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The closing of the conservative mind: Politics and the art of war

Rather than being the creation of a fanatical Eurosceptic minority, Tory populism is a sign that the Conservative Party is reinventing itself again just as Britain becomes ungovernable.

The current parliament has run its course. Fuelled by a mix of calculating opportunism, ideological immobility and rancorous emotion, the House of Commons has slid into factionalised anarchy. In the course of this descent, politics has become an exercise in irregular warfare.

A common response to this situation is that it reflects a crisis of conservatism. The Tory party has become a revolutionary sect under the control of the Robespierre-like figure of Dominic Cummings. The solution to Britain’s ills, some have argued, is to return to true conservatism as expressed in the enduring verities of Edmund Burke. Instead of abstract ideas and principles, politicians should rely on the slowly accumulated wisdom of past generations. Practice and tradition, not theories spun from the conceit of human reason, should be the basis of government.

No discussion in polite society of the state of politics is complete without a reverential genuflection to the 18th-century parliamentarian. Get rid of Cummings and Boris Johnson, along with the right-wing libertarians in the cabinet, recover Burkean moderation, and all will be well.

It is a familiar narrative in the opinion-forming classes, and all the more appealing for being baseless. The notion that Conservatives have ceased to be conservative ignores transformations in other parts of the political spectrum. Labour has also abandoned any small-c conservative disposition and become a vehicle for anti-Semitism and a version of Marxism that deems working-class values of place and community racist when they are expressed as concern about continuing mass immigration. The Liberal Democrats have become hyper-liberals, making the nullification of a clear democratic mandate their signature policy. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is not simply a right-wing splinter movement but a response to a state of affairs in which large sections of the population are unrepresented. Rather than being the creation of Boris Johnson and a fanatical Eurosceptic minority, Tory populism is a sign of the Conservative Party reinventing itself – as it has done many times before – in order to survive.

Burke has been resurrected by self-styled moderates because he lets them off the hook. Having previously supported the American Revolution, he reacted to the French Revolution in his celebrated Reflections of 1790 with uncomprehending horror. Burke was unhinged by the revolution in France because it subverted his Whig belief that incremental progress was part of a providential design ordained by God. Prescient in predicting the Terror, he ended up regarding the French Revolution as divine punishment for human sinfulness. The ideas that fuelled popular discontent were demonic lies, used by wicked demagogues to appeal to the base instincts and low intelligence of the masses. The people had been prised from their proper deference to higher minds, and chaos and tyranny ensued.

For centrists rattled by the rise of populism it is a flattering tale. No responsibility for the condition of politics is ascribed to them. Reason has been tossed aside because the masses – encouraged by amoral rabble-rousers – have been allowed to vent their ignorant passions. It is not hard to detect the reek of class hatred in this ruling liberal narrative. But there is something more powerful here than mere snobbery: the belief that politics can be governed by formulas derived from some large theory. In the past, such theories were derived from Marxism and positivism, utilitarianism and Fabianism, among other ideologies. Today they emanate from the prevailing variety of rights-based liberalism promoted by philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. The key feature of this liberalism is that it transfers decision-making from political to judicial institutions. Liberals are turning to law to entrench values and policies for which they cannot secure democratic assent.

When Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that the Prime Minister acted unlawfully when he prorogued parliament, it argued that it was simply restoring authority to parliament, and in particular the House of Commons. In this sense, the judgment can be interpreted as a conservative ruling. Yet it would be disingenuous to pretend that the Supreme Court has left everything as it was. Until the court’s verdict, there were no legal standards against which the prorogation could be assessed; a significant body of expert opinion believed and still believes the question was not justiciable. By setting a precedent for further judicial intervention, the ruling has initiated a fundamental shift in British government away from the executive and towards the legislature and the courts.

Inevitably, there will be more lawsuits attempting to overturn what were once accepted to be political decisions. As a consequence, it may not be long before judges are chosen by a political process, as in the United States. In a recent speech in the Commons, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox raised the possibility that Supreme Court judges could be appointed after being questioned in parliament.

