Leader: The closing of the conservative mind

In their overriding commitment to Brexit and to free-market economics, the Conservatives embody the very tendencies they once disdained.

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The Conservative Party is politically and intellectually exhausted. It has not won a stable parliamentary majority since 1987 and has proved incapable of delivering Brexit, a project of its own creation. In the European Parliament elections, the Conservatives won their lowest share of the vote (8.8 per cent) in any nationwide contest since the party’s foundation. But more than this, the “majestic pragmatism” that once defined British conservatism has been replaced by a dogmatic commitment to neoliberal economics and to Brexit at any cost.

The party’s leadership contest has exemplified its intellectual torpor, characterised as it is by talk of a no deal Brexit, the prorogation of parliament and further uncosted tax cuts for high earners and corporations. Boris Johnson, a dishonest charlatan indulged by a supine press, has emerged as the front-runner despite his disastrous tenure as foreign secretary. Indeed, as Jason Cowley writes on page seven, one can now speak of the “know-nothing right” (as the former New Statesman editor Paul Johnson did of the “know-nothing left” in the 1970s) – a party and movement that proudly brandishes its ignorance and prejudice.

In this week’s issue, we launch a new series on “the closing of the conservative mind”. The intellectual degradation of conservatism should concern us all. At present, as Robert Saunders, a historian of democracy, writes in his introduction to the series, 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.”

The Tory party’s historic strength – it governed Britain for all but 20 years between 1918 and 1997 – has been its capacity to adapt to changed circumstances. It absorbed changes that some thought would doom it: universal suffrage, the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state, and the social liberal reforms of the 1960s. But though it evolved, the party maintained its scepticism.

Today, in their overriding commitment to Brexit and to neoliberal economics, the Conservatives embody the very tendencies they once disdained.

After a decade of austerity – aimed at reducing state spending to the arbitrary level of 35 per cent of GDP – the public realm is in need of urgent renewal, not “creative destruction”. Conservatives have historically understood the virtues of state intervention and of the good that government can do for all of the people. No more, it seems.

There is a revival of conservatism in the United States, where there is growing interest in state-based economic nationalism, and in France. But in Britain, Mr Johnson launched his leadership bid with a predictable proposal to raise the 40p income tax threshold from £50,000 to £80,000, which would predominantly benefit the top 10 per cent of earners and wealthy pensioners. No candidate has so far displayed the intellectual ambition or creativity required for an era of profound disorder.

In the 1970s, as the pillars of the postwar Keynesian settlement crumbled, the right used the crisis as an opportunity for philosophical renewal. The early Thatcherites were supported by an intellectual ecosystem of think tanks, historians, economists and philosophers (Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman).

Today, although there are signs of life within the conservative movement (such as Will Tanner and Neil O’Brien’s new think tank, Onward), there is no comparable attempt to anatomise the crisis. Brexit and free-market dogma has stultified original thought. There is no major publication that is assessing the crisis of conservatism with the depth and rigour required.

In our new series, featuring contributors from left and right, we will seek to fill this void. To quote Edmund Burke, “we are alarmed into reflexion” about this crisis of conservatism. It is a symptom of the interregnum in which we find ourselves. Its resolution is a precondition for recovery.

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