Conservatives should listen to grassroots, but warily
Activists of any party (democratic or otherwise) can be the most committed, smartest and most helpful of allies. But among them there are also blinkered dogmatists and a fair smattering of narcissists who harm the cause they claim to support
In Eric Hoffer's 1951 classic -- The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements -- there is a section on the character of the political fanatic.
In that section, Hoffer argues: "The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure... [He] cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or his moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause."
Hoffer was born (1902) long before either of the great wars of the 20th century, and wrote as the Western world was still struggling to comprehend the terrible totalitarian systems of the Nazis and the Soviets.
His book has stood the test of time, not just as a work of political history, but as a brilliant piece of erudition on political-psychology that can be applied today, even in our supposedly enlightened and democratic times. (He would have had a field day with the European Union, and its most fanatical supporters.)
Hoffer's lessons can, with care, also be applied to activists in, or rather surrounding, our political parties in Britain (and America).
It used to be the case that the British Labour Party had persistent problems with its activists. Every Labour leader, with the possible exception of Michael Foot, has been called a "traitor" by the activist core. It is probably no coincidence that Foot, loved for his ideological commitment, was therefore the disastrous electoral failure he turned out to be.
Labour leader Ed Miliband doesn't have such problems. His party is shot through with social populism, and where the old ideology persists it is projected through the neo-totalitarian prejudices of political correctness at home and abroad -- important issues to small but vocal groups; but not ones that will do much harm to his party's electoral chances.
Nowadays, it's the Conservatives that have the problem. You can barely read an article in the Right-leaning media without seeing the evidence. Talk to some of the Tory "Westminster Village" crowd and it's a case of barely disguised contempt -- or contempt that is not disguised at all.
The Tory "grassroots" just don't like David Cameron; whether because of gay marriage; alleged weakness on the European Union; or because of too many compromises with the Liberal Democrats.
The last complaint is the most deluded. In breaking news to the self-appointed guardians of the "grassroots" British Right, the Conservatives failed to win the last election. They needed a coalition partner.
The only available option was the Left-of-centre Liberal Democrats. That meant compromise, the adoption of some policies Prime Minister Cameron would never have adopted had he actually won, and the absence of others he may have enacted if victory had been secured.
As the polls show, coalition government is probably a serious prospect for several elections to come. So, if it's purity the activists want, they should go for proportional representation (PR), split the Tories into two or three parties (UKIP would be one of those three to all intents and purposes), and fight for as much ideological purity in their electorally 5-10 percent party as they want.
Still, they'd have to compromise if they wanted to get into government. The problem would thus remain unsolved.
But the activists I have in mind hate PR too. To repeat those words from Hoffer, "The fanatic... cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason...".
Don't get me wrong, I disagree with much of what the Conservative-led government is doing. I'm a full-on, free-market, pro-flat tax, socially libertarian, anti-EU, pro-democracy, hawkish internationalist.
And in referring to these "activists" and "groupings" -- whom I have not named since there are too many to do so and I'm uninterested in singling out any particular person or group -- I'm not even saying their politics are all wrong.
It's just that they have missed the point that Keith Joseph, political-ideological mentor to Margaret Thatcher, and many around him understood so well. You have to have a clear set of principles, but you also have to win the battle of ideas to translate them into political reality. And you must look credible (a quality that is inextricably linked to my next point).
It can be done, and there's only one way to do it. You have to fight and win that battle of ideas; and, frankly get rid of or ignore some of the amateurs and poseurs who shout with loud voices from activist groups (some connected to The Conservative Party; others not) that most voters have never even heard of and wouldn't like very much if they knew of the way some of them behave.
I'm not quite talking about cleaning house. There are many good people and groups surrounding the Conservative Party. But there should be enough smart right-wingers in Britain and beyond to advise the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party as a whole on who should be given the time of day and who should be pushed out into the wilderness, where they belong.
It is perhaps even more important that the good think tanks, media outlets, analysts and journalists are given special access in a kind of outer circle advisory group where workable policies for the British right can be thrashed out in a serious atmosphere.
Of course, one set of ideas would triumph over another. I'd like it to be the set of ideas I agree with, as you probably would too with yours. But some sort of compromise is always needed to make government work. (Do you think Margaret Thatcher was a slave to ideological purity? She made compromises every day of her premiership. And she wasn't in a coalition with liberal-Leftists.)
My suggestion is not to dismiss or ignore the grass roots and the activists. But to pick and choose the good ones and back away from the rest. There may need to be new think tanks and activist groupings; and/or new leadership for those that exist. Some should be closed down.
We're still at the stage of the debate about the debate on this one, but Conservatives do not have long to get it right.
For the Conservative Party, 2014 should be a year in which the over-personalised assault on David Cameron should be put aside in favour of a serious re-working of ideas. As things stand, the British Right, almost literally, does not know what to think, and it far too often defers to the BBC-Guardian agenda which defines the liberal-Left establishment.
In the end, if Cameron isn't up to it, he'll have to go. But, as they say, the time finds the man. And it is up to serious people interested in a serious re-working of Conservative ideas to create the times in which such a man or woman may be found.
Who knows? If that can be accomplished, the grassroots may find that David Cameron responds more positively than his Conservative critics currently believe possible.
But as the entirely unconstructive tittle tattle from the fringes continues unabated, let me close with another pearl of wisdom from Eric Hoffer on the fanatics who can both help but destroy a great cause, noble or otherwise. Some Conservative activists and writers who devoted 2013 to an extended, self-indulgent whinge may want to reflect.
"[For the fanatic] To live without an ardent dedication is to be adrift and abandoned. He sees in tolerance a sign of weakness, frivolity and ignorance. He hungers for the deep assurance which comes with total surrender -- with the wholehearted clinging to a creed and a cause. What matters is not the contents of the cause but the total dedication and the communion with a congregation."
And that is the problem with some, not all, of these much talked about grassroots activists who spend far more energy attacking their own party and its leader than generating new ideas that could change the face of British politics.
They think it's all about them. And it's not.
Robin Shepherd is the owner and founder of The Commentator. He has worked in the think tank world in the United States, Britain and central and eastern Europe for more than a decade following a career in international journalism
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