How great are the divisions within the Tory party? There’s a split on this. Andrew Pierce says Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation is the culmination of a personal feud, but Rachel Sylvester in the Times says it embodies an old divide among Tories between free market liberals and patricians who want to protect traditions and the worst off.
I suspect, though, that this division reflects four other dividing lines in the party.
One is liberty vs authority. Glen Newey points to the paradox that the Conservative state is “ever lustier in its pursuit of a supposedly shrinking remit”. The desire to cut the share of state spending in GDP coexists with Theresa May’s extension of the surveillance state, and the party that gave us gay marriage also gives us a ban on legal highs.
This paradox reflects competing impulses. On the one hand, there’s a love of (negative) freedom. But on the other, as George Lakoff says, Conservatives have a mental model of a strict father – an idea that authority should be strong. At its worst, this conflict can yield pure hypocrisy: freedom for the right people but repression for the wrong ones.
I suspect that one under-rated reason why Tories support austerity is that they instinctively feel that big borrowing undermines the state’s authority and capacity: just as a strict and disciplined father doesn’t get into debt, nor should the state.
Note too that the belief in authority isn’t confined to the state: it also explains conservatives’ love of traditional families, and their support for bosses: one of Thatcher’s principles was the assertion of management’s “right to manage.”
A third split is between one nationists, who profess a desire to help the poor, and those who stress the power of incentives. The introduction of a living wage, top tax cuts and harsher regime for benefit recipients might look incoherent to ideological purists. But it’s a rough compromise between competing tendencies.
Fourthly, there’s a split between optimists and pessimists. As David Willetts said in Modern Conservatism, there has always been a melancholy tendency in conservatism. As Oakeshott wrote (pdf), change is regarded as loss. But on the other hand, there are those who are more optimistic. Such optimism can arise either from faith in free markets, or in the power of that strict father.
In the 70s, this split manifested itself as between those who believed in “managed decline” and an accommodation to strong trades unions, and more optimistic Thatcherites who thought unions could be weakened and the country turned around. We see echoes of that today in the Brexit debate: optimists think Brexit will create a dynamic free trading nation; pessimists fear they’re wrong and that it better to try and cope with the Brussels bureaucracy. Turning schools into academies represents a triumph of the optimists – a belief that different management can transform schools for the better, and a rejection of traditional forms of control.
These splits can co-exist in the same person. For example, when he was Education Secretary Michael Gove was sometimes a libertarian optimist supporting free schools and sometimes the strict father wanting to dictate how to teach.
You might think that in saying all this, I’m sneering at the Tories as being a divided rabble. Not so. All reasonable people experience conflicts between values. Skilled politicians are capable of managing these well. The Tories’ problem is not that the divisions exist, but that they are being ill-managed.