Still Conservatives?

For those of us who experienced the revival of Britain during the Thatcher years, the dismal plight of the British Conservative party under a series of post-Thatcher leaders has been startling and increasingly dismaying.

Short-lived Tory leaders have been intent on ditching the classical liberal principles that Thatcher and her inner coterie foisted on the party – principles that gave the Tories their finest years of the 20th century and ones that pulled Britain out of decades of economic failure. David Cameron, the current no-doubt short-lived leader, has been as determined as his recent predecessors to distance himself and the party from the Iron Lady and all that she stood for – from low, or at least lower, taxation, to expanding individual choice and on to a healthy skepticism of government.

Now at last one Tory grandee has had enough of the retreat from Thatcher principles. The former Thatcher cabinet member, Michael Ancram unveiled this week an alternative manifesto [pdf], entitled “Still a Conservative,” to the Cameron agenda, one that calls for a return to the core values that won four successive elections for the Conservatives. He warns that the British public perceives that the party lacks “an overall sense of vision and direction.” And he argues that the party should support lower taxes, leaving people with more of their own money to make their own decisions. By contrast, Cameron wants to match the Labour government’s public spending and has turned his back on lower taxes.

And there is much else in Ancram’s manifesto that would please libertarians and classical liberals, especially his call for the regulatory state to be turned back and his advocating of widening the areas of life left to individual choice rather than government diktat. There are things, though, in the manifesto that are unappealing – from his over-defined Euro-skepticism to his rejection of treating gay civil partnerships equally with marriage when it comes to benefits and taxes. He says there are other long-term relationships outside marriage which should be welcomed for their commitment, but “for Conservatives there can be no fudging the issue of marriage.”

It is a great pity that he overdoes the Euro-skepticism and is prepared to treat gays unequally – for at heart Ancram’s alternative manifesto places classical liberal principles front and center.

And how has Cameron and his supporters responded? Not much of a welcome: they have told him to hold his tongue. A party spokesman said: “This is just a blast from the past. Just as Britain has changed, the Conservative Party has to change along with it.” And a former cabinet colleague of Ancram’s, Michael Portillo, said: “I was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher but to invoke Thatcherism now, a phenomenon which is 25 years old, just makes the Tory party look old-fashioned and, of course, divided.”

Well, apparently that isn’t the viewpoint of Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who like his predecessor, Tony Blair, realizes that Thatcher is still a name to conjure by. This week he spoke of his admiration for the Iron Lady. “I think Lady Thatcher saw the need for change,” he told a press conference. “Whatever disagreements you have with her about certain policies – there was a large amount of unemployment at the time which perhaps could have been dealt with – we have got to understand that she saw the need for change.”