sentences had a parenthetical. Either write a serious post or write a smart-ass post – don’t do both.

    – Josh

  • Your loss Josh. Good article Paul. The sheer cynicism and transparent craving for power-for-power’s sake of this crop of Tories has turned me from an enthusiastic life-long Tory to someone who will not even shake hands with an active member that party. I do not just reject my old party, I despise it.

    UKIP. There simply is no alternative.

  • Derek Buxton

    I’m with Albion, I have no hope with Cameron leading. There is a total lack of principle and a lack of knowledge about the EU, “of which he will not speak”, or anything. I do wonder if he is merely a puppet with his strings being pulled by the likes of Hesseltine, Clarke etc. If he then gets into power, a swift exit and up pops a EU enthusiast, RIP England

  • Interesting perspective on political parties. By this standard, both the Democrats and the Republicans would be factions, and the largest political party would be… the Libertarians? the Greens? At any rate, there would be no political parties with any real role in American politics.

  • Paul Marks

    On Gabriel’s points:

    I was careful to write “alleged” concerning Pitt the Elder – I did not want to get drawn in to a debate about him.

    On India – perhaps Burke would have been too honourable (if there can be such a thing) and would have ended up with his head stuck on a pole. However, some of the actions of Warren Hastings (and even more so of Paul Benfield) did not make things better for the East India Company in India – they just turned some people against the British (the debate is a complex one – and I know it was often the WORDS that Hastings used, as much as his actions, that drove Burke up the wall).

    However, the Rockinghamite approach was often very practical. After all it was the Rockinghamites who actually got money out of the American colonies – the governments that tried to get more revenue (without the consent of the colonies) actually got less. And they got a war as well.

    On Toryism:

    “Tory” (like “Whig”) has meant various things at various times (indeed at the same time). Many “country Tories” were very close to the Rockingham Whigs and had similar principles.

    On entryism:

    Does this mean we should join the Conservative party and try and influence it?

    This does not work. Take over the student wing and it is abolished (F.C.S. – abolished back in the late 1980’s when Norman Tebbit got tricked by the left), get a leader who is somewhat free market and that leader will be removed (as Mrs Thatcher was – even though the vast majority of party members and the majority of Conservative M.P.s supported her).

    In any case many free market people are leaving the Conservative party (about 10% of the entire membership in the last six months alone) – so if one joined it one would find oneself with fewer and fewer allies.

    Josh’s point:

    I write what I believe and I write it they way I do (although I should check for missing letters and sometimes missing words), whether you think it is “serious”, “smart ass” or “both” is your business.

    Britain or U.K.

    I should apologize for using the word “Britain” in the article where I should say “United Kingdom”. I do not mean to insult the six counties of Northern Ireland (indeed my first party card had “Conservative and Unionist Onward” on the front – which shows how old I am).

    However, the Conservative party is no longer in formal alliance with the main Unionist party in Northern Ireland (and has not been for many years) and whilst, in theory, the Conservative party organizes in Northern Ireland it does not really pay the place much heed.

    “Britain” and “British” are the normal words that Conservative party folk have used for as long as I have known the party – so (in writing about them) I do as well.


    I must stress that the principles of Burke (i.e. Conservative principles) are only one set of principles – a political party could have a very different set of principles.

    My point about the “Conservative party” is that it has no set of principles uniting it at all – it is alliance for power (not that I think it will achieve power – I do not believe so). What would have been called a corrupt “faction” rather than a party.

    Of course, as free market people leave, the party may unite around the social democratic principles of Mr Cameron – if he has any principles.

    Sorry Josh – you may think this way of writing “smart ass” but it happens to be the best way I know of to express the truth.

  • Gabriel

    I was careful to write “alleged” concerning Pitt the Elder – I did not want to get drawn in to a debate about him.

    The problem wasn’t the allegation, it was that it should be considered an allegation at all. The fact is there were wars for trading rights; Britain could either participate or dwindle into backwardness whilst France reshaped the world in its own image. Thank goodness we had a leader with some competence and balls.

