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20 June 2018updated 06 Aug 2021 5:33am

The crisis of conservatism

Theresa May aspired to be a transformative prime minister and understood the need for change, but her tragedy is that she has been unable to deliver it. Worse, the Tories are directionless and divided.

By Nick Timothy

Few prime ministers are fortunate enough to govern at a time so benign that they can pursue their own chosen agenda. David Cameron dreamed of building the Big Society, but found instead that the financial crash and austerity dominated his premiership. Believing in “the good that government can do”, Theresa May wanted to use the power of the state to make Britain “a country that works for everyone”. But destiny dictated that she would be the prime minister who delivers Brexit – assuming it is not derailed – and few domestic reforms.

Some conservatives say we should not be surprised by these thwarted hopes, because to hold them in the first place is futile. Life is not a journey of inevitable and inexorable progress, they say, and good government is not about the pursuit of utopia. All political leaders can hope to do is respond to events as best they can. “In political activity,” the philosopher Michael Oakeshott argued, “men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”

With characteristic pessimism, the Marquess of Salisbury went further. “The perils of change are so great,” he once wrote, and “the promise of the most hopeful theories is so often deceptive, that it is frequently the wiser part to uphold the existing state of things, if it can be done, even though, in point of argument, it should be utterly indefensible.”

Conservatism is, however, much more than a reaction against change. Of course, it is a disposition as well as a philosophy, and conservatives, Oakeshott said, “prefer the familiar to the unknown, 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, [and] present laughter to utopian bliss”.

But conservatism is a philosophy too, and, as Edmund Burke articulated, it is one that embraces progress. “A state without the means of some change,” he argued, “is without the means of its own conservation.”

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But what kind of change do conservatives believe in? How can the same philosophical tradition spawn the near-socialism of Harold Macmillan as well as the free market beliefs of Margaret Thatcher, the realism of Douglas Hurd and the neoconservatism of Michael Gove, the emphasis placed on society by David Cameron and the libertarian individualism of some Tory MPs, and the importance given to an active state by Theresa May?

To answer that question, we need to understand how modern philosophical conservatism originated as a response to liberalism. Conservative thinkers like Burke agreed with liberals about the importance of individual freedom, and they also believed that the proper authority for political power was popular sovereignty. They disagreed, however, about what comes first: order or liberty.

Liberal philosophy begins with an imagined “state of nature”, in which we live without any kind of government. Thomas Hobbes described life in the state of nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, and to escape it, humans agreed a “social contract” to form a government.

Liberal thinkers including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls took different views of what the contract says, but all agreed with the concept of the contract and that it must contain fundamental rights. This is what leads liberals to believe in the universality of rights, and what causes conservatives to criticise liberals for divorcing social and political organisation from its historical, cultural and institutional context.

The state of nature never existed, conservatives argue, and that means every member of every generation is born into families, societies and nations, as members of institutions and adherents to traditions. We are all born not only with rights, therefore, but with obligations.

This was more than a mere conceptual argument. Burke’s best articulation of conservative philosophy was written just as liberal principles were being ruthlessly and violently applied during the French Revolution. Government should be grounded not in abstract ideas, he argued, but in experience. Traditions and institutions should be defended, as they encourage trust, reciprocity and good behaviour. Community life and local civic organisations – the “little platoons” – help us to help one another. There is an important role for government, but a strong society protects the individual from an over-mighty state. Rights are not universal: citizens acquire them through gradual legal change.

This is, of course, no wholesale rejection of liberalism. Roger Scruton, the contemporary conservative thinker, says that “conservatism began life more as a hesitation within liberalism than as a doctrine and a philosophy in its own right”. Scruton calls conservatism “a qualification of liberal individualism”, and explains its paradox: “Conservatism is about freedom,” he says, “but it is also about the institutions and attitudes that shape the responsible citizen, and ensure that freedom is a benefit to us all. Conservatism is therefore also about the limits to freedom.”

If this characterisation of conservatism seems difficult to reconcile with the beliefs of some modern Conservatives, that is because it is. Those who believe conservatism is about the aggressive pursuit of greater individual freedom do not understand the conservative’s commitment to others. Those who believe that markets provide perfectly when left pure and untouched forget Adam Smith’s lesson that, while market economies generate wealth, they must be policed to protect us from those who would game or abuse the system.

