You must have noticed. The Conservative Party just doesn’t seem like itself any more. Gone is the cautious pragmatism that once characerised it. The unifying principle of ‘one nation conservatism’ has been flushed away in favour of an unashamedly confrontational mode, whether in the guise of ‘a hostile environment’ or ‘people versus parliament’ posturing. The Economist sees all this as part of a global phenomenon, but the British line in this worldwide spectrum has its own peculiar historical threads, some of which I will attempt to unravel here.
A Little Bit of History
It began in 1066 when the rich pickings of brigandage were distributed to the new Owners. But what use was ownership without control? So in 1215 the Owners began the project of emasculating the monarchy. It took centuries to complete but eventually the job was done, and, with the increasing financialisation of the UK economy, the way was clear for the once-iconic descendants of all those rich pickings to be sold off: ICI, Cadbury, Jaguar, Aston Martin, HP Sauce, Bentley, Weetabix, Rolls Royce, Sarsons Vinegar, Rowntree Mackintosh, a host of merchant banks, financial institutions and grouse moors – the list is endless and ever-growing. So much of the UK is now foreign-owned, and so much British wealth is invested abroad, that the Conservative party, the party of the Owners, has little further raison d’être. A few little issues remain to be resolved (Brexit neatly takes care of the EU’s drive to end tax evasion via offshoring wealth, and land reform continues to move at a glacial pace), but the Tories have lost all political meaning and their membership declines accordingly, restricted now to the dregs of a fantasist, nostalgia-ridden rump of xenophobes for whom Dad’s Army is the foundation myth of national pride – more on this to follow.
Thus, the Owners have departed from control of the Conservative Party because they no longer need it. Hence, the Tories are deprived even of unenlightened self-interest as a guiding principle. One nation conservatism is a prime casualty of this departure, there only to be resuscitated (in name, at least) at election time when there are votes to be won.
Two Little Coups
In the 1950s and 1960s there were two eccentric and inconsequential splinter movements from the Conservative Party, marginalized by their unwillingness to participate in the post-war settlement.
The Ratepayers Associations were a Balkanised series of local groups, dedicated to the minimisation of local taxation. They opposed social expenditure at the local level and fought to create a situation where redistribution of income away from home-owners through local service provision would be eliminated. It could be argued that they represented a state of mind as much as anything else: a ‘why should I pay for you?’ attitude that was deeply suspicious of any kind of collective action. Despite their lack of national organisation, they achieved a coup when Margaret Thatcher became Conservative leader in 1975. Thatcher’s notorious ‘there is no such thing as society’ mantra aligned perfectly with the old Ratepayers Association mindset. Thatcher’s success as leader and subsequent iconic status within the party has brought about a seemingly permanent shift in Conservative thinking: a shrinking of the state; a regressive, low direct tax preference; an inexorable downward pressure on those aspects of welfare expenditure where this would not be political suicide.
The League of Empire Loyalists were a movement of a different stripe. Never a political party as such, they saw themselves as a ‘ginger group’ seeking to influence Conservative thinking. They were motivated by an atavistic desire to return to the imposition of the will of the British on ‘lesser peoples’. The problem with the first, Ratepayers Association, coup was that it betrayed the atavistic impulses of the Empire Loyalists – boatloads of ‘lesser peoples’ arrived to clean out the toilets and perform other menial tasks in the nationalized industries, mainly to keep wages down and satisfy the tax-minimizing tendencies of the Ratepayers Association mentality. This proved so ‘successful’ that it evolved into an incomes policy all of its own via the EU’s freedom of movement principle: less highly visible (i.e. white) workers arrived from Poland, Romania, the Baltic states etc.. This went on below the radar for a number of years until Nigel Farage spotted his opportunity and built a whole new political party based on anti-immigration Empire Loyalist delusions. The second coup was complete when UKIP’s ideas were integrated into Conservative thinking by those who sought to leave the EU, and then after the 2016 referendum by those, like May, who had become afraid of opposing this new power base.
The League of Empire Loyalists was wound up in 1967 and was absorbed into the new National Front. This marked a significant bifurcation. Those for whom neo-fascism was distasteful reverted to the Conservative party where they formed a basis for constituency membership support for opposition first to the EC and later to the EU.
These coups, running in parallel with the increasing irrelevance of political control noted above, Have left the Conservative party in the hands of a coterie of unscrupulous ideologues and political opportunists, supported and enabled by a shrinking membership dominated by older male members of a Colonel Blimpish disposition. A recent YouGov survey reveals a party that is unrecognizable compared to that of a few decades ago: commitment to Brexit trumps commitment to maintaining the Union, and it trumps the well-being of the British economy. In this alone one can see the Little England preferences of the Empire Loyalists writ large. Furthermore, the diminished influence of the Owners (based as it was on power and continuity) can be seen in the fact that Brexit even trumps the survival of the party.
Where does that leave the Conservative party, and what might be its future? It is difficult to see anything other than a split, one that would take a long time to repair. Former chancellor Ken Clarke has already warned that he will not vote for ‘crazy right-wing nationalist’ Tories and one imagines that his example will be followed by other moderates. It may be possible, for a while at least, to paper over such cracks with a populist electoral agenda, and while Labour is led by a bogeyman in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn it might be possible to avoid disaster at the polls. But these are temporary respites from a deeper ideological split: on the one hand we have a party that is deserting pragmatic centrists like Clarke, on the other we have a faction that is prepared to wreck the Union and the party in its pursuit of a xenophobic, Dad’s Army vision of Little England.
With a leader committed to healing these rifts there might be an opportunity to restore order, but the present incumbent conspicuously lacks the kind of integrity best suited to such a task. The dogs of war are well and truly loose in the old Tory hinterland, and they seem set to devour the party and then each other in their destructive rampage.