Perfidious Albion and the demise of Conservatism
Scottish Review, September 16th 2020
It has not been a good week for the UK’s reputation – domestically or internationally. Boris Johnson’s shameless government of chameleons and charlatans showed their true colours by declaring their intentions to run a horse and cart through international law.
To make matters worse this was not on some arcane or ancient piece of legislation but rather the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the UK and EU in November last year and which provided the basis of the emphatic Tory election victory in December. All of that was less than one year ago. But the deal that Boris Johnson negotiated and approved of then, that he ridiculously termed ‘oven-ready’, is now presented as something terrible that the UK was forced into by events and those perfidious, scheming officials who make up the EU.
This is yet another watershed moment in the moral decline of the UK: another sad staging point in a country which used to pride itself on keeping its word, maintaining the rule of law and international co-operation, and which played a pivotal role in the creation of the European Convention on Human Rights from which this despicable government is planning to walk out. This would put the UK in the company of Europe’s last dictatorship: Belarus – a country much in the news of late for outrageous repression of its own citizens.
The descent into the populist gutter of the Tory Party, and of conservative thinking, is a key factor behind this, and Boris Johnson and his self-serving, entitlement politics is only one of several reasons. Another is the rightward lurch of conservative and right-wing thinking over the past four decades, to the extent that now many questionable and morally unethical actions by government are permissible in the eyes of the Tories. Take one. In the midst of this pandemic, for all the rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’, there is not one single legal route for asylum seekers to enter the UK – forcing many desperate people to seek to enter illegally and dangerously across the English Channel, typically exploited by people-smugglers and traffickers.
The neverending search for an undiluted Brexit
This rightward lurch has been pushed into the stratosphere by the Eurosceptic cause and its championing by a small band of English nationalist obsessives such as Bill Cash, Peter Bone and Andrew Bridgen who have made their fanaticism into a mainstream issue and shaped the Brexit argument. The extent of this is still not fully understood by those of the progressive persuasion who have been forced again and again to react defensively to the incessant beat of the Brexit drum.
The UK voted two to one to remain in the EEC in 1975. Labour then campaigned for withdrawal in 1983, and suffered its lowest vote share since 1918. The issue of the UK’s membership was now put to bed and, marking this, Labour made peace with Europe and embraced continental co-operation. Things began to shift with Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech of 1988 – which gave major impetus to the Tory Eurosceptic argument – but Thatcher at this point was only calling for a halt to economic and monetary union; not questioning UK membership.
Yet the Eurosceptic genie was now out the bottle on the right. After John Major won the 1992 election the Maastricht Treaty and the vote of the Danes to reject the treaty gave permission to a small band of Tory rebels to terrorise Major’s government from within. These were the Tory ‘bastards’ but still they kept their Euroscepticism in check and called not for UK withdrawal, but for a host of opt-outs from greater European integration.
One major catalyst in Euroscepticism becoming synonymous with Brexit was the rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP who pushed the issue of withdrawal onto the political agenda and terrified Tory MPs. David Cameron, one of several villains in this story, felt so worried by the rise of UKIP and his own Tory backbenchers that in January 2013 he committed to renegotiating the UK’s terms of membership and putting those terms to an In/Out referendum which led to the June 2016 referendum vote to leave.
The Brexit vote was won against constant assurances that it was all going to be plain sailing. We were told that a EU trade deal would be ‘the easiest in human history’ (Liam Fox) and ‘you can be sure there will be a deal’ (David Davis) because the UK exported more than we imported from the EU, and would allegedly have the upper hand. But from 2016 the rhetoric began to emerge that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. This inexorable logic led to a more dramatic, pure Brexit that broke as many links between the UK and EU as possible, prioritised an absolutist version of sovereignty and ‘Take Back Control’, and which no one debated and voted for in 2016. All this also drew from the deep well of British exceptionalism which puts the UK at the centre of everything and looks down on our European neighbours and friends.
The Brexit debacle has been characterised by a right-wing ratchet that started with moderate, reasonable demands for the UK to stand apart from EU integration, led to calls for withdrawal and then hard separation. This has drawn from a deep well of English political tradition which is an inflexible, indivisible concept of sovereignty that has been seen at critical junctures in UK history, such as the loss of the American colonies in 1775-76 and Ireland in 1921. Long thought dead, this impractical sovereignty re-emerged as a strand in Thatcherism and has come back with a vengeance in Brexit.
All of this has led to a situation where the main tenets of Conservatism – the rule of law, responsible government and standing up for the rights of the individual – have come to be seen as expedient by senior Tories when it gets in the way of their dogmas. Take former Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. He has long waxed lyrically on how Britain and ‘the Anglosphere’ of English-speaking democracies created the modern world in books such as ‘How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters’. You might then think than Hannan who prides himself on his independent thinking would condemn last week’s announcement on the UK Government breaking the law, but no! Hannan as an ardent Brexiteer threw his principles away stating that: ‘It is hard to see how any territory can gain self-government without violating the previous legal order’ and tried to claim that the GB-NI consequences of the Withdrawal agreement were ‘a clear violation of Article VI of the 1801 Act of Union’.
