Old Party

The Party Not to Be

Charles Moore has a profound essay in the Telegraph today on the decline of the British party system and (especially) the Conservative party. The essay is inspired by the startling Conservative loss in the Eastleigh by-election, but its implications extended deeper and wider - and have some useful application to U.S. politics as well.


In the 1950 and 1951 elections, a young woman called Margaret Roberts was the Conservative candidate in Dartford. It was a Labour seat with a 20,000 majority, but by the time Miss Roberts had left to go and marry a Dartford businessman called Denis Thatcher, she had increased the membership of the constituency Conservative association to 3,160.

I don’t suppose the safest Tory seat in the country has such a membership today. Certainly in the constituency in Sussex where we live, almost the truest-blue in the country, the association has, after its recent anti-gay-marriage resignations, only 666 members left. The story of Labour decline is not dissimilar. …

It is a terrible organisational problem, and votes, without organisation, trickle away. But it is worse: it is a profound cultural problem. The people who joined the future Mrs Thatcher’s Dartford association were not, for the most part, what would now be called political “wonks”. They were young, often hoping to marry one another. They tended to come from the aspiring lower middle class – secretaries in banks, local builders, family businesses.

They disliked Labour because they saw it as the party of restrictions and trade unions. Much more important than whether they agreed with the Tories on actual policies was the fact that they regarded them as their natural home. Out of this close identification between the party and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people with strong local ties grew – in a way that the Liberals’ extreme localism has never quite achieved – a mighty national presence.

It was culturally, financially, morally, socially strong. That made it politically strong too. When Mrs Thatcher spoke about “our people”, she was doing two things at the same time – sticking up for her tribe and identifying the most dynamic force in the future of the nation.

Young. Aspiring. Dynamic. That's what a living center-right party looks like. But where do we see a party to which that description still applies?