The Conservative Party is often referred to as “the natural party of government”. Certainly, they dominated much of the 20th century – being in power for half of it, while the Liberals and Labour shared the other half – with three notable consecutive victories during 1951 to 1964, and four consecutive victories during 1979 to 1992 (no Labour government won three consecutive victories until Tony Blair in 2005). And all the great landslides were Tory, namely in the general elections of 1959, 1983 and 1987, when they governed with majorities of over 100. The Conservative century defined what it meant to be right-wing and British, with democratic instincts perched somewhere between patriotic populism and pragmatic paternalism; aristocratic yet middle class; caring and consumerist; intellectual but non-ideological; upholding tradition but incrementally modernising and adapting ‘organically’, as Edmund Burke would have wished.
“Conservatives do not believe that the political struggle is the most important thing in life,” wrote Quentin Hogg in The Case for Conservatism: the ideological pursuit of any particular utopia is antithetical to the mellowness of middle England. Yet their mission was always moral one: the pursuit of freedom – individual, national and economic. “Set the People Free’ was the Hayek-inspired 1951 campaign slogan, and it has been their constant refrain: the “gentleman from Whitehall” really does not know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves. And the moral pursuit was always compassionate: people often forget that some of the greatest reforms for justice and the alleviation of poverty had their genesis in Conservative politics: social progressives are not all socialists.
Within the ‘broad church’ of the Conservative Party are various competing and conflicting factions which give rise to many mutually exclusive policy propositions. But perhaps none has proved so polarising within the party as those which have touched upon issues of trade and Britain’s status in the world. The Repeal of the Corn Laws (1846) and Tariff Reform (1903) were both fundamentally about free trade versus protectionism; whether imports of foreign or non-Empire goods should be taxed. These great splits kept the party out of office for 28 years and 18 years respectively; fundamental politico-economic schisms which find their contemporary equivalent in the party’s debates on Britain’s future in Europe – a division which contributed significantly to the party losing power in 1997, and now, in the wake of Brexit, is becoming existential.
“We must save the Conservative party”, tweeted Steve Baker MP, highlighting an interview with him in the New Statesman: “I think we may be on the cusp of the destruction of both main parties… That is not what I want to happen… Labour today is dangerous and that needs to be called out. The Conservative Party, however, must be saved. There is grave difficulty ahead if both parties are broken. So I would like to see the Conservative Party saved.”
A couple of bishops (Leeds and Buckingham) and a vicar responded:
Bishop Nick added a PS:
The Conservative Party does not, of course, possess a divine right to govern: whether it is still “the natural party of government” in this century is rather moot. Nor does it have a divine right even to exist: ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.’ The Bishop of Leeds is perfectly justified in asking ‘Why?’, but in this brief interrogation lies a thesis of Anglican partisan politics. “I am afraid that if the Tory party goes up in flames, it is likely to be replaced by something more rightwing, more populist, and much nastier,” interjected the Rev’d Dr Jo Kershaw. “Maybe,” replied the Bishop of Leeds, without demurring from the prejudiced proposition. “But that might make space for a new/renewed centrist party. Not holding my breath.”
Thus is the political right seen to be malevolent: populism is vicious, and Conservatism is just nasty. God forbid (literally) that we might come to the point of Tory schism, with extremist, far-right ERG politicians like Steve Baker vying for power against the moderate, sensible centrists like Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin. Enter theologian John Milbank, who has prayed about these things and come up with the perfect solution:
Priceless, isn’t it? The centrist, moderate, enlightened, ‘Christian’ compromise on Brexit is to remain in the EU, for therein lies peace, justice and reconciliation, just as Christ preached. This is like saying to the via media Church of England: ‘The real compromise is Roman Catholic, because prior to the Reformation there was no huge national split over the doctrine of salvation.’ And so all the tortuous theological debates about the ‘middle way’ between Geneva and Rome (or, if you prefer, Geneva and Wittenberg) would evaporate. There would be no concern about whether light can have fellowship with darkness, or whether there can be a ‘middle way’ between the Truth and Antichrist, because we have settled on the status quo ante, from which we should never have departed. But Steve Baker is having none of it:
“I am conscious that there is a slightly Old Testament spirit in me, of the wrath of God. There are bad people out there who say they accept democratic decisions and then try to overturn them. Standing up for what is right is one of the things that we’re required to do. But I wish always to love my brothers and sisters, whoever they may be.
…“I’m going to vote against this agreement as many times as it’s presented. It’s awful. I’m afraid I nearly voted for it – and, by God, I am glad I didn’t. I’ve felt surrender. I’ve known the taste of surrender. And I’m never tasting it again. If people want to beat me, they’re going to have to beat me again.”
The Church needs its prophets. They may be scorned and derided as theological cranks, spiritual gadflies, ecclesial backwoodsmen, turnip Taliban, right-wing extremists, xenophobes, or just plain ‘nasty’, but, as the Bishop of Buckingham observes, their faith often shines through – prodding prejudices, searing consciences, rebutting disinformation and confronting error. Why, after all, should the Church of England be privileged to speak for England? It doesn’t exist by divine right, does it?