Pressure for a written constitution will increase. But since a trusted institution where such a document could be written cannot be found or established when politics is so intensely polarised, the process will be bitterly contested. Given the beliefs and attitudes of many lawyers, the likely upshot would be to entrench today’s version of liberal values, which large sections of the population do not share. In that event, the descent of politics into warfare, ever more nasty and brutish, will continue.

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Since liberals exculpate themselves from any responsibility for this situation, it is only to be expected that they should pin the blame on an ideological takeover on the right. My own earlier work may have played a minor role in shaping this curious view. In The Undoing of Conservatism, a pamphlet published by the Social Market Foundation in 1994, I argued that conservative thinking had become an unstable mix of neoliberal economics with cultural traditionalism. The effect of free markets is to subvert inherited ways of life. The restless mobility of capital and labour makes any strong attachment to a particular place or company dysfunctional. An unceasing stream of new technologies undermines life-long careers, while the privileging of choice in the market promotes a transactional view of human relations throughout society. Friedrich Hayek and his followers promoted an ideology in which economic life could be a vortex of creative destruction while communal, familial and personal life remained governed by traditional norms.

It was a fantastical combination, and something had to give. Conservative movements would fracture, some holding to doctrinaire free-market ideology and others embracing reactionary nativism, as has since happened on the American right and in European countries such as Sweden and Germany. In power, conservative parties would try to combine the two, but the balancing act would be difficult. The scale of social dislocation produced by unfettered markets would unleash powerful forces, which conservative parties and governments could not control. I did not suggest that “true conservatism” – if such a thing ever existed – could be recovered. Rather, I suggested that if conservative thinking was to have a future it would have to renew itself in a post-liberal form – one that renounced hyperbolic market individualism while securing personal freedom and social cohesion under the aegis of a strong state.

Since then, the undoing of conservatism has been completed by the centre right. David Cameron and George Osborne promoted a neoliberalism more extreme than any entertained by Margaret Thatcher. While Osborne oversaw an austerity campaign that ravaged core structures of the state – the police and the armed forces as well as welfare services – Cameron’s deadly mix of the Brexit referendum with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has left Britain in effect ungovernable. It was these self-styled modernisers that led the country to its present impasse, and it has been the ultras of the extreme centre that have locked us into it.


Centre ground: Edmund Burke is venerated as a moderate conservative and anti-populist

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The proximate cause of the breakdown in British politics is the extreme lengths to which the Remainer elite has gone in their attempt to derail Brexit. Hard Brexiteers also sought to derail Theresa May’s agreement because they wanted no deal; but most proved ready to compromise when the time for a final decision arrived. In contrast, for the haute-Remainers that dominate many public institutions there can be only one rational position. For them, Brexit is not a political issue but an eschatological struggle between light and darkness.

The haute-Remainer mind is an example of what the 20th century’s subtlest and most original conservative philosopher called political rationalism. Michael Oakeshott (1901-90) used the term to describe totalitarian ideologies such as Leninism and National Socialism, but he was clear that any kind of political tradition could succumb to rationalist ideology – including conservatism. (His own version of conservatism – an ultra-liberal variety, in which the ideal role of the state was that of an umpire – itself did.) The core of rationalism in politics is an idea of politics itself. Rather than being a practice in which people negotiate the terms on which they co-exist with one another, politics means the imposition of an idea. The idea is self-evidently true; anyone who questions it is ignorant and stupid, or else wilfully malignant. Though they claim to embody reason in politics, haute-Remainers cling to a view of the EU in which facts are secondary or irrelevant. They fulminate on the dangers of Brexit without ever mentioning that Paris has been convulsed by riots while Barcelona has become the scene of mass demonstration, burning streets and police violence. No mere fact can be allowed to cloud the vision of a sacred institution.

This kind of thinking underlies many of the absurdities of politics at the present time, on left and right. When the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt praised the EU as an emerging empire at the Liberal Democrat conference last month, the assembled delegates could hardly restrain their enthusiasm. The dream of a future European empire supplies an alternative patriotism for progressives who despise the nation-state. In practice the European project has itself become a variety of nationalism, though it celebrates a nation that does not exist. The reality throughout the continent is the onward march of nationalists of a more familiar kind. Like much of the rest of Europe, Verhofstadt’s native Belgium is rotten with far-right movements, which his hyper-federal project would only further empower. Preferring not to face these realities, the liberals who cheered him are possessed by a grand idea.

