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Are the UK Conservatives even a real party?

In the run up to the snap General Election, Professor Jonathan White of LSE discusses the UK conservatives status in terms of the history of political parties.

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Are the UK Conservatives even a real party?

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Jonathan White is Professor of Politics at London School of Economics

A group that contests elections – for many this is the very definition of a party. On the eve of a General Election, it may seem eccentric to ask whether one of the contenders is a party at all. The Tories are running for office and have every chance of winning. But it was only sometime in the twentieth century that a party became synonymous with a group contesting elections. The history of the concept presents a rather more demanding ideal.

The political party was an invention of modern democracy that emerged in the 1700s. Cities and states throughout the ages have had divisions and domestic conflicts, but it was only in the eighteenth century that these tentatively came to be accepted as part of the normal condition. It was then that contending groups came to be dignified with the new name of ‘party’. Yet the price of this acceptance was the understanding that parties were about much more than the mere pursuit of power. A party was defined not by the means it adopted – the contest of elections – but the distinctive ends it pursued.

Theresa May likes to quote Edmund Burke . His influential definition of a party in 1770 saw it as a group ‘united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed’. A party, in other words, was a community of the like-minded, defined by their promotion of ideas about the general interest. As the franchise expanded across Europe in the nineteenth century, it was these shared ideas which came to be seen as the essential glue linking representatives in parliament to their voters. Ordinary citizens were expected to identify with their rulers with respect to the commitments they stood for.

What is the principle on which today’s Conservatives are agreed? On the basis of what ideas are people expected to align with them? If we go by the election campaign, there is not that much to point to. The pattern for much of the campaign has been the Conservatives’ reliance on slogans that give little away. To ‘get the best Brexit deal’ has been one of the repeated goals, reiterated in the Paxman interview. This is not a statement of principle. The shape of a ‘deal’ is ultimately in the hands of others – it is to define yourself by an unknown, and to put aside discussion of what one hopes to achieve.

The campaign has been heavily personalised. Conservative strategy has been to reinvent the party as ‘Theresa’, who puts forward ‘my manifesto’, or – abandoning the idiom of partisanship altogether – my plan. The adversary is likewise individualised. The election, May wants us to believe, is ‘a choice between me working constantly to protect the national interest and to protect our security, and Jeremy Corbyn, who frankly isn’t up to the job.’ Discussion of principle falls by the wayside when the essential issue becomes which name to trust.

For Burke, the whole point of a party was to get away from the reverence of individuals. It was to resist the personalisation of power, be it in the hands of Pitt the Elder in the 1750s or George III in the 1770s. That was the reason to view the national interest through the lens of a ‘principle’ shared by many. A party that defined itself by the alleged qualities of an individual would be undercutting the very basis on which the legitimacy of the party idea depended. It would not deserve the name of party.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the party concept in Europe and America became bound up with the key notion of legitimate opposition. What was important here was the idea of equivalence between political groupings. To the extent they worked within the constitution, all were to be treated as political equals. Some might have the better arguments, and some might have more powerful backers, but they would have to fight it out on the same symbolic footing.

A central Tory strategy in this election has been to disrupt the idea of equivalence. The aim, it seems, is to avoid being seen as just one party amongst many but rather as different in kind – as the figure of government, acting directly for the British people. Hence the avoidance of any TV debate that puts Tories side-by-side with their adversaries. Better to be busy doing things that only a government can do. The leadership likes to present itself as poised to enter the international arena – on Brexit negotiations, on the global war on terrorism – while others squabble over matters of viewpoint.

Slogans not programmes; personality not principle; exceptionality not equivalence. If the Conservatives have a political agenda, it is not one they seem keen to be publicly defined by. Perhaps amongst the ranks of Tory activists there remains a sharper sense of what the collective should stand for. But if the Conservatives remain a party in this deeper sense, it is largely in spite of what Tory high command is doing.

The Conservative leadership is by no means the first to take this route. One reason ‘parties’ have become widely disliked across the western world in recent decades is that so many have detached themselves from any sense of conviction. Regardless of who won an election, empty branding and ‘presidentialisation’ seemed the winning formula. What makes things different in this election is there is a choice. The Conservatives face an adversary doing things differently, campaigning on policy and emphasising the views of its partisan community. So the Tory leadership’s abandonment of the party ideal is visible like rarely before – and also susceptible to challenge.

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