The Tragedy of British Conservatism in the Modern Age

Photo: PBS

By Max Abdulgani – Regular Contributor

‘It seems as if the traditions Conservatives once stood for have diminished to mean almost nothing.’

Conservatism in Britain has been in decline for decades. In the traditional sense, the paternalism that was once central to the core of its ideology has effectively disintegrated. The true meaning of Conservatism, though conflicted, was best described by Michael Oakeshott at the time. ‘To prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.’ When we reflect upon what Conservatism once meant for its ideologues long ago, it is extraordinarily difficult to trace any kind of reasonable comparison to today’s Conservative Party. 

Today what we find in the Parliamentary party is a group of shameless adventurers and yes men cheering on the case for limitless populism and ensuring the absence of rationale-based reasoning. Never forget, every MP who voted for Boris Johnson to be leader is culpable for much of the damage this country has endured since he took over from Theresa May. For 2 decades he was a celebrity. We once knew him as that bumbling buffoonish chap on the Television who was there purely for entertainment purposes. Now he is Prime Minister. The worst possible leader at the worst possible time. Every single person who put him there knew him for what he was. A proven liar. The most unprincipled, narcissistic, entitled, incompetent fool in the entire political sphere. But none of that mattered for these people. Johnson, as well as being a proven liar, was also a proven winner. Despite his flaws, he had an emphatic ability to appeal to all kinds of people. In 2008, he won the London mayoral contest against all the odds. Upon electing Johnson in 2019, the Tories were banking on a winner and nothing else. A gamble that paid off but left the country with the least capable government in British history. For the Tories, though, Johnson hasn’t been their only strength.  

For the majority of the past decade, Brexit has been their trump card for winning elections. In 2015, they won a majority for the first time since 1992 and this was arguably primarily because David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership. In 2019, Johnson won precisely because of the Brexit charade and capitalised on growing discontent from the public using unethical but hugely effective campaigning methods. They have become a party that relies solely on issue voting as opposed to policy voting, a fundamentally unsustainable paradox and one which won’t last. The danger for the Conservatives is when fighting the next election, they will simply not have Brexit anymore, but instead a stripped-down, basic policy programme. Back to basics, as it were. It goes without saying also that there has been an irrevocable loss of trust in the government due to recent ongoing scandals such as ‘Partygate’. For Johnson at least, this will spell the end. For the Conservatives, only time will tell. But one thing is clear, and that is that any sense of principles that the Conservatives may have once had has disappeared. It was replaced long ago with the relentless thrust for power no matter the cost. 

The issue is not necessarily whether the Conservatives are too right-wing or left-wing anymore. It is the extreme extent to which they will go to secure public opinion using any means necessary. Let us not forget, after all, that the Conservative Party is the most successful in the world when it comes to winning elections. People often ask the difference between the Conservative and Labour perspective on electoralism and it is this. The Labour Party is fundamentally a cause. Achieving true social and economic justice for the left is and always has been central to this cause, regardless of public opinion. It is a mighty struggle and each time Labour has entered power it has tried its hardest to achieve the most it can within the existing system. Whilst the cause is admirable, some of the figures who religiously follow it have created significant and enduring difficulties for Labour. Not least the self-imposed dilemma of principles versus power. For 120 years of its existence as a party, it has only been in power for 30 of them. A truly revealing statistic. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have a mission as opposed to a cause. That mission is to govern, whatever the cost. And we’ve all seen the cost of 12 years of Tory government. The highest taxes in 70 years; the highest inflation rate since 2011; a 1.5% rise in National Insurance rates; 6.3 million people expected to be unable to pay their energy bills; a cut to Universal Credit plunging 800,000 people into poverty; the highest NHS waiting lists since records began; a 12% loss of trade due to Brexit; an entrenched culture of corruption and sleaze. Not only have they lost their natural policy habitat, but they’ve also lost all sense of humility too. 

Standards in government have plummeted and the Nolan principles of public life; selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership are completely ignored on a regular basis. It seems as if the traditions Conservatives once stood for have diminished to mean almost nothing. A party with an appetite to destroy national institutions as opposed to protecting and treasuring them is not Conservative. A party that is more focused on wrecking livelihoods as opposed to improving them is not Conservative. A party that sets out to deliberately cause irreversible damage to the UK economy in favour of a political project of the elitists invention is not Conservative. Where will it end? How far will this party of sycophantic charlatans go before they realise what they’re doing to the country? 

This pattern of decline in traditional Conservative principles is not unique to Britain, it crosses borders too. As we’ve seen with the rise of Trump, a self-professed ‘Conservative’, the fact this spread has been indulged by even the leader of the free world shows just how infectious it has become. Since the 1980s, political parties of Conservative origin have drifted from being the ultimate defenders of the status quo to being rapid reformers. On public services, for example, we saw the damage Thatcherism did. This was neo-liberalism on steroids, not the sort of moderation one would expect from a party that once prided itself on a balanced state and private sector. To say unhinged economic liberalism has always been part of Conservative principles is simply untrue. The Post-War Keynesianism consisting of a balance between economic freedom and social democracy lasted for more than three decades in Western countries including Britain and set a new precedent which was to determine the future. The Conservative Party abandoned this when they embraced full-blown neo-liberalism under Thatcher and began the process of marketisation and the shrinking of the state. The effects of this even now are stark and have caused a level of inequality that can only be described as morally reprehensible. But one thing can be said for Thatcher, and that is that despite her ruthlessness and destruction of communities, she knew exactly what she was doing and how to go about doing it. Compassion was utterly absent from that government, but competence wasn’t. This is entirely different to the situation today, in which we have a party with no plan for the future and one which banks on short-term winners over long-term governance. 

The Conservative legacy of Boris Johnson is dire. His leadership from day 1 transformed the Conservatives into a party of wreckers and destroyers whose most fervent ambitions are including but not limited to defunding the BBC, deporting immigrants and the suppression of voting rights. It has a platform of Sado-Populist persuasions, basing its entire ideology on undermining democracy. Sado-Populism is a new phenomenon, and one that has these notable characteristics. Firstly, playing the culture war game. Stoking up divisions and painting legitimate social progression as ‘wokeness’. This helps pitch ordinary people against the best interests of minority groups, something that is both shameful and wrong. Secondly, using Brexit to hark back to a non-existent golden age of opportunity. Try to observe one difference between the slogans- ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control’. There are essentially none. Thirdly, using oppressive policies to manufacture an ‘us and them’ complex. This primarily involves using immigration as a scapegoat for poverty and inequality in Britain.  

Whilst Johnson’s future as Prime Minister looks set to end, it’s another question as to whether this global spread of populism will end with it. In this article, I have given a damning indictment on his leadership and the tactics he and his team used to get into power. But Johnson is not the root cause, instead, he is a symptom of a wider phenomenon. If the state of our politics does not change, the system will continue to produce politicians like him in the future. And the public will continue to be conned by them. We simply can’t allow this to happen and if the Conservatives have any decency left in them, they should abandon their sinking ship and reform their party’s mindset. I fear if not, that true democracy in Britain will be gone for good.

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