Why culture wars are breaking out in the Tory party

It’s been an interesting couple of days in the evolution of the Tory party.  Ahead of tomorrow’s House of Commons vote on equal marriage a group of Conservative party constituency chairmen hands in a petition at No 10 urging Cmaeron to delay the vote; while the Mail on Sunday carries an interview with Chris Grayling – a man who is no stranger to controversy about equality – arguing that it is right for parents to hit children. It comes as the culmination of a period when the Tory party appears to have been in real turmoil over equal marriage – it obviously strikes deep chord in that party’s collective psyche.

But why now, and why the fuss?  There are a number of reasons.  The Conservative Party remains overwhelmingly drawn from an older demographic; it simply doesn’t represent the diversity of British society as a whole.  There is ample evidence of the growing influence of the religious right in the Tory Party, with well-funded Christian groups struggling to ensure that what they doubtless regard as traditional Conservative values being upheld.

But I think it goes deeper than that.  First, the extent to which the Tories’ economic policies are failing is becoming increasingly difficult for party leaders to defend; as I have argued before, while the poor and vulnerable are in the front of the Tory firing line, traditional Tory supporters are being hit hard.  Soaring retail prices and continued poor returns on private pensions mean that these people – who were sold the idea that the private sector would provide them with a comfortable old age – are suffering a sort of cumulative pain.  For the third year in a row things are getting notably worse, and the appeal of that nice Nigel Farage is doubtless increasing.

Second, the unfairness of the Tories’ benefit cuts is beginning to hit home.  The so-called “bedroom tax” has become an increasing focus of discontent; its obvious unfairness has hit home, combined with the small saving in benefit costs (at £1.1 bn per year far smaller than the tax break for high earners resulting from the reduction in the top income tax rate, and in any event likely to be more than offset by the increase in housing benefit).  This government has been getting away for nearly three years with poorly-thought out, economically-illiterate, empirically unsupported policies that hit the vulnerable hardest; but there is an unfairness in the bedroom tax that seems to have caught the public mood.  We are now at the point at which the cumulative effect of those policies seems to be hitting home hardest, with a raft of damaging policies coming into effect in April.  There does feel to be a sense of a tide turning.

Faced with this, perhaps all there is left for the Tory party is culture wars; a combination of moral outrage and gilded nostalgia: a Downton Abbey world in which morals mattered and people knew their place, and in which a quick clip round the ear from the village bobby was all that was needed to bring youthful miscreants to recognise the error of their ways.  The potency of such images at a time of nostalgia and decline should not be underestimated;  perhaps, just perhaps, in the face of the collapse of Osbornomics it’s all the Tory Party has left.

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