Thirteen years ago when Steve and I met, we spent a lot of time explaining to each other our respective beliefs. Steve educated me about faith and Christianity. I hope I was able to explain and expand his knowledge of politics and Conservatism.
I recall him asking how someone as "moderate and sensible" as me could be so tolerant of people on the extremes of politics. By this he was referring to Enoch Powell, Tony Benn, David Nellist, Ian Mikardo, and the many other "bogeymen" who occupied the fringes. I explained that I believed these people played a vitally important role; their uncompromising positions extended the groundsheet of politics and ensured all those people whose views might be considered unpalatable to the majority where contained within the big tent. Their views may have been anathema to me, but it was better that those who held them were part of a wider political group where they were able to influence but never dominate.
One of my personal regrets about the "centrification" of mainstream parties is the almost radicalisation of the political fringe who have now left our big tent politics and are pitching their own. I see UKIP as a mirror image on the Right of what happened on the Left in the 1980s, with every liklihood of a similar outcomes. Despite a brief honeymoon the only real achievement of the SDP was to enable Mrs Thatcher to win a parliamentary majority of 144 seats with just 43% of the vote. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence that had they stayed with Labour and continue to fight for what they believed, the Labour Party would probably have recovered faster than it was able to do without their influence.
I have long believed there would be an inevitable realignment in British politics. The old labels of 'Left' and 'Right' being increasingly irrelevant. Under the old politics I would probably be considered "Right wing" and my views on a minimalist state, free markets, leaving the EU, privitisation of the public sector and private property would confirm that. However I am equally passionate about social equality, the disestablishment of the church, an elected second chamber, I am (still) a 'dove' on foreign policy and military intervention, I support open immigration and am perfectly content in a multi-cultural society. What's more, I suspect my own position is not too far from the mainstream view of most conservatives of my generation.
Like the majority of my peer group I wish the Party would take a tougher line on the EU; I would personally be much happier if the narrative around the post 2015 negotiations was a list of UK demands with a recommended 'no' vote if they were not met in full, rather than an ambiguous list of reforms with the PM hoping to campaign for a yes vote if they are acieved. However we are where we are, and if we want a vote on the EU, David Cameron and the Conservatives really are the only show in town. Even Douglas Carswell admits this.
What is so disturbing is the unavoidable reality that by defecting to UKIP Mr Carswell is making the possibility of a referendum less likely and the possibility of a Miliband-led Labour government more likely; just as the Social Democrats walking away from the internal struggle within the Labour Party paved the way for 18 years of Conservative government from 1979-1997.
I usually agree with Matthew Parris, but in this today's Times I believe he is wrong. He wrote that Douglas Carswell's defection (with perhaps more to follow) could pave the way for a realignment of the Right; with a Thatcherite/UKIP split leaving behind a Blairite/One Nation/LibDem core. He implied that Conservatives should welcome this. In my view this would be a disaster, installing a permanent dividing line through the Right and separating its heart from its head. Such a split would disenfranchise millions of voters like me who would find it impossible to choose between a form of continental-style Christian Democracy on one side and the reactionary certainties of UKIP and the Cornerstone Right on the other.
Where I do agree with Matthew Parris is I suspect many from the Better Off Out / UKIP are afraid of Cameron's 2017 referendum on the basis that it could be difficult to win, and that no referendum is better than a lost referendum.
This view only works if you believe that a 2015 GE defeat will result in a favourable realignment of the Right which will go on to win in 2020 and then fight (and win) a referendum with more hostile anti EU mood music. It falls flat on its face if the subsequent realignment ensures 20+ years of centre left government, by which time the EU institutions would have embedded themselves as firmly into our culture as the Public Sector ethos has into Scotland and much of the North, resulting in an almost unshakable political grip based on fear of change.
Never before has the unity of the centre right been more vital but less assured. It would be a tragedy if Mr Carswell and his friends not only paved the way for a Miliband government but made any future referendum almost impossible to win.