What is the Conservative Party, anyway?


I could answer that question straight up and say, it’s been my life for 11 years. For a third of the time I’m been on this planet I’ve been a member. And not just one of those people who pays their membership and turns up to an occasional dinner when there’s an important speaker either. In my personal and professional life it’s been the consistently dominant definer of my existence. That’s rather sad, right? Certainly, the other half of the marriage it probably cost me would agree. As would my non-political or even lefty friends who have either drifted away, become increasingly nonchalant about my ‘other life’ or have effectively been brainwashed by my unique brand of common sense. How many people do I have on Facebook that I went to uni with? One, and I’m guessing that she just about tolerates me.

That said I doubt I would change a thing. I’ve met some great people, made friendships that have lasted a decade and have done things that anyone who knew me at 16 would have found ridiculous. At one stage I did try to give up. When I moved back to Northern Ireland in 2013 I fancied just focusing on my new job and being a run-of-the-mill member of society. A month later I was Deputy Chairman of my local association.

If there’s a role in the party I’ve probably filled it as a volunteer. I even spent four years working at it. I’ve been a candidate five times and only once in a seat I had a reasonable expectation of winning. I was running everyone else’s campaign at the same lost by 60 votes. I was (one might say accidentally) elected to the Town Council unopposed at the same time. I was difficult and dug my libertarian heels in on virtually everything. The Lib Dems hated me. Some of the other Tories wished I wouldn’t bring the tone down was but at least respected where I was coming from. I just didn’t want to waste people’s hard-earned on things just because they were ‘nice’.

It’s never pleasant coming up against your own but you owe it to the party you’re a member of to do so. The Tory party is one of the country’s defining institutions but ideologically it’s rather broad and it would be reasonable to argue that the one thing that really unites us is our opposition to socialism. Never since has anything summed up the Tory credo like the poster depicting the Union Flag being covered with red paint and the words ‘Stop This’ from the 1950s. Where we differ is where we draw the line. Is socialism only a threat when it is borne in a manifesto by Labour and more palatable when it stems from others? Or is it to be resisted in every situation?

My disagreement with my fellow town councillors was this argument writ very small. I felt that the impulse that begins to run through every elected representative to be seen to be doing something had to be kept in check. Others thought that the town would be better off if it borrowed money to make cosmetic improvements. Their loyalty was to the town. Mine was to the taxpayers of it. In the end our small group split down the middle and voted different ways. My partner in crime and I sulked as spending increased and we stopped going to the post-full council wine and nibbles sesh in an act that we saw as a fair extension of our principles.

Should we not have had this debate? I’m not sure any Conservative would think so. So why shouldn’t we have it on a national level as well?

There is much to admire about our Prime Minister. But as a CfL editorial pointed it out in the aftermath of the conference speech which shocked us to the core, her interventionist tendency isn’t one of them.

If there’s anyone out there who is unhappy about what we’ve said then I’m afraid I’ll have to ask ‘why?’. I’ll accept that we’re broad enough to include those who favour May’s interventionist streak even though it’s arguably very unconservative. I’ll even accept a dose of electoral pragmatism from time-to-time.  But what I can’t accept is the notion that just because the leader and her special advisers think in a certain way, that it’s anything other than sheep-like to suddenly agree with things you disliked when Ed Miliband said it .

It’s the party members, in whatever guise, who provide the theoretical base of the party. That was one of the reasons I started CfL in Northern Ireland. I felt that, on the whole, the NI Conservatives were not very political. The general ethos, a kind of watered-down integrationism is sound, but for 25 years this had not proven an effective way of winning the confidence of the public. Looking at Northern Irish problems through a classically liberal lens would help us analyse our issues in a way that nobody else was doing and drive a dose of realism into the internal discussion.

Organisations like ours exist not only to challenge the (current) orthodoxy but to widen the conversation and to educate. And on that we’ve been successful. There are people on the fringes of the Tory party here now who wouldn’t even have considered it previously. They’ve now found a home.  Which isn’t to say that we’re a breeding ground for ideologues –  we’re broad in our own right – but rather we want to encourage people to think about issues and not just think that being in power is the end game. It’s not.

Below government the party is a wide, often contradictory set of organisations, groupings and belief systems operating at different levels of government and outwith it. If they often run up against each other it’s emphatically for the better. We value thought, freely expressed, in society so we do so in our own affairs. That’s the Conservative Party way.

And, wherever you sit in it, it’s yours.

Neil Wilson is CfL Campaigns Director.
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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty