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The closing of the conservative mind

The first of a new series on the state of the right. 

When Theresa May, in 2017, promised “strong and stable leadership in the national interest”, she cannot have had this in mind. The long, agonised collapse of her premiership has left the Conservative Party in search of its sixth leader since the turn of the century and its third since 2016. The party has been crushed at the local elections and came fifth in the European Parliament elections, posting the lowest share of a national vote in its history. It has no legislative achievements since 2016, no discernible economic policy and no obvious vision for the future.

The new leader will face a grim inheritance, because the crisis gripping the party stretches far beyond the leadership; far, even, beyond Brexit. A party that once set the agenda of British politics – birthing such big ideas as “Tory democracy”, “One Nation” and “the property-owning democracy” – seems worn out intellectually. A tradition that was once cautious of change – that distrusted what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “the jump-to-glory style of politics” – rushes eagerly towards the unknown; a party that once preached scepticism calls its disciples to “believe in Brexit”, and to the conduct of policy “by faith alone”.

British Conservatism has broken with three of its most important traditions. It has stopped thinking; it has stopped “conserving”; and it has lost its suspicion of ideology. Historically, the Conservative Party has been a party of ideas, but not of ideology. Today, that relationship has been reversed: a party in thrall to ideology is reduced to boardroom banalities and half-remembered hymns to a Thatcherite past. Like an ageing Eighties tribute band, the party flubs wearily through the same tired playlist, barely noticing that the stadiums are empty, the hairstyles ludicrous and the fans long departed. In this sense, its Brexit woes are only the manifestation of a deeper problem: the closing of the Conservative mind.

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As its semi-official historian, John Ramsden, once put it, the history of the Conservative Party “does not owe much to the work of philosophers”. Conservatism has no Marx or Engels; no RH Tawney, William Morris or GDH Cole. Its most important inspirations have been borrowed from other traditions: Edmund Burke was a Whig, Joseph Chamberlain a Radical, and Friedrich Hayek, one of the patron saints of Thatcherism, published an essay explaining “Why I am not a Conservative”. John Stuart Mill, the liberal philosopher, concluded in 1861 that the Conservatives were, “by the law of their existence, the stupidest party”, a fact to which he attributed much of their success.

Yet the party has often been led by people of remarkable intellectual ability. Robert Peel’s performance in his university examinations was the stuff of Oxford legend. His successor as leader, Lord Derby, translated Homer in his spare time, while Benjamin Disraeli wrote novels (of varying quality) on the social, religious and political condition of Europe. Lord Salisbury was a prolific essayist, as comfortable with German literature as with the relationship between science and religion, and he conducted experiments in his own private laboratory. His nephew and successor as prime minister, Arthur Balfour, was a philosopher and economist, whose A Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879) would make useful reading for the present cabinet. Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature, while Harold Macmillan wrote three books on economic and social questions and co-authored three more.

In the 20th century, in particular, ideas were central to Conservative practice. From “One Nation Conservatism” to “the property-owning democracy”, and from “Tory democracy” to “popular capitalism”, many of the most influential ideas in modern British politics have hailed from the right. That helped to secure an extraordinary political dominance: whether alone or in coalition, the Conservative Party was in government for all but 20 years between 1918 and 1997. Yet its success was propelled by a remarkable sense of fragility. Throughout the 20th century Conservatives feared that they were losing a battle of ideas, in an age when the electoral dice seemed stacked in favour of the left.

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The coming of universal suffrage after 1918 brought millions of working men and women into the electorate. To many Conservatives, the new voters seemed natural recruits to socialism. In the age of the Russian Revolution, the intellectual winds were blowing in the direction of change; and with its network of trade unions and workers’ associations, the Labour Party seemed well placed to take advantage.

It was not just the workers who looked ripe for the harvest. “For more than a generation,” wrote the historian Arthur Bryant in 1937, “the intelligentsia of the Left have been strengthening their hold on those who form opinion – among the educated reading public, the universities and the teachers.” The “expression of Conservative views” was becoming “a hallmark of stupidity” and “a serious handicap to a man’s career”. Joseph Ball, the former intelligence officer who ran the Conservative Research Department, complained that “the average undergraduate who is interested in politics has nowhere to turn today but the New Statesman or the books of left-wing socialist intellectuals”.

