What does it mean to be a Conservative? Every political party, especially those in a first past the post system, is a coalition of interests. Therefore, any definition is either going to be crude or so caveated that only a political theorist would be bothered to wade through to find one.
Yet there has always been a pretty consistent core in Britain, as defined by Disraeli in his Crystal Palace speech of 1872: “The first object of the Tory party [is] to maintain the institutions of the country.” For this, he was reaching back to the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, and anticipates the conservatism of all the 20th-century leaders of the party. And what was the first institution he turns to? “No institution of England, since the advent of liberalism, has been so systematically, so continuously assailed, as the established Church.” Preserving the institutions of the constitution – the Crown and the established Church – have been central to every Conservative vision since the development of the party system.
Until now, it seems. In a temper because the entire bench of bishops in the House of Lords wrote a letter to the Times opposing the government’s removal of migrants to Rwanda, the administration that currently trades under the name “Conservative” is considering revenge. “Retribution, it appears, is coming for the 26 bishops who said the Rwanda policy ‘shames Britain’,” tweeted the journalist Tom Newton Dunn. “Cabinet ministers [are] openly talking about expelling them from the Lords now. ‘Only Iran also has clerics that sit in their legislature,’ one tells me. ‘They’ll go.’”
Nothing says “Conservative” like destroying the constitution in a fit of pique.
Nothing also says “weakness” like an inability to accept that some people are going to disagree with your policies: you don’t need to react as if every letter to the Times is some kind of constitutional crisis. Just click “reply all” and send them a decent explanation of what you want to do. You probably won’t convince them, and they probably won’t convince you. Cancelling the Church for speaking out for refugees, by contrast, feels achingly wet.
It also doesn’t feel in keeping with contemporary Conservative concerns either. Cancelling the Church is liable to have every major Tory in history spinning in their graves, but the current Conservative generation should be outraged too – by the government acting in a way that would ordinarily result in being labelled a “snowflake” on GB News. We, as conservatives, are supposed to hate cancel culture. We’re supposed to be the ones who can handle public disputation with a swagger, and wield the dagger and the sword with equal skill during the cut and thrust of debate. Threatening to evict people from parliament for having the temerity to argue against a policy in a public letter doesn’t give you much of a leg to stand on the next time some spotty undergraduate tries to get their student union to evict a young Tory association.
So cut it out. Stop the hysterics. Stop the threats of vandalism. Boris Johnson and company need to remember they stand in a party tradition that knew how to deal with institutions that disagreed with them (ask Disraeli about Queen Victoria for a start) and still manage to get its business done – with considerably greater efficiency than the current government.