A church too broad cannot convert

Against the Conservative big tent

Artillery Row

They say a house divided against itself cannot stand. It is usually an exhortation to unity of a community, to put aside differences and recognise a common ground, because the alternative is more daunting — that the group itself will fall apart. 

This can only happen, however, if there is an underlying unity that can bring otherwise disparate groups together — a recognition of what Michael Oakeshott called “the common arrangements” of a single community. This might be a set of past arrangements, perhaps a shared history expressed through tradition or culture; or it might be an imagined future, a desire to stay together out of a shared felt need to change things. What matters is that there has to be some kind of pressure, some kind of urgency, that makes this alliance more than convenient, and make it important.

It is usually said of the right that it does well against an enemy. Some political theorists go so far as to say that enemies are necessary for any group to exist, as there must be an “other” that allows “us” to know “who we are not”. This may well be true, but the more salient point is that the right of politics tends to be more fractious and factional than the left. This is not groundbreaking: in fact, the modern Conservative and Unionist Party is a product of the merging, first, of the Tories and nationalist Whigs of the 1830s, and second, of the Conservatives and the Liberal Unionists of the 1940s — so much so that, in some local associations, it was the “Conservative and Liberal Unionist Party”. It was the threat of socialism that kept this apparently difficult alliance together. 

By consequence, the Conservatives have always been known as a “broad church” political party. Many writers have praised this approach to governing and politics in general: Walaa Idris claimed this flexible approach allowed her to find a home in the party, even if she shared beliefs with other party; Fiona Melville argued it reflects the broad range of voters’ beliefs and the need to respond to that. Most interestingly, Liam Fox once urged the Tories to return to the “broad church” of … Thatcherism

The logic of democracy creates tension within political parties

The broad church nature of Thatcherism is certainly contestable. One of the defining features of Thatcher’s leadership was the famous division into Dries and Wets, those who were with her or who weren’t, and the packing of the cabinet with Dries. Hugo Young’s biographical study of Thatcher, One of Us, makes it very clear how much Thatcher was prepared to challenge the “broad church” strategy, whilst E.H.H. Green’s seminal Thatcher shows that Thatcher “had been openly opposed to consensus”, both in Parliament and in the Party itself. Continually claiming to represent “true” conservatism, Thatcher’s intention was for “‘her” Tory party” to offer something quantifiably different from the Labour Party — which her predecessors had failed to do.

Thatcher’s Conservatives were hardly ideologically rigid, but the “breadth” of the church certainly shrank over her sixteen years as leader. 

Compare this to the Conservative Party in 2022, and we see a dangerous set of divisions. Boris Johnson’s decision in 2019 to withdraw the whip from rebels on leaving the EU drew much criticism, but Johnson recognised one of the key conditions of statecraft: that the absence of cohesion prevents action. Given the minority government of the time, and the paralysing challenge of Brexit, the need to break that deadlock was more of a concern than the need to carry on respecting disagreement. 

At a certain moment, decisions have to be made. 

Yet, once Johnson left, those subjugated divisions erupted and threatened to tear the Party apart. Different diagnoses of the factions of the (first) 2022 leadership election abounded, but the fact that commentators could point to the existence of the “right”, “left”, “old”, “ERG”, “2019 intake”, “common sense” and “modernist” groups was an indication of just how divided the party had become. As one letter to the National Scot commented, the broad church had been blown apart

The problem is neither the presence nor the absence of Johnson. As long as there has been a democratically-focused Conservative Party, the logic of democracy creates tension within political parties between the need for coherence and the need for popular appeal. Melville’s comments above are worth bearing in mind, as the counterweight to a flight to the right. 

The Conservatives need to learn from Labour here: Sir Keir Starmer has been struggling for three years to bring the party back under control, and he has made significant improvements. Given that the Labour Party was intended to be the labour movement in Parliament, his threat to suspend the whip if MPs joined the RMT strike (and willingness to follow through with Sam Tarry MP) made logical sense. It was an impressive display of discipline in a party that had become undisciplined. Likewise, removing the whip from Rupa Huq MP following her comment that Kwasi Kwarteng is “superficially black” showed a willingness to move away from the Corbyn era’s unproductive rhetoric. 

Rishi Sunak’s government faces its first major rebellion

Even this is not a problem attributable to Jeremy Corbyn, but to Tony Blair. The Blair years saw such a diversification of the Labour Party (especially with the removal of Clause IV from the Party constitution) that by the time Blair left, “New Labour” was a diluted mess. Just as Thatcher’s long tenure saw a decline in the Conservative Party’s claim to being a “national” party, so too did Blair’s tenure see a decline in the Labour Party’s claim to being the “working class” party, as has been so often written about. This is a problem that is both caused by the presence and exacerbated by the departure of the leader. When there is one single leader for an extended period of time, a party with a large majority can straddle the line between ideological coherence and broad church electoral appeal. 

When a party goes through five leaders in six years, however, broad church parties become unmanageable. The point is not necessarily the enforcement of ideological rigidity, but the need for an ideological continuity that keeps that “broad church” united. The Conservatives are not suffering from division, because division is inevitable and in many ways desirable, as the “broad church” attitude shows us. What they are suffering from is the privileging of that “broad church” over the real and more urgent matter of ideological coherence. Without some kind of consistent vision, this cannot be achieved.

For better or for worse, though, this coherence must be in the form of an inspiring leader. The Conservative Party and conservatives in general do not have a founding text. Even Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France are so much a dirge that referring back to it for governing inspiration is a foolish gesture. This is often seen as a strength, because it means the Conservative Party can be chameleonic, shifting with the country and surviving beyond its individual leaders, even as that leader shapes the tone and agenda of the party. When the leader is neither consistent nor inspiring, the coherence that is needed falls away. 

Rishi Sunak faces a different challenge to the one Sir Keir faced, but it is just as pressing. His government faces its first major rebellion, and on a topic that is clearly of urgency to the country. Isn’t it interesting that Liam Fox, once the champion of the broad church, now calls for unity

I am on the right of the party, perhaps more so than most people, so I make this suggestion fully in the knowledge that I am likely to be one of the people it forces out, but the suggestion is this: Sunak needs to tighten up the ideological coherence of the party. If he does not, then at the next election, the final nail in the coffin won’t be the Conservatives’ record in government, but their lack of a response to the crucial question: why should it stay in government? 

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