The party fought back with its own network of book clubs, discussion groups and a veritable torrent of newspapers and magazines. By the late 1920s, Tory journals such as the Man in the Street, the Elector and Home and Politics had circulations in the hundreds of thousands. Two book clubs were established – the Right Book Club and the National Book Association – while publications such as Bryant’s The Spirit of Conservatism (1929) sought “to present Conservatism as an instructive philosophy of life”. The party was obsessed with the influence of the Fabian Society, which served the left as a think tank, publishing house and school of socialism. The labour movement, thought Stanley Baldwin, was being “drugged by its intellectuals”, and he urged his party “to get together a group of our own men to answer them”.

The party’s most ambitious enterprise was the Bonar Law Memorial College at the Ashridge estate in Hertfordshire. Founded in 1929, the same year as the Conservative Research Department, it was intended as a “College of Citizenship”, tasked with producing “Conservative Fabians”. Its historian, Clarisse Berthezène, summarises its mission as “training minds for the war of ideas”. Though formally independent of the party, it could draw on a constellation of Conservative talent, including cabinet ministers, academics and churchmen. Unlike Michael Gove, the patrons of Ashridge College believed passionately in expertise. The goal, said Baldwin, was “to capture the brains in the labouring classes, and teach them early on Conservative lines”, repeating: “I want their brains!”

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That aspiration carried the party to a remarkable political hegemony: between the two world wars, the Conservatives were in government for all but three years. That ended in shattering fashion with the Labour landslide of 1945. The perception that Labour were “the masters now” – and, as a minister boasted, “for a very long time to come” – drove a new wave of Tory intellectual activity. Under the stewardship of “Rab” Butler, the Conservative Research Department became the party’s “thinking machine”, launching a series of studies that would produce The Industrial Charter (1947), The Agricultural Charter (1948) and The Right Road for Britain (1949). A new Conservative Political Centre was established “to wrest the initiative in the battle of ideas from the socialists”.

It was not only the leadership that was in ferment. In 1950, a group of backbenchers that included Iain Macleod, Ted Heath and Enoch Powell founded the One Nation Group, whose publications would set a new political agenda for Conservatism. It was followed, a year later, by the Bow Group, which rallied younger Tories “to combat the influence of the Fabian Society”. The goal was ambitious: in Geoffrey Howe’s words, to make the self-styled “stupid party” a home “fit for Guardian and Observer readers to live in”.

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By the 1970s, the intellectual inheritance of the postwar years was wearing thin. The collapse of the Heath government, in 1974, fuelled a growing anxiety that the party had lost its intellectual bearings. The historian Robert Blake, who was sympathetic to Heath, thought that his government had become “disorientated” by the “lack of a guiding purpose”. It was “hard to believe”, Blake concluded, that a government with “a firm doctrinal base, and an intellectually legitimate ideology… would have diverged quite so far from the principles which it had been proclaiming before it came back into power”.

Stung by the confusion of the Heath years, the Conservative Party became perhaps the most intellectually dynamic force in British politics. It attracted historians, philosophers and economists – some, like Alfred Sherman, converts from the Marxist left. They hammered out their ideas in discussion groups, think tanks and journals, ranging from the Selsdon Group and the Centre for Policy Studies to the Conservative Philosophy Group and the Salisbury Review. Keith Joseph toured universities making the case for free-market ideas, while MPs with a literary bent published books and pamphlets with titles such as Centre Forward and Inside Right.

Margaret Thatcher was not an intellectual, but she was fiercely intelligent and understood the power of ideas. On winning the leadership from Heath in 1975, she complained that “we have lost our vision for the future”, and told her first party conference as leader that “policies and programmes should not be just a list of unrelated items. They are part of a total vision of the kind of life we want for our country.” Though it is unlikely that she ever said “We must have an ideology”, she spoke of “the ideological battle against socialism”, and read Hayek, Milton Friedman, AV Dicey and, later, Francis Fukuyama. As prime minister, she hosted seminars at Chequers to which historians and policy analysts were invited, and clashed with Enoch Powell at the Conservative Philosophy Group.