Oakeshott understood politics as a practical skill. In a celebrated essay, he wrote:

In political activity, then, 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; the sea is both friend and enemy, and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

It is a poetic and (to my mind) true image of the open-ended nature of politics. The flaw is in Oakeshott’s understanding of tradition. He writes as if there is a body of practice, uncorrupted by theorising, to which conservatives could revert. Here he is not unlike Burke. During the dozen or so years in which I knew and talked with Oakeshott he rarely mentioned “the founder of modern conservatism” and never with approval. He disliked Burke’s Whiggish faith in progress and much preferred the cool scepticism of David Hume. But Oakeshott’s idea of tradition has many of the difficulties of Burke’s defence of what he described as “just prejudice”. Both of them preferred the tacit knowledge embodied in practices to the abstractions of rationalist intellectuals. They passed over the fact that tacit knowledge often consists of fossilised remnants of fashionable ideas.

The experience of the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) may be worth recalling. At the start of the 19th century he was sent to Russia as a diplomat. An ardent opponent of the philosophes of the Enlightenment, he hoped to visit a country that had not been “scribbled on” by intellectuals. What he found was aristocratic elites babbling about Voltaire and Diderot. Then as now, there was no traditional wisdom to which a conservative could default.

Today the tacit understanding of liberals in all parties is that the world would be far more civilised if the grubby business of politics was replaced by the legal adjudication of justice and rights. The evidence for this view is – shall we say – patchy. In the US, Donald Trump’s capture of the White House enabled him to begin reshaping the judicial system, including the Supreme Court. When political issues become the province of courts, the law is politicised. At the same time, because so many are unrepresented and the void left by liberal legalism must somehow be filled, politics becomes more polarised and vicious.

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It is a meme among bien-pensants that Britain’s disorder is the work of Dominic Cummings, among others in the Johnson government. Cummings’s penchant for the ancient Chinese text The Art of War is cited as showing his disdain for traditional ways of conducting politics. Yet he is not alone in thinking of politics as a branch of warfare. Putin’s close adviser, Vladislav Surkov, the postmodern media guru, pseudonymous novelist and theorist of hybrid warfare; Steve Bannon, the head of Trump’s presidential campaign and short-lived White House consigliere; Seamus Milne, Wykehamist, Bolshevik and chief architect of the crumbling Corbyn project – each of these have approached politics as an exercise in warfare. What is significant in Cummings is not any supposed commitment to hard-right ideology. While he may admire Bismarckian statecraft, the more important point is that for him strategy takes priority over any ideology.

There is nothing singularly British in this development. Though the term political technology first emerged in post-communist Russia to describe the use of new media in military-style strategies of deception, it is something practised in many countries. The mutation of politics into warfare is contagious in much the same way that freedom was once supposed to be contagious.

The technologists of power are today’s true rationalists. That superior intelligence is found among the practitioners of populism is a fact of our time. When liberals talk about reason they mean a mishmash of ideas they picked up at university. Scraps of Rawls, Dworkin and Thomas Piketty, together with a smattering of modish conspiracy theories, form the folk wisdom of the thinking classes. Rationality means deferring to this ragbag of ephemera and ignoring enduring truths about the deciding forces in politics.

Liberals have become what John Stuart Mill, describing mid-Victorian Tories, called “the stupidest party”. Stupidity in politics is not an inert condition. It is dynamic, inventive and cumulative. The Remainer elite believe they can reverse Brexit by bypassing democratic politics: incessant legal challenges and procedural machinations in the Commons will be followed by a referendum without a no-deal option; an all-Remainer “government of national unity” will oversee the process. Of course, this would involve a good deal of political chicanery, particularly between the SNP and Labour. But the aim is to return to a sunlit place where politics is once again under the control of higher minds. Some Brexiteers have bought into this story, seeing haute-Remainers as diabolically clever conspiracists who have succeeded in denying the people what they voted for. The chief feature of the story, however, is that the politics do not add up.

