The Tory party is in crisis. This is mainly a result of UKIP’s attack on their right flank, bolstered by the party leadership’s unpopular stance on EU membership. However there is also something deeper going on here. It must be hard for the party members to get excited about being a Tory. The glamour of opposition has gone and the party has been tarnished by being in power. Their term had been characterised by lack-lustre economic growth and compromise with the Lib Dems. Drumming up passion from the membership must be difficult, who are looking at the sexy UKIP for a little excitement.
The crisis in enthusiasm stems from the party's make up. Like the Labour Party its membership has steadily decreased over the last 30 years. The average Tory Party member is in their mid 60s and comes from a more relaxed section of society. They are well off, retired, comfortable and desire little, expecting their way of life to be protected. They see their traditional lives as threatened by modernity and are angry about this but they do not have a grand vision of how society should be remodelled. This is because they do not need one. Society had provided for them nicely, however, it is hard to energise a political force around protecting their way of life.
It was not always like this. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Tory Party was known for dynamism and vision, they had Thatcherism, an idea that would change the whole nation. The Tory Party was seen as being on the side of business and innovation. Now they are seen as protecting vested interest and the young business person of today is not a Tory. If anything they are apolitical or libertarian. They want government out of the way completely. The final triumph of Thatcherism threatens to destroy the Tory party itself. The old members are inactive or dying off and young ones are not replacing them.
They need to do something to move the party’s image away from NIMBYs and social conservatives and towards the ethics of today’s young business people. After growing up under Blairism, these people are generally more socially liberal than the average Tory Party member but are also more in favour of the free-market. They see rural Tories’ opposition to high speed rail or wind farms as stifling the future of British business. The Tory Party needs to do something, and fracking appears to be their solution.
The government have thrown their weight behind fracking in a big way, claiming this is both the solution to our energy concerns and the economic stagnation that has gripped the country since they came to power. This idea has not been universally popular, and the government has inadvertently managed the difficult task of uniting wealthy, rural NIMBYs and green movement against them. Despite this, the government has claimed we could be the Saudi Arabia of fracking. From this I imagine Britain will become a country where a few extremely socially conservative rich people will possess unimaginable wealth and the rest of the population will be poor and live in a dry, lifeless wasteland – this is probably George Osborn’s vision of utopia.
The process of fracking has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the natural environment and if anything is clear, the world does not need more sources of green house gases. However, the biggest problem is that we currently have a lively debate about alternative energy solutions that has the potential to do some real good. Countries like Germany are already moving towards producing their entire energy requirements from renewable resources. Fracking only delays the problem of what to do when the gas runs out at the possible expense of this critical debate.
Still support for fracking solves some political problems for the Tories. Aside from the political problems it solves if fracking brings about an economic boom, it helps the party reclaim their mantel as the party of business. We have heard a lot of talk of how Britain can be a world leader again, in something over than CCTV cameras per square mile, while private companies make huge profits, driving growth and employment. This is the essence of what Conservatism used to be about.
Fracking also appeals to the elements of the Tory part that is frightened of modernity. This is big traditional heavy industry which voters like because they can understand what it does. This is not a social media start up with complex business plan that is difficult to understand and uses the word fermium a lot. This is also not a similarly complex financial industry, support for which is still tainted by popular dislike of bankers. This looks like government actually doing something. Even if doing something will create 30,000 gas towers across mainland Britain.
In fact the only people who seem to dislike this are the retired Conservative Party members whose garden view of a National Trust property is about to be spoiled by a pillar of smoke rising into the sky and whose house is about to experience increasing seismic activity.
This has exposed a division between Tories for whom Conservatism is about conserving, and the party’s Thatcherite members. It asks fundamental questions about what it means to be a Tory. One thing is certain, the Tory Party cannot go on mounting effective electoral campaigns with an increasingly ageing and inactive memberships. Something has to be done to bring new life into the party and attract young people. Also for the party to win an outright majority in a general election they need to become more dynamic and more appealing to young entrepreneurs.
Fracking may not be the solution to our energy problems, but it does help the Tories with their political problems. It focuses on business and aggravates the comfortable rural Tories whose vested interests the party is seen to protect. The government's support for fracking is not aimed at tackling the energy crisis or creating jobs, it is about marketing the Conservative Party to a new generation of business people.