As the historian Ben Jackson has argued, later Conservatives would misread the lessons of the Thatcher years, concluding that “the exertion of sheer will-power” was “sufficient to implement radical reforms”. Yet Thatcherism was far more than an exercise of will. Her goal was not merely to reform the economy but to change the whole mindset of British society, establishing an intellectual hegemony in which “the facts of life” would always be “Tory”. “Economics,” she said, “are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”


Credit: Miles Cole

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Conservatism, then, has historically been a tradition of ideas; yet it has also cultivated a reputation for anti-intellectualism. That was partly strategic. It has always suited the Conservative Party to present its ideas not as preferences that might be debated, but as simple common sense: a set of truths about the world, rather than prescriptions for it. One of Margaret Thatcher’s great skills was her ability to repackage complex economic doctrines, drawn chiefly from foreign economists, as the common sense of the British housewife. Her policies, she insisted, were “not the panaceas of political theorists. They are ideas that have worked.”

That has run alongside a genuine suspicion of “ideology”. Conservatives gave this word a special meaning that suggested more than a collection of ideas. An ideology, for Conservatives, was a set of abstract principles that could be used to remodel the world, implying – even to an academic such as Robert Blake – a “more exact set of beliefs and axioms than is natural to a party like ours”. Ideology, in this view, was something that socialists did, since “they do genuinely think in terms of blueprints for the future”.

Margaret Thatcher, one of the few Conservatives to give her name to an “ism”, nonetheless denied inventing “an ideology – a system with the purpose of moulding man and shaping society along some predetermined lines”. Democratic capitalism, she told students in 1991, was “not some kind of mirror image of Marxism”, but “a way of allowing people to live as they wish”.

It is not necessary to believe that claim to detect a pattern. For most of its history, the Conservative Party has embraced ideas, while disclaiming ideology. Yet today, a party enslaved by ideology is almost barren of thought, just as it faces a historic set of challenges.

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Since the 1990s, the Conservative Party has shown few signs of intellectual life. No organisation generates the excitement of the Bow Group in the 1950s or the Centre for Policy Studies a generation later. There are no leading weekly magazines or journals of intellectual conservatism. In the age of the internet, with all its possibilities for political communication, there is no equivalent to the work of Ashridge College or the Conservative Political Centre. If there were, it is hard to imagine who would staff it: the party has produced no significant thinker in decades, has largely vanished from the universities and finds itself on the wrong side of a growing educational divide among the electorate. If, as Hayek suggested, political debate is won by “second-hand dealers in ideas”, Conservatism is bringing perilously little to the market.

This charge has not come only from the left. In a recent column in the Daily Telegraph, the right-wing commentator Douglas Murray described the party as “intellectually exhausted”. Stian Westlake, a former adviser to several Tory ministers, has argued in a recent blogpost that Conservatives have “stopped talking and thinking about economics”. The party, he noted, had once generated big economic narratives that “came to define contemporary political debate”; today, however, it “shies away from economic thinking”.

In the absence of any larger economic vision, the party has retreated to the comfort zone of the 1980s. Candidates for the leadership offer ever wilder tax cuts, funded by ever more ludicrous mathematics. The result is a fiscal arms race that Stephen Crabb, once a contender for the leadership himself, describes as “nuts”. Ruth Davidson, the party’s leader in Scotland, urged her colleagues this week not to “retreat into some misremembered past”. The Conservatives’ “future as a viable political party could be in danger”, she warned, unless they had the courage to “embrace new thinking”.”

Yet as the party has abandoned ideas it has lost its suspicion of ideology. The philosopher John Gray warned 25 years ago of “a Maoism of the Right”, which sought “to remodel the entire national life” on the principles of market liberalism. Since the Thatcher era, no institution has been spared the cleansing fire of the market. Hospitals have been recast as “health care providers”, universities as “the knowledge economy”, rail passengers as customers and education as “social capital”, with its success to be measured by the production of future earning power. Even “the nation” – once understood as a living organism, stretching across time through a web of customs and obligations – has shrivelled into the grotesque banality of “UK plc”. Conservatives once prized institutions that stood outside, or even against, the dominant ideology of the state; yet today, all must profess the religion of the market. If an ideology is a blueprint for the world against which every practice and institution must be measured, then it is the right that is most fiercely ideological.