  • Paul Marks

    I fully accept that Louis XIV was seeking power over all of Europe (if not the world) and had to be resisted even at the cost of higher taxes and so on. But he was not the King of France in Pitt the Elder’s time.

    Was Louis XV really seeking such power? Did the conflicts with the France of Louis XV really warrent the spending of money of the scale that Pitt the Elder spent it? Perhaps so, but there is an argument to be had (I know the danger of being “clever after the event” so I make no judgement here).

    There is also the point that Pitt the Elder favoured trade restrictions even seperate to any considerations of conflict with France – and it is not true that all people of his time supported such restrictions.

    Nor were Pitt the Elder’s proposals always in Britian’s practical interests (even if that is the only consideration to be made).

    For example, he (and his friends) were quite correct in opposing taxing the Americans without their consent (at least their tacit consent), however he would never give up the idea of controlling the trade of the colonies – even if this led to war (which eventually it must do).

    Indeed even after Britian lost the war, Pitt the Elder wanted to fight on – control of the trade of the colonies had become such a point of principle with him that even a defeat in war (by the colonies and their European allies) would not alter his view. He actually died on the floor of the House of Commons in the middle of a it would better to die as men rather than allow them their independence speech.

    However, to be fair, Pitt the Elder (and some of his friends) did, at times, explain a way of squaring this circle – i.e. give the colonies seats in Parliament (in this way they would not mind, at least not violently mind, Westminister control of trade).

    As there were only 13 colonies one might get away (at least at first) with 26 seats (two for each colony – as with two for each English county) out of a House of Commons of some 600 plus members.

    Sadly the men of Westminister were so short sighted that they would not even consider the suggestion.

    Just as they refused to consider Joe Chamberlain’s “Imperial Parliament” suggestion a century later.

  • Midwesterner

    However, to be fair, Pitt the Elder (and some of his friends) did, at times, explain a way of squaring this circle – i.e. give the colonies seats in Parliament (in this way they would not mind, at least not violently mind, Westminister control of trade).

    Paul, we can never know how things might have been. Would they have been ‘better’ or ‘worse’, or how they would have turned out. But I am positively convinced that if this plan to give representation had happened, there would have been no war for independence. It was a near enough call as it was and there were a great many loyal subjects in America at the time.

    I suspect that it wasn’t until a generation later with the War of 1812 (Washington DC sacked) that American opinion began to seriously turn against Britain. It didn’t come back fully until the role reversal that became institutional with WWII.

    I admit that I sometimes have trouble reading your posts. It’s not the problem with your posts, it’s with my attention and thinking ability. You put so much information into a post that it is necessary to think. I read and re-read them happily. Please don’t change. Don’t ‘dumb them down’.

  • Stuart

    I looked up Conservative Way Forward’s website and found a sound set of principles. Underneath are Thatcher’s signature and Cameron has signed it also. I honestly believe in Thatcher but Cameron’s mendacity to sign these principles and yet want to remain in the EU are unbearable. But then Howard listed his beliefs and some of these were also incompatible with other things he said. They are all a bunch of lying toe rags.

  • Gabriel

    I don’t want to defend Pitt’s position on the American War of Independence. Seeing as I disagree with it that wouldn’t be a fruitful exercise. What I want to defend was his conduct earlier during the Seven years war where, it has to be said, a great deal of Whigs had gone rather soggy.

    It’s all a matter of realism. Of course there should be no wars over trade, but if there are going to be wars over trade and you happen to be a trading power it’s probably best to win them.

    The Seven Years War really cemented Britain as a global power and severely damged France’s. Now if you believe, as I do, that a world shaped by Britain is better than one that would have been shaped by France, [patriotism and the national interest aside] I think you would have to agree with me that it was a very good thing that we won. I think you might also agree with me that the era of British global hegemony, up until the barbarians over the channel decided to muscle in and force us (among other things) into the Scramble of Africa, was an age of unparalelled global peace and (at that time) prosperity. I don’t see that it is plausible that this state of affairs would have come to pass without the intervention of Pitt or someone very like him.

    It is ironic that we had to play the European game and win before we could tear up the board and pull out a better one, but then it’s a pretty strange world.