An enduring Remainer coup is a fantasy. The EU cannot negotiate with a shifting coalition of opposition MPs or a recklessly partisan Speaker, nor could it rely on a jerry-built “temporary government” the largest part of which would be a chronically divided party, whose leader will likely be gone in months. A rigged referendum excluding no deal may be the plan, but it would also exclude around a third of the electorate. Like a written constitution, a second referendum would have to be drafted by a body that is trusted to be impartial – a type of institution that, the monarchy aside, no longer exists. Any idea that a “confirmatory” referendum cobbled up by the Remainer political classes could bring closure to Brexit is laughable. Equally, the predictable result of revoking Article 50 – in the event there were ever a Commons majority for such a move – would be to trigger a major populist challenge to the legitimacy of parliament. 

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The Remainer elite has been guided by the ruling philosophy of liberal legalism, which is essentially anti-political. But sooner or later, politics is bound to assert its primacy over legal and procedural manoeuvres. Despite talk of a pact with the Liberal Democrats, Tory Remainers are all but extinct as an electoral force. Driving them out of the party may be a prerequisite of its continued existence as a party of government. Without the constant threat of a mutinous faction, Johnson is more likely to achieve a workable majority. If he can attract most Brexit Party voters, he could win by a landslide.

The most serious electoral threat to the Johnson government comes from Nigel Farage. Under the leadership of Corbyn and Milne, Labour has reached a dead end. Becoming an all-out Remain party will not help. It is too late. There already is a party for the woke bourgeoisie – Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats. (Though it is unclear what the party’s reason for existence will be once Britain has left the EU. If it becomes a Rejoin party it could end up a bien-pensant version of Ukip, beached on the fringes of politics.) Labour’s economic programme – the only part of the Corbyn project that was ever popular – has been superseded by Johnson’s strategic break with austerity. But Johnson needs to go further if he is to defuse the threat from Farage. Brexit Party voters are the key to winning a majority, and many belong in the social group most hostile to globalisation.

Ukip in its earlier days contained a faction that was critical of corporate capitalism. But Farage has never wavered in his commitment to libertarian economics, and today this is a clear vulnerability. Johnson has to show he is committed to using the power of the state to repair the damage inflicted on society by markets, something that Theresa May and her adviser Nick Timothy briefly aspired to do.

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The future of the British state is at the heart of the crisis. Remainers repeat that no deal would mean the break-up of the United Kingdom. But if Brexit were reversed through a Labour deal with the SNP, another Scottish referendum could have the same result. The break-up of the UK may be the price of staying in the EU. Remainers point to the threat of a hard border in Ireland in the event of no deal. But a hard border will be imposed by Brussels, in order to protect the single market, not by Westminster or Dublin. Whether the EU wants to keep an unstable and obstructive state in the fold is another question.

Though they have yet to recognise the fact, Britain’s haute-Remainers have ceased to be useful allies for the EU. If Remainers persist in their wrecking tactics and their delusion that Brexit can be reversed by another referendum, they will find themselves cut loose by Brussels with the same ruthlessness with which Johnson despatched the DUP. One way or another Brexit is going to happen, and for the EU the best way is via the swift passage of Johnson’s deal. The effect of any further delay will be to increase the prospect of a disorderly exit. The EU will be extremely reluctant to incur the responsibility for no deal. But its leaders are notably more intelligent than haute-Remainers, and recognise that continuing uncertainty is the worst outcome of all.

As Thomas Hobbes learnt from the English Civil War, the deciding factor in politics is the need for a state with the power to act. Hobbes thought of the state as a way of escaping what he regarded as the natural human condition – continuous mistrust and conflict. Paradoxically, the upshot of British politics over the past several years has been an artificial state of nature. It is possible that Britain will continue to drift, a semi-failed state without a functioning government. But if the impact of Brexit is to reconfigure British politics, victory will not go to the forces that have paralysed government. The winner will be the party that can act resolutely and secure a period of peace.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 23 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state