The death of British conservatism as we have known it

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 11th 2019

British conservatism has been one of the most successful political philosophies and political parties the world has ever known.

As we speak it is engaged in the latter stages of its thirty year civil war on Europe, which has convulsed the party, bringing it to a state of near self-destruction, abandoning its traditional tenets and debasing constitutional norms that for most of its history have been its raison d’etre.

Whatever happens on Brexit in the next few months and years, much will have long term and irreversible consequences not just for the Tories, but for the rest of us. Michael Heseltine, former deputy Prime Minister, said this week: ‘We are literally fighting for the soul of the Conservative Party’ – which is true, but the reality is actually much more serious than that.

British conservatism used to stand for, or more accurately, claimed it stood for, parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, being pro-business, the integrity of the UK, and protecting and projecting Britain’s geo-political interests globally. This is how it has presented and understood itself although what it has actually done and stood for has long been more complex.

Each of the above tenets have been weakened in Tory circles, resulting in a further diminishing of what has traditionally been understood as Toryism. A vote that was about ‘taking back control’ has seen Tory ministers talk about ignoring parliamentary votes and suspending Parliament. Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader, showed his contempt for Parliament, saying last week: ‘The government has the right to demand that we do not hand over power to Parliament to tie the Prime Minister’s hands.’

Worse than this the current government has even publicly contemplated ignoring a parliamentary act which has gone through all its processes and gained Royal Assent. Senior Tories have been at least floating ways of evading the instructions of the just passed Hilary Benn act which aims to avoid a No Deal Brexit on October 31st, which is treading into dangerous constitutional waters. The judgement of the Court of Session in Edinburgh that the reasons for Boris Johnson’s suspension of the UK Parliament was ‘unlawful’ and involved misleading the Queen, would in the past have dismayed any conservative constitutionalists and may have further consequences.

Nearly as profoundly, the Tory pretence of being pro-business has in recent decades meant slavishly advancing the self-interest of finance capitalism and the City of London. This has increasingly overshadowed and crowded out the rest of the real, productive economy, becoming more disconnected from genuine investment and enterprise decisions, holding back UK economic growth, prosperity and social justice. Yet, in the midst of the Brexit tumult, the Tory veneer of being pro-business has completely broken down, with Boris Johnson, before he became PM, talking of concerns over a No Deal Brexit, responding ‘I say fuck fuck business’.

Tories, unionism and the UK

Then there is the supposed integrity of the UK, for this is still notionally, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Yet, the slow attrition of unionism has been a long time coming, magnified but not originally caused by Brexit. This is a party presiding over nearly three years of a suspended Stormont, contemplating the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, and the dilution of the Good Friday Agreement and peace process, to remain in office. This is a unionism which has been incapable of respecting and understanding Northern Irish (56%) and Scottish (62%) majority support for remaining in the EU, which an adept, more subtle Tory unionism would have worked with.

Finally, all of this is a body blow to the British triumphalism of ‘punching above our weight’ which has been the post-1945 mindset of UK Prime Ministers, running from Churchill to Macmillan to Tony Blair.

William Waldegrave, a minster under Thatcher and John Major, has just penned a major critique of this worldview: ‘Three Circles into One: Brexit Britain: How did we get here and what happens next?’ In it he argues that the self-delusion of Britain’s elites about our international standing and influence, the seat at the UN, the pretence of the ‘independent’ nuclear weapons, the belief that we are still a ‘bridge’ between the US and Europe, is an out of date illusion. ‘Why can’t we be a middle-ranking, proud country?’ asks Waldegrave, continuing, ‘I think we can live inside or outside Europe perfectly well. We’ve got to decide which one we want to do.’ Brexit has brought this to boiling point: the dominant Tory die-hard perspective centred on a version of the UK unsustainable economically and diplomatically.

Adding to all this Brexit has become a catalyst for political dogmatism, ideological purity and an absolutist interpretation of sovereignty last seen when the British authorities ‘lost’ the American colonies in 1775-76 and Ireland in 1921-22. Over the last three years of Brexit obsession, what has started in many places as a thoughtful, measured argument and version of leaving the EU has become something intransigent and refusing any compromise on the way to a No Deal Brexit.

Brexit of course isn’t just about Brexit in how we arrived at this sorry state of affairs. Instead, it links into long running Tory and national concerns which go much deeper than Brexit, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, and even Nigel Farage and his populist opportunism. It even goes further than the experience of Thatcherism and command and control ‘spin’ and manipulation by New Labour. It goes back to the nature of the British state and serial failure of the British political classes across the entire post-war era to reform, modernise and democratise not just politics, but economy and society.

What comes next for conservatism and Britain?

What comes after modern conservatism as we have known it, and how will it affect the Tories and our wider politics? Toryism as it has been traditionally understood looks to be on its last legs and in irreversible decline. Related to this the all-British unionist dimension of Toryism has collapsed, with an English right-wing nationalism taking its place.

A party which once championed the uniqueness and intricacies of the British constitution has now become a party prepared to tear up conventions, consider over-riding parliamentary votes and decisions, and even trashing the rule of law.

Of course, in many respects Conservative constitutionalism has often been nothing but a smoke screen for Toryism and its pursuit of naked power and its socio-economic and class interests. Tories have played fast and loose with the constitution before when it suited them. Bonar Law as Tory leader in the Irish home rule crisis of 1911-14 invoked the spectre of a ‘civil war’, while future Tory Chancellor F.E. Smith suggested that Liberal ministers should be ‘swinging from the lamp posts of London’. That previous crisis was only diminished by the advent of the First World War, but the point remains that Tory constitutional vandalism has arisen before when their self-interests and power base have been previously threatened.

The trajectory this presents for the UK, for Scotland, England and the union, has been clear for several decades. Ian Gilmour, a senior Cabinet minister in the Thatcher government, wrote in the aftermath of the 1992 Tory victory in ‘Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcherism’, of the congruence between those Tories who were Eurosceptics and those who opposed Scottish self-government, posing an inflexible UK union. Gilmour did not think this would end well for the Tories or the union:

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’.

The forces of British conservatism were once one of the defining stories of what Britain stood for and what it was meant to be. This was a ruling class account of power and privilege, but also successfully included and incorporated middle class and working class interests, providing at times prosperity, progress and even greater social rights.

This version of British conservatism and the Tory Party is dead. There is next to no chance in the foreseeable future post-Boris Johnson and post-Brexit of it rejuvenating and renewing itself in a form which is recognisable with the past.

A much more reactionary, populist, xenophobic, nasty and opportunist right-wing politics is already defining much of Tory and English politics. The only real uncertainty in the next few years is whether this political mindset inhabits and colonises the Tory Party making into something different from how it has traditionally been, or whether it destroys the Tory Party and finds a new form in a Farage-like right-wing vehicle. And this poses huge strategic questions for Scotland and Northern Ireland, about the long term nature and character of the union we live in which will be difficult for many people.