January 17, 2011


One party, two tribes: The Tory party has always had left- and right-wing factions. But the nature of the divide has changed (The Economist, 1/13/11)

[W]ho are these squabbling tribes? Though they crave lower taxes, the modern Tory right—embodied by Liam Fox, the defence secretary, Tim Montgomerie, an influential blogger whose distinction between “mainstream” and “liberal” Conservatives is catching on, and backbenchers such as Mark Pritchard and Bernard Jenkin—are not as preoccupied with economics as the “dry” Thatcherites of yesteryear. If they were, the government’s ferocious spending cuts would keep them happy.

Culture and home affairs matter just as much. The government’s liberal noises on crime and counter-terrorism have aroused more anger on the right than its retention of the 50p top rate of income tax. The right resents austerity when it is applied to defence; it wants Mr Cameron to revive his former reverence for the family. Its adherents are at pains to describe themselves as conservatives rather than libertarians. Some old Thatcherites, having read their Hayek, would have drawn the distinction in just the opposite way. The strongest bond between the old right of the 1980s and 1990s and the new version is another non-economic cause: Euroscepticism. On January 11th 27 Tory MPs voted for an amendment to toughen up the government’s European Union bill.

The new Tory left is, if anything, even further removed from its antecedents in previous decades. The “wets” of the Thatcher era, such as Ian Gilmour and Douglas Hurd, were in a sense more conservative than their right-wing adversaries. They feared Thatcherism was too big a shock to the British system and trusted in the wisdom of Westminster and Whitehall. They tended to side with the established consensus: they shared the pragmatic pro-Europeanism of the diplomatic elite and the Home Office’s pessimism that little could be done about rising crime.

By contrast, the new left—including the Cabinet Office ministers Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude, and the backbencher Nick Boles—are iconoclasts who define themselves by their zeal for giving power away. They have diverse views on economics, crime and Europe, but share a commitment to stronger local government and more control for ordinary people over public services. They admire the Lib Dems for their centrifugal instincts.

There are still plenty of heirs to the old-left tradition in the party: ministers such as Damian Green and (at least on issues pertaining to his justice brief) Ken Clarke; august backbenchers such as Tim Yeo and Andrew Tyrie. But the new left is now more influential. Running parallel to the coalition’s austerity programme is a bold plan for decentralisation: more elected city mayors, more people power in areas such as education, the NHS and policing, and unprecedented transparency and openness in the state. Such irreverence towards the commanding heights of government would shock old wets.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2011 6:31 AM
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