Conservatives who do not strive to reduce the size of the state or extend individual freedoms, however, often find themselves dismissed these days as “not real conservatives”. But it is the ideological libertarians making this accusation who have the dubious conservative credentials. They are often followers of thinkers such as Ayn Rand, who despised conservatives and whose heroic character in her novel The Fountainhead (1943) declares: “I recognise no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom.” This libertarian school of thought is alien to the conservative tradition, yet it has done enormous damage to the reputation of conservatism in recent decades.

So conservatism is about far more than the pursuit of individual freedom. But this brings us to another challenge for modern conservatives. If liberals are wrong about the state of nature and the social contract that arose from it, and if conservatives are right that order is a necessary precondition for liberty, it must be possible for there to be other necessary preconditions for liberty – and indeed order – to be made real.

Surely, at a time of significant inequality, stagnant incomes for the majority and fears that technology is hollowing out the Western middle class, the absence of massive inequality might also be a necessary precondition for order and liberty? And if it is, should we not be prepared to accept some restrictions on individual freedom to ensure inequality does not prevent the meaningful pursuit of liberty for every citizen?

Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who resigned as Theresa May’s chief advisers after the 2017 general election


Sitting behind her desk in No 10 right now, Theresa May will no doubt regard these philosophical questions as somewhat academic. She became prime minister, almost two years ago, with a commitment to deliver on the result of the Brexit referendum, and a plan to act on the call for change that she believed lay behind the vote to leave the European Union.

Despite the euphoria that followed her successful leadership campaign, and the remarkably long honeymoon that lasted until midway through last year’s general election campaign, she always knew that trouble lay ahead. May inherited a tiny parliamentary majority, her party and cabinet were divided over how to deal with Brexit, and she had no mandate for the domestic reforms she believed she needed to undertake.

Change was frustratingly difficult to bring about. The Treasury opposed every effort to reform broken markets that were being used to rip off consumers; measures to restore the balance between capital and labour through workers’ rights and representation on company boards were watered down; and efforts to change fiscal policy to increase investment spending and take the pressure off public services were blocked. The domestic agenda never really got going.

It was partly because of this – and the growing realisation that MPs and peers would fight a relentless civil war against the government’s plans to deliver Brexit – that the Prime Minister took the fateful decision to call an early general election last summer. And we all know what came next.

In truth, the election was probably called too late, falling as it did a month after the local elections, and the campaign, lasting more than seven weeks, was too long. The campaign strategy was based on the flawed premise that voters wanted continuity, not change. Its execution – eschewing policy, failing to reassure swing voters of the party’s good intentions, and focusing remorselessly on Brexit – did not work. The manifesto I co-authored backfired when its social care policy proved unpopular. And Theresa May herself did not enjoy the exposure of what was a very personal campaign.

Despite everything, the Conservatives still won an extra two million votes compared with 2015 and secured their highest percentage share of the vote since Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1983. If anybody had told us before the election that we would win 42.4 per cent of the vote, we would have expected a landslide win. Because Jeremy Corbyn reached 40 per cent, however, the result was a hung parliament.

Instead of securing an electoral mandate for ambitious reform and a parliamentary majority to help her secure the right Brexit deal, the Prime Minister was left with neither. She finds herself sailing Michael Oakeshott’s boundless and bottomless sea, but the storms are gathering, there is a mutiny in her ranks, and while her ship remains afloat, it is only just on an even keel.

Brexit, of course, remains her biggest challenge. And the origins of her party’s divisions can be found in one of conservatism’s apparent contradictions. Many conservatives, “preferring the familiar to the unknown” and “the near to the distant”, worry deeply about Britain’s departure from the EU. They want to maintain the closest possible relationship with it, or stop Brexit altogether.

Other conservatives see Brexit not as Burke saw the French Revolution but as how he saw the American Revolution. The former involved the imposition of a government founded on abstract ideas, while the latter was a restoration and extension of legal rights that had developed over time. This is why Burke supported the revolution in America but opposed its counterpart in France. And it is why – to the confusion of those who see Brexit as a revolutionary change – many conservatives support Britain’s departure from the EU.

We will not know the final nature of Brexit for many months, or even years, but what we do know is what it is doing to our politics. The capacity of Whitehall and parliament is dominated by preparing for when we leave the EU. The absence of a parliamentary majority – which was in part caused by anti-Brexit voters withdrawing their support from the Conservatives in some parts of the country – means the government cannot legislate to deliver contested domestic changes. And even important moments – like the decision this week to increase NHS spending dramatically – get lost amid news of close Brexit votes in parliament and rows about whether or not we will save money when we leave the EU.


