Leader: Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and the crisis of conservatism

The closing of the conservative mind is of concern to more than merely the right.

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At the outset of the Conservative Party leadership contest, we launched a new series on “The closing of the conservative mind”, and since then most of the candidates have lived down to expectations. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have vied, in recent weeks, to win over a reactionary Tory membership with fantastical Brexit promises as well as pledges of lower taxes and higher public spending. Neither has offered an attractive or comprehensive vision for modern conservatism. 

Having declared in 2015 that “the only reason I wouldn’t visit some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump”, Mr Johnson now indulges and flatters the American president, who this week called the British Prime Minister “foolish” and used Twitter to mock her failed Brexit strategy. Any notion that President Trump favours a post-Brexit “special relationship” with the United Kingdom has been dispelled by his reckless treatment of Kim Darroch, the former British Ambassador to the United States (who resigned on 10 July), and his repeated humiliation of Mrs May. That a senior and respected UK diplomat has been driven from office at the behest of a foreign leader and malicious leakers — merely for doing his job — sets a grim precedent (as does Mr Johnson’s disgraceful refusal to defend Mr Darroch). As was always clear, Mr Trump cannot be “tamed” or appeased: the “boastful buffoon”, as Philip Roth called him, must be confronted. 

The crisis of conservatism did not begin with Brexit or Mr Trump, of course. Since the late Thatcher era, when it became indelibly associated with anti-state free-market economics, the Tory party has struggled to achieve intellectual renewal. It has embraced ideology while running out of ideas. A market economy has created a market society. As a consequence, the Tories have not won a stable parliamentary majority since 1987, and many people feel left behind or left out. The crisis has been deepened by the Brexit debacle. As George Walden, an author and former minister in the Thatcher government, writes on page 24: “Just as blind devotion to market forces can destroy conservative traditions, communities and institutions, so a hard-line Brexit puts the Union at risk.” 

But there are alternative, richer conservative traditions. On page 20, Rory Stewart, who stood for the leadership, writes in a thoughtful essay that “to support a sensible, pragmatic position, you have to begin by rediscovering a sense of anger and shame”. Mr Stewart, a former prisons minister, expresses dismay at the degradation of the public realm (“the line of broken windows in cell after cell in a Liverpool prison… the blood on the floor in one in Birmingham”). He singles out the “extreme disgrace” of the social care crisis and the need to “reach boldly across parties, and agree on how to finance a proper system”. 

Mr Stewart is a Burkean: pragmatic, civic-minded, moderate and a champion of representative democracy. That some treat him as a foreigner in his own party, or an eccentric maverick, is a symptom of the Conservatives’ intellectual decline. 

In contrast to Mr Stewart, who founded the Turquoise Mountain charity in Afghanistan, Mr Johnson, who is expected to win by a landslide, appears to believe in no project greater than himself. Having embraced Brexit on self-serving grounds, he is now prepared to pursue it regardless of the economic, social or diplomatic costs. 

The intellectual decline of conservatism is not just a British phenomenon. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the traditional centre right is struggling to maintain its standing against insurgent nationalists. In the US, the Republican Party has been transformed from within. And just as American conservatives have been prepared to indulge Mr Trump in return for extravagant tax cuts, so their British counterparts now fawn over Mr Johnson in the hope of political preferment. 

The closing of the conservative mind is of concern to more than merely the right. At their best, throughout history, conservative parties have acted as a bulwark against nationalists, demagogues and populists. They have helped preserve valued institutions and upheld respect for constitutional norms. They have defended what Burke called “just prejudice”. All this is now threatened by the wanton vandalism of Mr Trump and Mr Johnson and their fellow travellers and sycophants. 

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in