The decline and fall of British Conservatism

The Conservative Party may still live on, but its pragmatic defence of authority, tradition and autonomy are dead.

Neil Davenport

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This week, UK prime minister David Cameron faced the biggest challenge to his leadership of the Conservative Party: the proposal for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. In the end, 81 Tory MPs defied a three-line whip by supporting the proposal, while others abstained in Monday night’s House of Commons vote. Pressure had been mounting on the Prime Minister as critics attacked his handling of backbenchers and his decision to have a confrontation with them over Europe. One rebel went so far as to describe it as a ‘monumental failure’.

The Commons motion was easily defeated, thanks to the votes of those Tories who observed the party whip plus Labour and Lib Dem MPs. But the large majority at Westminster against a referendum seems to be at odds with public opinion. A recent poll found that 70 per cent of people wanted to see a referendum on Britain’s EU membership – and 49 per cent would vote to withdraw from the EU, compared to only 40 per cent who would choose to stay in. Conservative voters were shown to be more eurosceptic than others, with 56 per cent saying they would vote to leave the EU. Among all voters, over a third said they would ‘definitely’ leave the EU if given the choice.

Of course, the Conservative Party has long been torn between its ideological commitment to British national sovereignty and the pragmatic needs of the UK’s economy. Eurosceptic former prime minister Margaret Thatcher lost both the UK premiership and the leadership of the Conservative Party in part because she failed to soft-pedal her eurosceptic rhetoric. The needs of UK plc won out in the end.

Cameron himself has displayed schizophrenic tendencies towards the EU, saying there should have been a popular vote on previous EU treaties; ‘it was wrong we didn’t have referendums on Maastricht and on Lisbon’, he repeated in the Commons this week. But while this internal feud has festered within the Conservative Party for over 30 years, there’s something new about why Conservatives across Britain have attached so much importance to opposing the EU.

In many ways, the EU has become a focus for a wider sense of political disorientation felt by an older generation of Conservatives. There’s an instinctive sense that, while the Conservatives are (just about) back in office, the wider political climate is no longer hospitable to conservative ideas and values. If only Britain could pull out of the EU, the thinking goes, then maybe we could see a return to conservative values dominating Britain. In truth, it would be far better to question whether Conservatism as a set of beliefs and values, rather than the Conservative Party as an organisation, will survive the twenty-first century.

Conservatism is, above all else, a belief in defending the existing social order achieved through a promotion of tradition, authority, paternalism and the organic society that attempted to legitimise existing arrangements. The organic society, the belief that society has evolved through the natural relationships between men and women, was core to conservative values, which is why conservatives were historically hostile to both feminism and gay rights. Support for the free market also has a place within Conservatism, but it’s a qualified support even from supposedly staunch free-marketeers in the past such as Thatcher and the New Right. What they liked about the free market was its connection with private property ownership and the way it provided discipline, order and personal responsibility in wider society. Nevertheless when the free market undermined existing social structures, traditional values and authority, conservatives could be equally hostile to the dynamic, disruptive drive of the free market – as many were during the 1960s (though this opposition had its roots in the failure of the market in the 1930s).

It’s also wrong to see Conservatism as a rigid and dogmatic belief system obsessed only with the past. A key source of Conservatism’s success was always knowing when to change pragmatically in order to conserve existing power structures in society. Whether it was the postwar compromise or Harold Macmillan’s proposal that multiculturalism replace imperial values in 1950, conservatives have often been skilful in knowing when to ditch out-of-date ideas. This was one of the reasons why the Conservative Party was once the most successful political party anywhere within the Western world. While many on the Left, from the Labour Party to Trotskyist organisations, tended to live forever in the shadow of 1945 even as late as the 1980s, conservatives were sensitive to genuine changes in society and seized the moment accordingly. So why does this normally flexible-but-firm belief system have so many difficulties today?

The first problem Conservatism faced is that, through the demise of working-class oppositional movements, its historical role as defenders of the status quo had become utterly redundant. As a major consequence, it also meant that the ideas by which it justified conserving the status quo – such as the family, deference, authority, holding the line, support for British nationalism – have all become empty and redundant, too. As an essentially reactive ideology, by the 1990s there was very little for Conservatism to react against and, in the process, define what it was for. The sheer exhaustion and meaninglessness of its former historic role, and the ideology that justified that, created an urgent need for new sources of morality and authority to be established throughout wider society. This is why the concepts of anti-elitist inclusion, non-judgementalism and therapeutic protection have dominated politics for the past 15 years. The demise of Conservatism has led to the complete re-organisation of the British state around ideas once associated with the cultural left.

Whereas conservative values once set the agenda that the Labour Party had to follow, particularly on race and nation, now it is conservatives who have to prove that they are reconstructed enough to be part of New Britain. A belief in the organic society, deference and authority has been replaced by the managerial society, inclusion and relativism. The old insistence on traditional family values has given way to support for civil partnerships and gay couples adopting. A Thatcherite championing of the free market, prosperity and growth has been replaced by green restraint, austerity and measuring ‘happiness’ rather than GDP. A quick glance at Cameron’s awkward ‘social conservatism’ suggests it’s not very conservative at all.

Nevertheless, the demise of Conservatism is not the euphoric victory for progressive politics that it should be. Conservatives had something in common with anyone seeking to dramatically change society – an understanding of the importance of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of citizens through a wider ideological struggle. Conservatives recognised that politics and society are more effectively run through shared agreements, or at least seeking to strive for shared agreements, based on autonomous individuals. As a consequence, they often understood that it’s counter-productive, or at least ineffective, to run society based on passing petty laws, restricting autonomy and cranking up regulations (although admittedly the last years of the Thatcher and Major governments were heading in that direction). So although Conservatives would insist that their moral codes were the ones that were universal and absolute, most of the time they attempted to convince us of this view through words rather enforcing such ideas through regulations. The same cannot be said for the new breed of managerial politician today.

Of course, when it came to defending narrow class interests – as we’ve seen recently with the Tory shires over preserving Green Belt land – its backward attitude towards women and gay rights, its promotion of race and empire values, we should be saying ‘good riddance’ to such reactionary and oppressive ideas. Unfortunately, in the absence of a progressive alternative to current government policy, the defeat of Conservatism has ripped apart a political culture built on informal relationships and autonomous individuals. Ideas like informality, going on your instincts and a rejection of instrumentalism were key planks of Conservatism and, by default, British and Western society. Conservatives often believed in being pragmatic rather than instrumental about running society as they understood you have to be responsive to new problems and dilemmas that no end goal can account for.

In this sense, conservatives’ understanding of the relationship between the individual and society – based on consent rather than coercion – is far more nuanced and historically progressive than the policy of recent UK governments – to hack away at areas of life that were once rightly seen as private or informal, replacing personal choice with state regulation. The demise of Conservatism, unfortunately, has meant the demise of politics and the opportunity to act as political citizens, too. The withdrawal of Britain from the EU will not, as many old conservatives tend to believe, lead to a revival of Conservatism or of civil society. The problem goes much deeper than that.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He is chairing the debate Can Conservatism survive the twenty-first century? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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