The government’s ability to deliver domestic reform is therefore severely curtailed. But the Conservatives’ problem is not caused by Brexit alone: it is caused as much by a lack of agreement about the party’s purpose.

It is always difficult for political parties to renew several years into government. If they are honest about problems that need fixing, the media and opposition ask why these things have not been fixed already. If they acknowledge past mistakes, their supporters criticise them for trashing their own record. If they change policies to suit the needs of the day, they are accused of U-turning. If they do any of these things quickly, without a longer conversation about the government’s direction, they encounter resistance within their party. If they take time to build a consensus, they are accused of dithering.

On the back benches, sacked former ministers and overlooked talents who never had their chance refuse to pull in the same direction. On the front bench, ministers jockey for position and line up their future leadership bids. Inside and outside parliament, the allies of former senior ministers guard their legacies jealously, and are quick to denounce perceived slights.

And there are particular difficulties for Conservative governments that try to renew in office. Whatever their hopes and expectations, Tory leaders more often than not find themselves elected to clear up an economic mess left by Labour governments that have spent too much. Their purpose is often, therefore, not social reform or progressive economic change, but an urgent rescue mission. Elected to take difficult economic decisions, they often find it hard to agree when they should ease up, allow spending to start to rise, and turn their attentions to other matters.

As one senior Conservative said to me recently, “Labour governments fall when they run out of money. Tory governments fall when they run out of purpose.” The warning signs are already there.

Listen to senior Conservatives, and their accounts of what the government needs to do differ enormously. Philip Hammond wants to keep squeezing spending; several ministers want to declare an end to austerity. Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, wants the state to be more interventionist in the economy; the Treasury disagrees. Theresa May remains hawkish on immigration controls; Sajid Javid at the Home Office wants to loosen them. On housing, social care and the future of education policy, there are not only significant policy clashes but disagreements in principle about the role of the state, whether the taxpayer or the user should fund certain services, and which social groups are in need of the most help. And this is quite separate from the party’s divisions brought about by Brexit.

We are not just talking about a list of specific fights about individual policy positions, however. The trouble is that there is little agreement among senior Conservatives even about  what the major challenges facing the country are, or about the intellectual framework the party should apply as it confronts the problems.

Should Conservatives simply take pride in Britain’s record levels of employment? Or should they worry that average wages are no higher now than they were a decade ago? Should they worry that the labour market means that for many people work is increasingly precarious and poorly paid? Or should they do as Liz Truss advises, and celebrate the gig economy without hesitation?

What do Conservatives think are the policy consequences of our ageing society? What does it mean for health and social care, for welfare and pensions policy, and for the future of taxation?

Do they recognise that Britain’s working-class communities are in crisis, with poor attainment in education, traditional employment in decline and cherished local institutions in decay? What do they plan to do about it?

What are the consequences of globalisation and China’s reintegration into the world economy? Does Britain need to slash costs to compete with the rising economies of the East, or is there is another way of maintaining our prosperity?

On these and many other questions, a survey of senior Conservatives would produce staggeringly different answers. The Labour Party is no more united of course, but that should be no consolation. A party of government cannot hope to govern coherently, or agree on individual policies, if it does not agree on what the challenges of our time are, or about the policy framework it ought to apply to address them. And the challenges of our time are great.

In 1995, the G7 countries enjoyed 45.3 per cent of global GDP. The E7, the seven largest emerging economies, shared 22.6 per cent. By 2015, the G7 share had already fallen to 31.5 per cent and the E7 share had risen to 36.3 per cent. By 2050, some forecast that the G7 share will fall to 20 per cent, and the E7 share will have reached almost 50 per cent.

Historically speaking, this is a case of the world going back to normal: 200 years ago, China and India shared almost half of the world’s GDP. And the shift from a Western-dominated to a multi-polar world is inevitable and desirable from the perspective of mankind as a whole. But the consequences of this change for Western workers are becoming clear, and the Western policy response has been inadequate.

Manufacturing jobs have moved eastward, and jobs in other sectors will follow. And this is squeezing Western workers hard. In the US, the living standard of the median household doubled between 1935 and 1960, and again between 1960 and 1985, but since 1985 there has been no improvement at all. America is not alone: while household income is multiplying in Asia, it is stagnating in Britain and across the West.

It does not seem that technology will help us. Usually, technological advances lead to productivity improvements, which in turn lead to improved wages. But the giant new tech companies are causing wealth to be concentrated among tiny elites.

