New Times,
New Thinking.

The conservative paradox

The Tories face electoral oblivion, having failed to grasp that voters look to government for a shield against insecurity. Is a recovery now even possible?

By John Gray

Margaret Thatcher put in an appearance at the Conservative Philosophy Group only twice – once as prime minister – but she asserted her view of conservatism in unequivocal terms. “We must have an ideology,” she is reported to have declared. “The other side have got one. We must have one as well.” The sceptical thinker and group member Michael Oakeshott took a different view. For him, conservatism was not so much a body of ideas as a disposition “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible…” When someone at one of the meetings I attended asked whether Thatcher was a true conservative, Oakeshott giggled.

Founded in the mid-Seventies by the Conservative MP Hugh Fraser, the philosopher Roger Scruton and the Cambridge scholar John Casey, the group hosted many notable speakers, including FA Hayek, Richard Nixon, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, before petering out in the early years of John Major’s leadership. Throughout this time, the intellectual energy in politics was on the right. Aside from outliers such as Martin Jacques and Stuart Hall in Marxism Today, the left treated “Thatcherism” – a term coined in that magazine – as an atavistic aberration, when in fact it was the emerging ideology of an era of capitalist renewal.

Forty years on, Thatcherism has become an aberration in a deglobalising world. As an economic system it meant non-interventionism in industry and free trade, orthodoxies that make little sense when deindustrialisation has undermined the West’s capacity to defend itself and trade has been weaponised in geopolitical struggles. Yet the intellectual energy is still on the right.

Importing the toxins of American identity politics, the left has abandoned any serious concern with the failings of liberal capitalism. Beneath Keir Starmer’s win-at-any-price pragmatism there is an inert immobilism: his highest political ambition is administering the prevailing regime. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has recognised some of the problems of globalisation and talks well of “securonomics”. But she is hemmed in by her fiscal caution, and by her party’s commitment to a net zero agenda whose exorbitant costs – including the loss of thousands of skilled jobs in the Tata steel plant at Port Talbot in Wales and hundreds more at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland – will fall hardest on working people.

Both the progressive left and the establishment right are clinging to an unsustainable status quo: the ossified husk of Thatcher’s free market joined with cheap labour supplied by mass immigration, lightly varnished with expensive green paint.

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New thinking is found in small but increasingly influential groups such as the New Conservatives. Led by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, they comprise a group of MPs, many from Red Wall constituencies, who reject the dominant Tory brand of free markets, mass immigration and hyper-liberalism in social policy. Rightly, these Tories believe there is an inherent contradiction between the anarchic dynamism of market forces and social cohesion. State spending increased under Tony Blair; Boris Johnson was fond of big-spending projects. The economic model remained market liberalism, the endpoint of which has proved to be pervasive anomie and the loss of a common way of life. But post-liberal conservatism has contradictions of its own. Voters look to government as a shield against insecurity. That does not mean there is a popular yearning for a lost world of seamless community.

There is a solid British majority that demands lower levels of immigration, rejects a society composed of self-enclosed ethnic and sectarian groups, and opposes incursions on the liberty and equality of women and gay people that have been imposed in the name of transgender rights. It does so because it values liberal freedoms. The family is a vital part of a stable society, discouraged by a tax system that scarcely recognises the institution. But, outside of some religious communities, there is no constituency in the wider country for curtailing divorce, abortion, same-sex marriage or the option of changing one’s gender.

The majority that resists living in a country of ethno-cultural enclaves is not motivated by racist fantasies of integral nationhood. It wants to preserve the freedom that goes with not being defined by an exclusive identity. Post-liberals who lament the disappearance of a common way of life forget that the one that has been lost was liberal.

I suspect it was not the notion that Thatcher was a true conservative that Oakeshott found funny, but the very idea of true conservatism. There have been many conservative traditions – free trading and protectionist, libertarian and paternalist, faith-based and sceptical, not all of them on the right. Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour has produced a critique of market individualism as incisive as any that has come from within the Tory party, and William Clouston’s Social Democratic party has married a left-leaning economic programme with moderate cultural conservatism. When Conservatives dicker over what it truly means to be conservative, they are mostly talking nonsense.

Yet if we can recognise these movements as embodying left-conservative thinking, it follows that conservatism is more than a habitual way of living. It may not have an unchangeable essence, but there are distinctive ideas and values that allow us to judge what is not conservative. Using them as a yardstick, the party that has been in power for the past 14 years is one of the least conservative in modern British history.

A key part of conservatism was concern for continuity in society. When she imposed a type of economic shock therapy in the early Eighties Thatcher was a force for disruption, but she became a full-blown ideologue only towards the end of her time in power. She never grasped that the settled, cohesive Britain she recalled so fondly from the Fifties – ironically, largely a creation of Clement Attlee’s Labour government of 1945-51 – would be finally demolished by the market revolution she unleashed. In contrast, since Thatcher the Conservative Party has been the vehicle for a hyper-liberal ideology that has captured both the neo-Thatcherite and centrist wings of the party. For both, government is an enabling mechanism for decisions made outside the political realm. If markets distribute resources, courts of law allocate rights. Democratic choice is an inconvenient afterthought.

