I’m a commitment-phobe. Not just in relationships, although it’s true I don’t like to tell people I’m dating someone because I always think of when it’ll be over. I once said to a monk, despite the spectacular amount of tears, that I hated how being a Christian demanded it being a public act, because then people would think I’m better than I am when I can’t think of anyone worthier than me of the title of worst Christian ever.
It’s ironic how despite my best efforts to avoid commitment, people know me for two things: being a Catholic, and being a Tory. Three if you count my undying admiration for a Dr Stanley. I’m sure that’s pretty much what will come up in the speeches at my funeral. Maybe someone will remember me as sweet and kind, if my dissertation supervisor will outlive me someone will bring up my encyclopaedic knowledge of the Reformation. But I will be a sweet, kind and clever Catholic Tory nonetheless.
Tonight I will have a chance to meet another one of them, namely Jacob Rees-Mogg. Someone by far more old fashioned and posh than I am. Even more so than my famous ex who, you’d think, fakes it in order to achieve some Victorian ideal he has in his mind. Despite how commonplace it became for me to meet politicians and peers of the realm (#throwbackthursday to Lord Lexden giving me an autographed copy of his book as a gift after I told him how much I appreciated his speech focusing more on Pitt the Younger than Thatcher), I must say I’m quite excited. His talk will be about balancing his faith and the demands of being an MP, and as an IMPACT alumna that’s something I can relate to.
At the beginning of last term, before I resigned my position on the committee of my university’s Conservative Association, I’ve given a speech on the history of the party, largely based on that precious little book I was given the year before. It’s a very heartfelt piece of writing, which betrays the unusual commitment I have made.
The night after the general election’s results were announced, I went for dinner at the Carlton club. Those of you familiar with the party already know that it is a place where history has been made. In fact, it’s a place where history is preserved: they still have the table used by Disraeli’s cabinet, and a library of records since they started to make them, which is, unfortunately, after William Pitt the Younger.
This brings me to my favourite thing about this place: we had dinner overlooked by a portrait of my favourite Prime Minister. You can easily see how a historian like me has a passion for this party that was founded 4 centuries ago. But how can a party so old have anything to say to the modern world? This is the question to ponder tonight, which is why I’m giving you this overview.
The origin of the party has its roots in the civil wars. The largely royalist ideology paved the way for the strong patriotism that appealed to the masses during the Hanoverian reigns, when parliament was dominated by the opposing party (the Whigs) with a few notable exceptions such as Pitt and his friend Wilberforce, known for the abolition of the slave trade and a biopic starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
The deep pride in this country inherited from Pitt, and the championing of humanity that marked the life of Wilberforce, are the backbone of the party’s 19th century revival.
The fight for free trade against the old system of monopolies brought prosperity, and a prolonged time of peace allowed for reform of the public finances, paying off the debt and a strong country to face Napoleon despite the blow of the American Revolutionary War.
Thanks to Wellington, Britain not only defeated the French in the wars but, also, saw its first electoral reform in a long time, admitting non-conformist protestants and Catholics into office as well as opening elections to a wider electorate.
This is about the time when the word Conservatives first started to be widely used in British politics.
The first manifesto in 1834 states, and I quote, “The party must always be ready to carry out a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper to secure the correction of proved abuses and the redress of grievances”. This spirit of pragmatism and adaptability is what has allowed the party to hold together in times of crisis. Lord Peel’s view was that the party must seek to govern in the interest of all the people, and if you’ve ever read Charles Dickens you can see why his was an age of zealous social reformers preoccupied with the working class like the founder of our college.
During the 1860s the gulf between rich and poor reached a dramatic peak, and the response of the Disraeli’s government was the “One Nation” party. The original patriotism of the party appeared now in the forms of national and social security. This would be evident with the first forms of a welfare state under the leadership of Neville Chamberlain, the embracing of the post-war consensus in party policy after the electoral defeat of 1945, and even to an extent the radical reforms of the Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. The fil rouge in the 2nd half of the 20th century is the increasing importance of freedom in conservative ideology, in response to the growth of totalitarian regimes around the world, and spread of socialism in Britain itself. It would be mistaken to think that it was a new concept, since the free market ideology goes right back to the philosopher Edmund Burke himself, and it’s also not to suggest that the New Right has forgotten that there is more to life than the free markets. The emphasis on the responsibility of individuals for themselves was a response to the times as much as one nation conservatism was a response to Disraeli’s times. Baroness Thatcher in 1987 said: “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me’. They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlments too much in mind, without the obligations”. One can see the Methodist influence when looking beyond the caricature that was made of her by her opponents.
The idea of making one’s own destiny, embodied by the Baroness herself as a woman who rose to the top in a male-dominated field from being the daugther of a grocer in Lincolnshire, brought the party a large share of young voters. It still appeals to my generation, as proven by the drunken singing of the 1979’s hit “I’m in love with Margaret Thatcher” at a late night reception at party conference last week.
Someone once said to me that they see the values of Conservatism as very close to Catholic Social Teaching and I would say I agree. The belief in human dignity is reflected in the moral obligation as members of a community that is key to conservatism. Civil society is making a come back to the forefront of political discourse.
Many people see community and free-markets as two opposing ideas, but there is a case to be made that they are not. Free market is not synonim with lassaiz-faire, it merely means that the state doesn’t intervene so that greater prosperity can be achieved in the long run through competition driving better services and goods.
The assumption behind it is that people in society behave with integrity and within the boundaries of tradition as defined by Burke, which is the stock of reason accumulated over the ages. In other words, if something isn’t broken don’t fix it.
Individualism and tradition can be reconciled because Britain has a tradition of individualism. The tension between market and communities is resolved because they help sustain each other.
This is an excerpt from David Cameron’s first speech as party leader 10 years ago: “At the heart of what I believe are two simple principles: trusting people and sharing responsibility. I believe that if you trust people and give them more power and control over their lives they become stronger, and society bcomes stronger. There is such a thing as a society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”.