That the Conservative party believes as much in the strong state as it does in the free economy has long been both its triumph and its tragedy.
Triumph because the combination of the two has often proved electorally unbeatable. Think Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan in the 1950s, Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s, even Lord Salisbury in the 1890s.
Tragedy because, when tensions have arisen between the desire for unfettered trade and competition, on the one hand, and sovereign national government, on the other, the party tends to turn in on itself, losing office as a consequence. Think John Major in the 1990s, Edward Heath in the 1970s, Arthur Balfour, Andrew Bonar Law (and, for a while, Baldwin) in the Edwardian era, and, perhaps most famously, Robert Peel, whose decision to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 split his party so badly that it effectively found itself cast into opposition for decades.
Because the Tories have always cared as much for men as measures, their arguments over high principle take on an extra edge by being bound up with high politics. The really big splits in the Conservative party’s long history have always seen fights over an issue conflated with competition for the crown. Hardly, surprising, then, that Remain v Leave is also about Dave v Boris.
Benjamin Disraeli, for instance, was thinking about his own prospects as much as he was about the party’s policy when he threw in his lot with its powerful landed interests, who were outraged at what they saw as Peel’s betrayal of British agriculture. Half a century later, Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign for tariffs undoubtedly had as much to do with his ambition to lead the party as it did with his belief that Britain (and the Empire) would be best served by erecting barriers to free trade.
Fast forward to the early Seventies and it is obvious that many of those objecting to Heath taking Britain into Europe — most obviously Enoch Powell — were motivated, yes, by heartfelt objections to the loss of sovereignty that accession entailed, but also by often very personal animus against the prime minister.
In the 1990s, too, rows over Europe were also rows about leadership. In the run-up to the 1992 general election, John Major returned to a hero’s welcome after supposedly winning “game, set and match” in the negotiations over the Maastricht treaty. But when the UK’s ignominious post-election exit from the European exchange rate mechanism cost the Conservatives their opinion poll lead, as well as their long-held reputation for economic competence, things quickly began to look very different.
Suddenly, Tories who insisted that Thatcher had been stabbed in the back by a cabal of Europhile colleagues were no longer dismissed as embittered obsessives. Maastricht quickly came to be seen by a substantial minority of their fellow MPs as a humiliation rather than a high-point of British diplomacy. If they could not prevent the treaty’s ratification, then they would undermine Sir John and replace him with someone capable of getting the party back on Thatcherite track.
Even when that finally happened, however, in the wake of Labour’s 1997 landslide, arguments over the party’s direction inevitably got mixed up with an argument over who should be in charge: first, Michael Portillo or William Hague; then Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard; and finally David Davis or David Cameron?
It was Mr Cameron, of course, who got the nod in 2005, after a third general election defeat. But rather than disabusing his party of the notion that Brussels was the source of all Britain’s problems, or else allowing it to lead the charge against the EU, he (not uncharacteristically) fudged that decision. Even his eventual call for an in-out referendum following a renegotiation of the UK’s membership is just another example of his trying to have it both ways.
That the referendum now seems to be generating headlines about civil war in the party, however, cannot simply be blamed on Mr Cameron’s cowardice or, for that matter, on London mayor Boris Johnson’s semi-naked ambition.
The reason that things are as bad as they are, and may get worse before they get better, is because, unlike the Corn Laws and tariff reform, this country’s membership of the EU does not — at least in the eyes of Eurosceptics — represent a choice between the free economy and the strong state. Indeed, in their view, the very opposite applies: staying in Europe threatens both of the Conservative party’s core principles. Rather than boosting Britain’s potential as a free-trader, any pooling of sovereignty is seen by sceptics as undermining it, removing our right to cut regulation and the trade deals we need to survive in a globalised world.
The real problem for the Tories is that this analysis is essentially shared both by those in the party who want to remain in the EU and those who want to leave. As a result, the Conservatives are currently having the worst kind of argument anyone can have — an argument between friends. Moreover, they find themselves in the bizarre situation in which an apparently binary decision — in or out — stands virtually no chance of settling that argument. Even if we leave, the rows over our relationship with the EU will continue.
The only consolation in all this — for the Tories if not for the rest of us — is that there is zero risk, given the parlous state of the Labour party, that any of this will cost them, as it has before, their hold on Downing Street. For once, civil war is a luxury the Conservatives can easily afford.
Originally published at https://next.ft.com/content/6afad41c-dbe1-11e5-a72f-1e7744c66818