Starting with Thatcher’s privatisation of water in 1989, utilities and infrastructure have been sold off to the highest bidder – often the government-owned corporation of a foreign state. In a move Thatcher would not have contemplated, core state functions – prisons, the police, border control and the armed services – have been underfunded and hollowed out. The state has become more like a global NGO than an institution whose task is to serve any national interest. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, Tory governments have facilitated mass immigration on an unprecedented scale. The notion that British citizens might have a primary claim on the country’s housing stock cannot be voiced in polite company, although there is no chance of meeting housing needs when net immigration is running at hundreds of thousands a year.

Most importantly, the Tories have presided over a major shift in values. In higher education and schools, a generation has been instructed that Western civilisation is the most oppressive that has ever existed. With millions of young followers and a powerful presence in the media, the professions and the civil service, hyper-liberalism has become a mass movement. When dissidents are censored and cancelled it is not by an authoritarian government but society itself. If liberty of expression is to be recovered, it will need protection by the state.

A Burkean tradition is suspicious of top-down government and prizes intermediary institutions, but freedom for the little platoons is a by-product of peace and security. Britain is a prime target of hybrid warfare – a mix of terrorism, cyber-attacks and the penetration of critical infrastructure by hostile states. An economy that cannot maintain the living standards expected by the electorate is being threatened by a blockade of container shipping in the Red Sea mounted by Iran-backed Houthis using low-cost drones. Oil tankers and gas vessels could also be affected if the blockade spreads. Calibrated air strikes will not deter the battle-hardened Islamists who brought the Saudi war machine to a halt in Yemen. Unconnected with Gaza, Iranian air strikes inside Pakistan aimed at Baluchistan separatists have triggered Pakistani counter-strikes. Though hardly anyone wants a wider conflict, the logic of events is escalation.

A long war or dirty peace in Ukraine will leave an industrially depleted Europe in the shadow of the war economy Vladimir Putin has built in Russia. Following the victory in the Taiwanese presidential election of the pro-autonomy vice-president, Lai Ching-te, Xi Jinping’s plans to bring the island under his control could be accelerated. Donald Trump’s triumph over Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley in Iowa and New Hampshire confirm that for the Republican Party he is the only game in town. Already seeing Trump as the next American president, the world is anticipating the upheavals his return to the White House will surely bring. Whatever may have remained of a Western-led international system is fast being consumed in a spreading conflagration.

Domestically, the inflation of rights has weakened the authority of government in maintaining public order. The scope and limits of demonstrations will need to be clearly defined and consistently enforced. Endemic knife crime, burglary and shoplifting have made Britain a country in which antisocial behaviour has been normalised. An ambiguous policy of semi-decriminalisation of drug use has empowered gangs to fight out their wars on the streets. Sections of our cities are becoming – as in America – lawless states of nature.

The Hobbesian core of the state must be repaired and strengthened. Public services must be maintained and improved, but they cannot be fit for purpose while they are run by Byzantine managerial bureaucracies. Government is over-expanded, saturated with hyper-liberal ideology and chronically dysfunctional. A more active state will have to be smaller and more limited in its goals, investing in technologies that promote national resiliency and sheltering the population from a disintegrating global order.

The embarrassing absurdity of sounding the sirens of war, as David Cameron and Grant Shapps have done, while shrunken and demoralised armed services await further cuts, is obvious to everyone. The chaos of public services in which nothing works is a daily experience. And yet a Tory electoral catastrophe is not preordained. Labour’s persistently large polling majority is an artefact of Keir Starmer’s Leninist party management. If his hold falters – over Palestine, for example – the Labour lead could quickly be slashed. He will come to regret barging into the culture wars, as he did with his remarks on the National Trust.

But public contempt and disgust for the Tories runs deep and wide. Richard Tice’s Reform UK will undoubtedly increase their losses. If Nigel Farage –who gifted Boris Johnson his large majority by standing down Brexit Party candidates in Conservative seats in 2019 – returns as Reform’s public face, he could consign the Tories to the margins of politics. A Conservative wipeout on the scale of 1906, when the party and its unionist allies were reduced to a rump of 156 seats, is a realistic possibility.

Yet for the Conservatives, whose pursuit of an imaginary centre ground has brought their party to the edge of the abyss, worse might now be better. An electoral disaster could allow them to move on from the inordinate ideology by which they have been dominated for so long and begin to reflect the needs and values of a British majority. The Conservative revival in Canada after their meltdown in 1993 – apparently achieved by promising large-scale house-building, a policy that appealed strongly to the young voters who had deserted the party – shows recovery is not impossible after near-extinction.

Conservatism, in current conditions, presents a paradox. Starmer’s “conservative turn” is another iteration of a failing project. Labour’s proposals for devolving authority to independent bodies and embedding constitutional welfare rights would complete the paralysis of the state. A government that shackled itself in this way would not last long, no matter how large its majority, in the global tumult that is rapidly unfolding. Labour has positioned itself to govern in a world that will no longer exist by the time the party comes to power.

The maxim so often cited from Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard – “Everything must change for everything to remain the same” – no longer applies: whatever is done, things cannot remain the same. When voters seek a measure of stability in their lives, as they did when they voted for Brexit, they are demanding a fundamental alteration in society. Today, a conservative disposition means rejecting the actual and the tried – a crumbling ideological regime – in order to recover a liberal way of life. If the Conservatives cannot understand, accept and act on this fact, they are finished as a party of power.

[See also: John Gray and Peter Thiel: Life in a postmodern world]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State