Conservatives Are No Longer Divided on Europe

The idea that David Cameron has much to learn from Neil Kinnock will seem far-fetched, indeed laughable to most Conservatives, especially those who believe that they have scored a huge victory by 'wielding the veto'.

The Conservative Party is no longer divided on Europe - and that is part of its problem. In the 1990s, there were still a fair few Tory MPs who, while they weren't exactly Europhiles, nevertheless saw in the EU an opportunity rather than a threat, or at the very least as a fact of life.

Crucially, many of them were at the top of the tree. Even if John Major had been less of a pragmatist, determined to keep the UK at (or at least near) 'the heart of Europe', reversing thirty or so years of British policy would have been impossible unless he'd been prepared to risk the resignations of his Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, and his Chancellor, Ken Clark.

Nowadays, there are no such constraints. A combination of generational replacement and constituency associations unwilling even to consider candidates who are anything other than thoroughgoing Eurosceptics has ensured that the parliamentary party led by David Cameron is not only overwhelmingly opposed to further integration, but contains front- as well as back-benchers who believe that Britain would ultimately be 'better off out'.

As a result, there is arguably fundamental mismatch between what the Conservative Party (and, to be fair, many voters) want and what the country needs. Mismatches like this have occurred plenty of times in the past - on the construction of the welfare state, the ending of corporal and capital punishment, on the introduction of equal rights for women, ethnic minorities and gay people, to name just two instances. But it has always been the genius (and the task) of Tory leaders to reconcile what Andrew Gamble, writing back in the early seventies, called "the politics of power" and "the politics of support."

At first (and indeed, second) glance, David Cameron would appear to be cut from the same cloth as, say, Stanley Baldwin or (even more so) Harold Macmillan - a sensible, small-c conservative, prepared to adjust to the world as it is rather than his more zealous supporters would like it to be, and therefore capable of reconciling what it takes to win elections and what it takes to run the country.

But Cameron has a problem that neither of those leaders had to face, namely an iconic predecessor who insisted on a Conservatism capable of distinguishing between those who were 'one of us' and those who were not.

As a consequence, the Conservative Party has turned from a church (and a pretty broad one at that) into something resembling a sect - choosey about its adherents, insisting on loyalty to fixed principles, equating compromise with weakness, even treachery.

Instead of being allowed to lead because they had risen to the top of a hierarchy where, as long as they delivered electoral success, their authority was almost a given, Tory leaders must now daily demonstrate their fitness to rule, primarily by proving that they are every bit as ideologically-committed as their followers.

Previous generations of Tories were brought up to believe in rule by the best, not rule by the rest. But the triumph of individualism has, together with social mobility, done for that idea just as effectively as it has done for the idea of society as an organic whole supported by an active state. Nowadays, many new backbenchers believe they have as much wisdom, and as much right to be heard as, those at the top. And why not? After all, David Cameron himself took only four years to go from freshman MP to party leader.

This weekend's bust-up in Brussels is the logical outcome of these longer-term developments. It is also the product of a disconnect between what has become an article of faith for most Conservatives - the idea that anything coming out of the EU is inimical to Britain - and the reality that we are a medium-sized power whose trade and diplomacy is largely with continental Europe.

Just over 25 years ago, Neil Kinnock famously told the Labour Conference, "I'll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs". Doing this, he argued, would inevitably end in "grotesque chaos."

The idea that David Cameron has much to learn from Neil Kinnock will seem far-fetched, indeed laughable to most Conservatives, especially those who believe that they have scored a huge victory by 'wielding the veto'.

But on this kind of thing, the guy knew what he was talking about. Whatever else Kinnock did, he contributed mightily to re-instilling in his party the common sense that had deserted it and made it unfit to govern. Cameron failed to do this fully in opposition. It remains to be seen if he can do it in office.


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