This is about more than Johnson, Cummings and Brexit
The moral collapse of a coherent Conservatism is serious and a threat to what passes for democracy. It is a crisis which has deeper roots and a more serious sense of decay than the emergence of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister (or the role of his sidekick Dominic Cummings). It raises questions for the long-term direction of the Tory Party and Conservative thinking – torn asunder from the restraining principles of traditional centre-right values and now open to opportunistic, debased, amoral political action.
Toryism has happily embraced the political ground it used to accuse its opponents, and in particular socialists, of inhabiting. A Tory Party with very few active grass roots members, little electoral support in large parts of the UK, shaped by finance capitalism, foreign money and the influence of dark money, is not going to embrace a mainstream politics of concern to most voters. Instead aided by corporate capture and the fervent ideological attacks of secretively funded right-wing think-tanks, the Conservatives have increasingly moved to unapologetically reinforcing even celebrating a bitterly divided, unequal society.
This trajectory in Toryism has been hugely aided by Johnson and Brexit, but these are magnifiers rather than the causes, and more importantly where will this degradation and trashing of long-term Conservative principles and traditions take the party?
One other strand of Toryism being humiliated is the Tories as the party of unionism. A poll last week by YouGov showed that Tory voters were sanguine about the break-up of Britain: only 48% would be upset by Scotland leaving the union, 49% Northern Ireland and 59% Wales. This is the culmination of an abrasive Tory interpretation of the union which has become increasingly insensitive to its different political traditions and spaces.
Toryism once had a nuanced, organic concept of the union – which at points in the 1940s and 1950s even railed against Labour socialist centralisation and posed the Tories as the defenders of Scottish autonomy and distinctiveness. Toryism at this stage was at the height of its popularity in Scotland – not just winning over half the vote in Scotland in 1955 but three elections in a row in the popular vote.
Toryism was even comfortable invoking Scottish nationalism and seeing it as compatible with a generous, confident unionism that was a defender of Scotland’s proud lineage. It may seem implausible now but Bannockburn, Bruce, even the Declaration of Arbroath, were all celebrated within the unionist tradition; as this history allowed Scotland as a nation to become part of the union of 1707. Nowadays what is left of unionism regards Scottish nationalism as equating support for independence: a disastrous position for the union.
Scottish Toryism is now not only against Scottish self-government, but current party leader Douglas Ross recently indicated that he would support the internal market bill which proposes the UK break international law and lays the groundwork for a No Deal Brexit saying: ‘The UK internal market bill is essential to protect the 545,000 jobs in Scotland that rely on UK trade, and ensure the unrestricted movement of goods across the country.’ In the week since the publication of the bill Ruth Davidson wrote that ‘In these troubled times, it’s so good to be kind’ in a Mail on Sunday column, but remained silent on the rule of law.
Scottish Toryism’s self-destruction leaves the defence of the union perilously exposed – with the weak state of Scottish Labour and near-irrelevance of the Lib Dems. The undermining of the union has been long predicted by some of the more perceptive, principled senior Tories, with former Tory Cabinet minister Ian Gilmour writing in 1992 about the ultimate consequences of the pursuit of Euroscepticism: ‘Thus, if they had their way, Scotland would become a Belgium to England’s Holland, though with Scotland in the EC and England out of it. That surely would be the ultimate in ‘little Englandism’’.
This then is the state of the Conservative and Unionist Party in 2020 and right-wing thinking. These are the people who will take us on a bumpy ride over the next few years that, due to COVID19, coincides with economic and social upheaval, mass unemployment, widespread poverty and hardship, falling living standards, public debt ballooning, and thousands of businesses going to the wall. The tactical agility that UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has shown in the first months of the pandemic will increasingly meet opposition from Tory and right-wing circles who do not believe in the power of government and public agency to do good.
Added to all this what passes for British politics no longer exists except in name, theatre – and formally in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall. That means that Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, have to look at making their own arrangements and governance and standing up for principles that most of us thought were non-negotiable: the rule of law, international agreements and a constitutionalism which respects checks and balances.
A Conservative Party no longer bound by such traditions is a threat to all of us and to the UK’s reputation and continued existence. The Tories have become the party of an unapologetic, unreflective English nationalism which is stuck in a caricatured past in its references, idea of sovereignty, and how it sees Britain in an international setting. A British politics without a Conservative Party which supports the rule of law and international agreement is a dangerous precedent for our politics: we are in uncharted waters and the storms have only just begun.