As Edward Luce recorded in The Retreat of Western Liberalism, in 2006 Google bought YouTube for $1.65bn, or $25m for each of its 65 employees. In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for $1bn, or $77m per its 13 employees. In 2014, it bought WhatsApp for $19bn, or $345m for each of its 55 employees. Facebook’s data servers are now managed by a software program that requires one human technician for every 20,000 computers.

We are in danger of heading towards a “bar bell economy”, with lots of wealth concentrated at one end, lots of low-paid workers at the other end, and not very much in between. The consequences for social mobility, future economic growth, democracy and even law and order are profoundly worrying.

We are already starting to see the effects of these economic changes in the cultural crisis that is emerging across the West. The symptom that reveals the condition is the success of populist parties and politicians in countries from Italy to the United States, but a close examination shows very clearly what is happening.

In most Western countries, the working class is struggling, and so, increasingly, will the middle class. Educational attainment, especially among white working-class boys, is poor, traditional forms of employment are in decline, and opinion research consistently shows that people belonging to the majority ethnic group are profoundly pessimistic about the future. And this is understandable: many white, working-class communities in particular are in crisis.

Across Britain, important local institutions are decaying and dying. Many communities have lost the institutions – large employers, public services and community organisations – that once brought people together and in which they took pride.

Local government remains enfeebled and many communities have lost faith in their political leaders. Nor can many of these communities solve their problems alone: they lack the confidence, resources and social capital to do so.

But instead of responding to this problem by building a strong, shared, national identity, many politicians are now pursuing policies that would divide us further. While the campaigns they fight focus on increasingly niche forms of identity politics, those who feel ignored, disrespected or left behind are becoming increasingly angry and nihilistic.

Edmund Burke: a state without the means of change is without the means of its own conservation


The tragedy of Theresa May’s premiership is that she was quick to identify and articulate the need for far-reaching change but has been unable to deliver it. This causes her real anguish – she wanted to be much more than the Brexit Prime Minister and her passion for change was genuine, but she knows that the political reality makes it impossible. Some might say the blame lies with her for calling the election, but it is difficult to imagine that there would be greater political space had she continued with the majority of 12 she inherited. She might have played her hand differently, but with Brexit and the lack of agreement inside the Conservative Party about its future mission, change was always going to be difficult to bring about.

Looking ahead, however, whatever the future of the Conservative Party, whoever its next leader, and whenever the change in leadership comes, the party must be ready to deliver deep change.

None of the challenges we face will be easy to overcome, especially when conservatism is in crisis. No Western government has managed it yet. And the facts of British politics – the complexity of delivering Brexit, a hung parliament and deep division among Conservatives about what must be done – will remain the same for the foreseeable future.

Theresa May will take what steps she can, even as she struggles to maintain party unity. She wants to secure the long-term funding of the NHS, build more houses, and reform technical and higher education. These are laudable ambitions given the limited room for manoeuvre she has. But she should also allow the party to debate what must be done beyond Brexit and once her own leadership comes to an end.

In that debate, Conservative thinkers and politicians need to rediscover their philosophical roots – because the alternatives will not do. Libertarian policies will only exacerbate the economic and social divides we are experiencing. Identity politics and hyperliberalism – or “alt-liberalism” as the New Statesman’s John Gray calls it – will only pull us further apart. And it is difficult to imagine how hands-off economic liberalism will equip us to compete with government-backed enterprises from overseas or address regional inequality at home.

True philosophical conservatism teaches us to reflect a balance between individualism and social solidarity, between freedom and responsibility, and between capitalism and community. Conservatism should not be about selfish individualism or monetary reward, as its caricatures and critics suggest, but about our obligations to one another as members of the same community.

We need a clear and purposeful economic policy that helps us to become more productive and competitive to maintain and improve our prosperity. We need to make sure more people can share in the wealth we enjoy as a country. We need to do far more to restore the balance between labour and capital, and give ordinary people more control over the things that matter to them. We need to revive our local and national institutions, and create new ones. And we need to build a pluralistic and inclusive – but still identifiably British – identity to unite around.

Some of these solutions will be easier for many Conservatives to accept than others. But there is nothing inherently conservative about preferring the taxation of income and expenditure to the taxation of property. Nor is there anything conservative about letting employers ride roughshod over workers, or allowing companies to exploit failing markets to rip off consumers.

Changing times have always brought different challenges. And conservatives have always adopted new policies to meet those challenges. What Burke said about states is also true of political parties: those without the means of some change are without the means of their own conservation. Heed your philosopher, conservatives: it is time to change.

Nick Timothy was Theresa May’s chief of staff from 2016-17

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This article appears in the 20 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis