I am most grateful to the excellent Francis Phillips for thinking my piece on Conservative modernisers was worth referring to. In the light of the recent controversy over one of Mr Cameron’s inner circles referring to party activists as ‘swivel-eyed loons‘, it seems more relevant than ever. I do not believe the weasel-worded denials. Anyone familiar with the way some MPs talk about their activists will be as unsurprised as I am. In some ways it is inevitable: MPs should hear some of the things we say about them!
Some commentators are talking about this Government being like John Major’s in the nineties; that is a poor comparison. A better one would be with Peel’s administration from 1841 to 1845.
Then, we had the spectacle of a parvenu old Etonian (second generation money) of strong executive instincts doing what he felt had to be done to do with what the times called ‘the march of mind’. So, factory legislation, liberalization towards Catholicism, and finally repeal of the Corn Laws, all things Peel knew his party opposed, but all things he knew would be good for them to pass. He knew better than the ‘backwoodsmen’ They threw him out, broke the party, and were out of power for thirty years, even if they occasionally held office. The price Peel paid for not cultivating his party was a heavy one. What is remarkable, and where the comparison with Cameron is right, is that Peel did not even try to reason with or to persuade his party – he rode rough-shod over some of its deepest beliefs.
Disraeli, who did not really care about the Corn Laws one way or the other, argued that a party leader owed a duty to at least listen to those whose votes he needed. Peel disagreed. Brought up in the executive tradition of Pitt, he did what he thought was right. But by Peel’s time party mattered in a way it had not half a century earlier. Now it matters a great deal more. Where, in the 1840s one could argue, with plausibility that MPs were often local worthies who owed their seat to local influence, now they owe them to their party label.
I have worked for the Conservative Party for several decades. I did not campaign for gay marriage, and if I had been told that my party was committed to it, I would not have campaigned for it; my conscience as a Catholic would not have allowed me to do that. I did believe that Mr Cameron would be on the whole a good thing, a Baldwin de nos jours. It seems he was really Peel.
He and his senior colleagues may well believe that people like me are old and out of touch with modern currents of thought. That, of course, could be why we support the Conservative Party; if we thought otherwise we might be members of another Party. It is unwise for a Conservative leader to show his contempt for those who vote for his party; it is not, in the end, his party. He has come, he will go, but the Party is bigger than him and will be here when he is gone.