  • Paul Marks

    Gabriel makes a strong case. I am not sure about the world, although I understand that Gabriel means a world where France was the strongest power (rather than some Louis XIV dream of unlimited power – although future rulers might have been more like Louis XIV than Louis XV – we can not tell), but one can look at a bit of the world to see the strengh of what he is saying.

    Take Canada, people normally concentrate on the effect the fall of French Canada had on the American colonies (i.e. that it made them more willing to strike out against Britian now the threat of French Canada was no more), but the INTERNAL government of French Canada might come as a shock to many people – the vast web of rules and controls.

    A look at the difference between how the British American colonies were governed and how French Canada was governed is instructive.

    I agree I would rather have a world that looked more like the former than the latter.

    And I also accept that if someone like me (or Sir Robert Walpole, or Dean Tucker, or [going further back] Sir Dudley North – or any other Englishman with a taste for low government spending and a strong dislike of war) had been in charge their might not have been the WILL TO WIN.

    So Gabriel – I think you have got me beat here.

    On Midwesterner’s point’s:

    I agree we can not know how anything will turn out – and to change one thing may lead to all sorts of other changes which one can not predict in advance.

    However, I also agree that if the Rockingham policy of do not control their trade or tax them (unless one can their tacit agreement) could not stand then the idea (sometimes expressed by Pitt the Elder and his friends) of seats in Parliament for the American colonies should have been tried (in spite of the practical difficulties with a long sea trip and so on).

    However, the majority of the House of Commons would not go along with either policy – they followed Lord North with a light heart (indeed Lord North himself had more doubts than a lot of the people in the House of Commons).

    They might as well have chanted “we want war, we want war” (the lawyers in the House of Commons were often the worst offenders – with their new theory about the unlimited power of Parliament do anything it liked, contrary to any traditional limitation).

    It may well be that loyalists (in the sense of people who wanted the American colonies to stay under the British Crown) were the great majority in America at first – but the House of Commons just let these people down.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Cameron signed the statement of principles of “Conservative Way Forward” (which flatly contradict so much else he has said and written)?

    I must have missed that – although I certainly do not deny it.

    I suppose some people would say “politicians are like that”, to which I would reply “no they are not all like that, and I will not support politicians who are like that”.

    It seems that most people agree with me on this. In spite of the present government being wildly unpopular (both Mr Blair and the Labour government in general have poll numbers that make President Bush’s numbers look wonderful), the oft boasted of “big Conservative poll lead” has been proved not to exist.

    Today Mr Cameron and co were going about the Labour government’s “cuts” in the National Health Service. Which means (it it means anything) that even the vast increases in spending that Labour has (and is) pushing through are not enough for Mr Cameron and that he would increase spending at an even faster rate than Labour is. And, of course, Mr Cameron also says he wants no more “reorganizations” (i.e. no reform) and an “Independent Board to protect the N.H.S. from politicians” (i.e. more administrators and an end to any chance for a democratically elected government to reform the N.H.S.).

    “Attacking Labour from the left is good politics Paul”.

    Sorry – see above.

  • Midwesterner

    UKIP. If not now, when?

    The only wasted vote is a vote for more of the same.

    Or a vote not cast.

  • Paul Marks

    I agree.

    A vote for a party led by Mr Cameron and his friends is a vote for more of the same (more spending, more taxes, more regulations, more submission to the E.U., and more of the out of control money supply from the “independent” Bank of England).

    If I am still about at the next election I will vote U.K.I.P.

  • Gabriel

    rather than some Louis XIV dream of unlimited power – although future rulers might have been more like Louis XIV than Louis XV – we can not tell

    Yeah. It was not beyond the realms of possibility (and at certain points seemed quite probable) that, had the war of Austrian Sucession and the Seven years gone somewhat differently, France would assume the role of global hegemon in the same way we did. They wouldn’t have been as competent at it, but they still would have been able to spread their essentially absolutist (even if of the sane XV rather than nutty XIV type) political worldview- with rather dire consequences.

    And with that I think my thread derailment is over.