From Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May, British conservatism advocated the small state. It pursued a relationship with the European Union that was disruptive but strategically engaged. Its social programme consisted of whatever social mobility the market could deliver, plus charitable works. Its defence priority was Nato’s eastern flank. Its ties to Ulster unionism were existential.
Today, just 28 months after May’s resignation, the Tory party stands for none of the above. Public spending is higher as a percentage of GDP than at any time since the 1950s. Having committed to a hard, strategic break with Europe, the UK is about to enter a trade war with it.
The Conservatives’ social programme decrees that entire communities must be “levelled up” through arbitrary and nepotistic spending grants. Defence priorities are focused everywhere except Europe. And Northern Ireland is – notwithstanding the coming invocation of Article 16 – en route to economic union with the Republic.
To understand what’s happened to the Tories we have to abandon our assumptions about what the party is. When it has flipped before, from protectionism to free trade in the 1840s, towards imperialism in the 1890s, to the Keynesian welfare state under Harold Macmillan, or to monetarism under Margaret Thatcher, these changes were essentially reactions to modal changes in capitalism.
The “change to conserve” principle laid down by Edmund Burke presumed that what was being conserved were the interests of a ruling class and nation state. Conservatism represented a broad alliance between British money old and new, between the rich and the deferential poor, and between the officer class who went over the top first at Ypres and the congregations of the country churches where their memorials stood.
Today is different. The changes capitalism demanded after the 2008 meltdown were entirely containable within the pre-Johnson Tory party: an activist central bank, an expanded debt pile, the willingness to sporadically nationalise some railway companies. The Johnson revolution is not a traditional Tory adaptation to organic change.
Instead of seeing the Tory party, and its mutating ideologies, as the political representative of a wider ruling class, we need to face a horrible truth: it has become a ruling caste in itself. Only that explains its behaviour in the past two months.
It whipped MPs to vote to allow water companies to dump sewage in the rivers and seas. Then it flipped and ordered a revote. It voted to exonerate Owen Paterson over an “egregious” breach of rules designed to prevent bribery. And then it flipped again, forcing him out of the Commons.
Now, multiple conflicts of interest are being exposed. Iain Duncan Smith gets paid by a hand sanitiser company and as head of a government task force has recommended rule changes that would benefit that firm. Geoffrey Cox is “working from home” in the Virgin Islands, defending its tax evasion regime against the British state for a million pounds.
Boris Johnson himself, having declined to disclose details of who paid for his refurbished Downing Street flat, now flagrantly exploits loopholes to avoid revealing how much a party donor spent on the PM’s recent holiday. Fifteen former party treasurers have been made unelected lawmakers in the Lords, while countless boorish clots from the bottom of the Conservative barrel are handed control of major cultural institutions.
The Conservative Party has become a machine for making Conservative MPs rich, and for gifting specific businesses contracts to receive, largely without competition, the enormous amounts of state expenditure the party is accustomed to nodding through.
This development should not surprise us because it is happening to entrenched ruling parties elsewhere. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party has more or less fused with the Turkish state; were it to be ousted in the next election it would feel like an evisceration, not a change of government. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party has likewise entrenched itself throughout Hungary’s media and judiciary, creating a corrupt, oligarchic capitalism in its own image. And across 18 American states, Republican administrations have used the post-Trump instability to pass voter suppression laws designed to make their control permanent.
At one level these developments represent a factional split within national business elites – with a corporate, globally-focused wing of managers and investors prepared to defend globalisation and a rules-based international order, while a more insular faction, based around family fortunes and private capital, retreats to a beggar-thy-neighbour strategy.
But in the UK, with its service-oriented corporate culture, the transformation of the Tories into a mercurial, rule-breaking and culturally transgressive political force finds very little organic support across the wider ruling class. This is not being done in the name of British capitalism – it is being done for the self-enrichment of a grasping clique.
For the opposition parties, the task of fighting this new kind of elite politics has proved difficult because they’re not prepared to face up to what it is. They still scratch their heads and ask how a “conservative” can do what Johnson is doing to Britain’s status in the world, to its institutions, to propriety and the rule of law?
This is the wrong question. The best way to understand Tory ideology and behaviour today is the metaphor of a quantum in physics. The German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg solved the problem of the observed instability of matter at the subatomic level by replacing numbers with tables: the electron, as it jumps from one orbit to another, will always be somewhere, but he realised it’s pointless trying to pinpoint its exact location or trajectory.
Today’s British conservatism will always be wherever it needs to be to stay in power. If it’s supporting net-zero carbon today, but ranting against it in the Daily Mail tomorrow – or borrowing and spending billions extra in the Budget while delivering a frowning homily about austerity – that’s not inconsistency: it’s just doing what’s needed to hold together a coalition of self-enriching politicians and their electoral dupes. This is what you do so that Boris can go on papering his home with gold-flecked wallpaper, and so that Rishi can go on slumming it in £95 slip-on sandals, and Geoffrey can continue to sip sundowners on Tortola.
[see also: What is the Geoffrey Cox scandal all about?]
Instead of trying to fit post-Brexit conservatism into a political category, we should simply allow that it will leap from one project to the next – levelling up, net zero carbon, HS2, Serco Test and Trace – regardless of what the textbooks say conservatives believe.
To end this state of affairs, we have to follow a brutal logic. If the Tory party is now a machine for keeping a few entitled people at the end of a conveyor belt of taxpayers’ money and corporate bribes, the opposition must become a machine for removing it from power.
Currently, the opposition is fragmented into parties that, in their own quaint and deluded way, still believe that politics is there to represent a set of general interests broadly aligned with the political philosophies of liberalism, conservatism, nationalism and social democracy. The result is that no other party but Johnson’s Conservatives can shape-shift at will; no other party can show such flagrant disregard for the truth, law and principles of natural justice. Likewise, no other party could command even the temporary allegiance of the billionaire media, unless it too signed up to the project of self-enrichment and greed.
Faced with that conundrum, both in Ankara and Budapest, oppositions have gone to extreme lengths to unite behind moderate conservative democrats. I don’t suggest we need to go that far in Britain – but we need to do more: more talking between parties, more strategising, more confidence-building, more alliance-building at the grass-roots.