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Why did the party fail to renew itself after 1997, as it had done following previous defeats? One answer may be complacency. The end of the Cold War engendered a false confidence in “the end of ideology”; and with the conversion of New Labour to market liberalism, it was tempting to believe that Conservatism had won the big intellectual battles. On economic questions, if not on issues of identity and social liberalism, it seemed that the high ground was now occupied by the right. That encouraged a mood of self-congratulation not conducive to new thinking.

This mood was embodied in David Cameron, who led the party for more than a decade while leaving no discernible impression on its thought. Cameron liked to present himself as a moderniser, urging the party in 2001 to “change its language, change its approach, start with a blank sheet of paper”. Yet there followed a remarkable caveat: that modernisation would be harder for the Conservatives than for Labour, “because there are no obvious areas of policy that need to be dropped”. Four years later, he insisted that the party needed “fundamental change”, not “slick rebranding”. But what was change to mean, if the policies remained the same? By 2007, his leadership had acquired a purposeless character, from which it was only rescued by the financial crisis and the subsequent sovereign debt crisis. As Rupert Murdoch told the New Yorker in a 2006 interview, before their relationship turned sour, Cameron was “charming, he’s very bright, and he behaves as if he doesn’t believe in anything… He’s a PR guy.”

If complacency has dried up one of the wells of Conservative thought, secularisation closed off another. The party no longer thinks seriously about concepts such as original sin or imperfectability, ideas that once drove its suspicion of utopian projects. It is no longer rooted in a historic institution that confronted it with a higher set of values than the market. The party retains a dwindling band of theologians, whose “Red Toryism” marks one of the few recent attempts to chart a new direction for Conservatism. Yet they no longer speak a language that resonates with the wider party.

That has fed a third problem, which is the loss of the party’s sense of history. As the historian Kit Kowol argues, “Conservatives once used the past to imagine the future. Today, they are trapped by the only history many of them now know: the Second World War.” The result is a cartoonish morality tale that privileges resolve over reflection, in which “every leader becomes either a Chamberlain or a Churchill, foreign policy a question of appeasement or intervention, and all difficulties capable of being overcome with a dose of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’”.

Brexit was a manifestation of these changes, not their cause. Yet it has burned out the last remnants of one final part of the Conservative tradition: what Edmund Burke called the “disposition to preserve”. As its prospective leaders rush towards the rapture of no deal, who still believes, as Bryant did, that “the Conservative acts always with caution”? As candidates such as Dominic Raab flirt with suspending parliament, who thinks, like Anthony Quinton, that “Conservatives have an attachment to established customs and institutions” and a hostility to “sudden, precipitate and revolutionary change”? A political tradition that once sought chiefly to conserve now resembles an apocalyptic cult, ready to torch Britain’s trade relations, parliamentary institutions and even the Union itself in order to build the New Jerusalem on their ashes.

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The closing of the Conservative mind risks more than the party’s future. As the quixotic leadership campaign of Rory Stewart suggests, there is still a constituency for a politics that seeks to conserve, not to destroy – but it now lies outside the Conservative Party. One need not be on the left to lament a politics that values no relationships that cannot be measured in profit and loss. One need not be a conservative to fear a politics stripped of caution or respect for tradition, and that favours disruption over preservation, chaos over order and competition over community.

A party that once prized scepticism and suspicion of abstract doctrines now judges its leaders on the fervour with which they believe in Brexit. It reduces politics to faith-healing and values resolve over reason. The result may be a zombie party, whose destructive power is no longer guided by a living intelligence.

The secret of Conservative success in the 20th century was not pragmatism, but an openness to ideas, a suspicion of dogma and an attention to the minds, as well as the pockets, of the electorate. A party that has “had enough of experts”, wants to “fuck business” and is surprised to discover that a lot of trade flows between Dover and Calais has fallen a long way from its own best traditions. As John Stuart Mill well knew, the Conservative Party was never truly “the stupid party”. Yet what was once an insult has become an aspiration. It may yet prove the party’s epitaph.

Robert Saunders teaches history at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind