As UKIP’s spring conference gets underway, The Spectator makes lighthearted fun of the patriotic, themed merchandise available for delegates to purchase. And fair enough – some of it is quite kitschy. In fact, some of the trinkets remind one of the gaudy offerings you might find displayed for sale at the annual CPAC conference, currently underway in the United States.
The CPAC exhibition floor is about marketing, and advertising to conservatives is the same as marketing to anyone else: everything has to be unique, free, or superhero-themed.
On the free stuff front, there are dozens of buttons, posters (including one celebrating the day President Obama leaves office), pens, steel water bottles, and other knick knacks people want more than need. The libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty gave out free “Stand with Rand” t-shirts to anyone who filled out a political philosophy form, with questions like “There should be no restrictions against law-abiding citizens owning firearms.” Each response (agree, maybe, and disagree) comes with a score, and the higher the score, the closer the attendee’s political philosophy is to Ronald Reagan.
All of which leads to some pressing questions: Why is there no equivalent of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee, in Britain? And are not British conservatives and big government sceptics greatly in need of one?
The good thing about having a non-aligned organisation or pressure group such as CPAC to carry the conservative banner is that it does not fall prey so easily to the personal ambitions and outsized egos of individual politicians or inter-party turf wars, and is in no way obliged to meekly tow the party line in the interests of short term political expediency. Delegates at CPAC are just as likely to trash talk the Republican Party as they are the Democrats, because at CPAC it is ideas and beliefs that matter, not party allegiance and the dirty business of compromise, so necessary to government but so fatal to formulating good policy.
(That’s not to say that all of the ideas discussed at CPAC are sensible, or all the speakers first-rate minds – far from it).
And if British conservatives – particularly those of a real pro-liberty, small government bent – know anything, it is that putting their hopes in any one party will only lead to disappointment and frustration.
David Cameron, despite facing off against the toxic Gordon Brown, was unable to win an outright majority in 2010 in no small part because under his leadership, the Conservative Party failed to make a positive case for smaller government, feeling instead that it had to apologise for every instance of spending restraint as though it were an unfortunate necessity brought about by the recession rather than the positively good phenomenon that it is. And even now, the Tories pursue often ineffectual reforms and fail to properly grapple with Britain’s budget deficit, while slashing spending on the few areas (such as Defence) which require more spending, not less.
Until recently, disaffected small-C conservatives could, as a last resort, turn to UKIP as a better defender and reflection of their core beliefs. But just as UKIP have started to make their transition from wasted protest vote to serious political force, so they too are now jettisoning their small-government ideological consistency in pursuit of the disaffected Labour vote. If you believe in a strong nation state, a balanced budget, low regulation, personal freedom and a serious national defence capability and feel let down by the Conservatives, why would you now turn to UKIP, who now seem to spend almost as much time wittering on about the sacred “our NHS” and protectionist nonsense as the Labour Party?
By contrast, the British left are far more organised. True, they also lack a unifying advocacy group and political action group, but they are bolstered by the trades union, new anti-austerity groups such as The People’s Assembly, the majority of the third sector and a whole host of single-issue pressure groups. They may not necessarily speak with one voice, and some of them may be drifting toward the resurgent Green Party, but by and large they form a widespread, public holding repository for left-wing ideas and principles which the British right cannot match.
That is not to say that the Right are without any answer at all. Last year’s excellent Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, organised by the Centre for Policy Studies, was an excellent example of prominent conservative voices from around Britain (and the world) coming together to talk about small government, personal freedom and the future of conservatism, all without the imprimatur of the Tory party.
And as this blog concluded at the time:
But despite the prevailing atmosphere of scepticism, the happy warriors at the 2014 Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty did something important in defence of the realm the likes of which we have not seen on such a scale since their not-so-ancient order was founded by Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974 – they came together and boldly, unapologetically proclaimed the principles of small government and individual empowerment that saved Britain once and can do so again.
By contrast, Ed Miliband addresses crowds of the Labour faithful (nobody else listens to him now) and – with a straight face – proclaims that his disproven, tired old formula of tax hikes and renationalisation represents “the new politics” that Britain so desperately needs, if only we realised.
Consequently, the 2015 general election could end up being a battle between two recycled political ideologies. And we will have a choice to make: Shall we choose the one that inevitably leads to the four-day working week, rolling blackouts, industrial unrest, punitive taxation, the brain drain, the politics of envy and ‘managed decline’, or the one that puts its trust in the people, liberating them to make Britain great again through their own efforts?
With the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, Thatcher’s peers, friends and successors made a surprisingly forceful show of strength on the side of freedom.
But events such as the CPS Margaret Thatcher Conference are too small, and too sporadic to make much of a difference on their own. For a start, the event was held at the Guildhall, a relatively small venue with limited capacity. Tickets were not made widely available to the paying public, as one would only expect from a think tank sponsored event, which meant that at times it did feel as though the right-leaning political elite were just talking amongst themselves.
More problematically, the event was held in central London, in the shadows of Westminster, when any event seeking to build conservative grassroots enthusiasm (or, controversially, to actually expand its appeal) should clearly be held in one of the great northern or Scottish cities.
None of this is to criticise the Centre for Policy Studies, who organised an energetic and thought-provoking conference that certainly set the stage for a future conservative revival. But the cause of British conservatism, on the back foot for so long since the heyday of Thatcherism and the decline of the Major years, cannot be advanced by one think tank alone. And Lord knows that it is not being advanced by the political party with the word “conservative” in its name.
As American conservatives gather in Maryland to show their political elites that they are a force to be reckoned with, the time has now come for Britain to have a CPAC of her own.