The important lesson of the local elections is not that the party is losing appeal for marginal groups and floating voters – to whom it never appeals for long in any case. The important lesson is that the party has jeopardised the allegiance of its core constituents, those who willingly describe themselves as conservatives, and live according to the unspoken norms of a shared way of life.
Such people are not all middle class, not all prosperous, not all brought up to think that economics is the only thing that matters. When politicians address them with questions such as "How do we repair the economy?", "How do we reform our educational system?", "How do we ensure a fair deal for pensioners?", there is one word in all such questions that stands out for them, and that word is "we". Who are we, what holds us together, and how do we stay together so as to bear our burdens as a community? For conservatism is about national identity. It is only in the context of a first-person plural that the questions – economic questions included – make sense, or open themselves to democratic argument.
Such was the idea that Edmund Burke tried to spell out 200 years ago. Burke was a great writer, a profound thinker and a high-ranking political practitioner, with a keen sense both of the damage done by the wrong ideas, and the real need for the right ones. Political wisdom, Burke argued, is not contained in a single head. It does not reside in the plans and schemes of the political class, and can never be reduced to a system. It resides in the social organism as a whole, in the myriad small compromises, in the local negotiations and trusts, through which people adjust to the presence of their neighbours and co-operate in safeguarding what they share. People must be free to associate, to form "little platoons", to dispose of their labour, their property and their affections, according to their own desires and needs.
But no freedom is absolute, and all must be qualified for the common good. Until subject to a rule of law, freedom is merely "the dust and powder of individuality". But a rule of law requires a shared allegiance, by which people entrust their collective destiny to sovereign institutions that can speak and decide in their name. This shared allegiance is not, as Rousseau and others argued, a contract among the living. It is a partnership between the living, the unborn and the dead – a continuous trust that no generation can pillage for its own advantage.
It is with a great sigh of relief that I read those ideas, delicately expounded by Jesse Norman in his recent biography of Edmund Burke. For Norman is a rising star in parliament, and inspires the hope that the Tory party might be waking up to the need for a believable philosophy if it is not to lose its real following.
Our situation today mirrors that faced by Burke. Now, as then, abstract ideas and utopian schemes threaten to displace practical wisdom from the political process. Instead of the common law of England we have the abstract idea of human rights, slapped upon us by European courts whose judges care nothing for our unique social fabric. Instead of our inherited freedoms we have laws forbidding "hate speech" and discrimination that can be used to control what we say and what we do in ever more intrusive ways. The primary institutions of civil society – marriage and the family – have no clear endorsement from our new political class. Most importantly, our parliament has, without consulting the people, handed over sovereignty to Europe, thereby losing control of our borders and our collective assets, the welfare state included.
In its attempt to address the economic legacy of Labour's spendthrift policies and the widespread abuse of the welfare system the party has the full support of its traditional constituency. Nevertheless, it seems unaware that in the hearts of conservative voters, social continuity and national identity take precedence over all other issues. Only now, when wave after wave of immigrants seek the benefit of our hard-won assets and freedoms, do the people fully grasp what loss of sovereignty means. And still the party hesitates to reverse the policies that brought us to this pass, while the old guard of Europeanists defend those policies in economic terms, seemingly unaware that the question is not about economics at all.
In other matters, too, it is not the economic cost that concerns the conservative voter but the nation and our attachment to it. Not understanding this, the government has embarked on a politically disastrous environmental programme. For two centuries the English countryside has been an icon of national identity and the loved reminder of our island home. Yet the government is bent on littering the hills with wind turbines and the valleys with high speed railways. Conservative voters tend to believe that the "climate change" agenda has been foisted upon us by an unaccountable lobby of politicised intellectuals. But the government has yet to agree with them, and meanwhile is prepared to sacrifice the landscape if that helps to keep the lobbyists quiet.
Conservatives believe, with Burke, that the family is the core institution whereby societies reproduce themselves and pass moral knowledge to the young. The party has made a few passing nods in this direction, but its only coherent policy – sprung on the electorate without forewarning – is the introduction of gay marriage. Sure, there are arguments for and against this move. But for the ordinary voter the family is a place in which children are produced, socialised and protected. That is what the party should be saying, but does not say, since it is prepared to sacrifice the loyalty of its core constituents to the demands of a lobby that is unlikely to vote for it.
Many readers of the Guardian will not worry that the Tories are alienating their core voters. But they will be interested by Jesse Norman's take on Burke, since it shows exactly how, and by what kind of thinking, those voters might be reclaimed. And with Norman's recent appointment to the policy advisory board of the party, the opposition will have to take his thinking seriously.