The Next Great Challenge for the Conservative Party is an Ideological One
‘I’m socially Liberal but fiscally Conservative’. It is a highly nuanced, immeasurably self-referential jest which has enjoyed notoriety among the ranks of the astute young people over at CCHQ since at least 2013. Yet underneath that pained self-awareness, lies a tension. It speaks to an evidently deeply-rooted belief that conservatism is fundamentally incapable of meeting the standards and serving the needs of a ‘progressive’ society; further still, it represents an acceptance of the left’s bureaucratised definition of social justice and liberation. If, as stated by Sir Roger Scruton, ‘societies only endure when they are devoted to future generations’, this tension must be addressed immediately if conservatism is to be preserved, not only as an option, but as a natural inclination for most people in this country.
At the risk of producing yet another entirely abstract, cherry-picked delineation of conservative ideology, it more useful to think of conservatism as posture rather than a set of ideals; conservatism is after all, a pragmatic aversion to ideals. And whilst I’m not suggesting that all Conservative ideology is or should be monolithic, there is certainly a distinct, discernible feeling that runs through the conservative reaction.
There is clearly a key temperamental difference between the left and the right, the former being radical and active, the latter obedient and passive. Conservatism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) consist of regurgitating fashionable applause-lines or hopeful incitements for revolutions of self-declared virtue. Instead it consists of cautious compromise, skeptical contemplation of ‘progress’ as it presents itself, and the difficult and unexciting defense of the establishment. The ‘conservative posture’ is neatly encapsulated, again by Scruton, who describes the Conservative endeavor as one which, by its nature tries to ‘defend and maintain existence without a cause’, i.e. one traditionally opposed to the dogmas and ideologues undeniably associated with the political left. In this sense, conservatism could be viewed in a more sympathetic light by ‘progressive society’, as a voice which gives cause for pause and deliberation- against the left’s abstract ideologies which often exists to demand a single and absolute cause which admits no compromise and offers no redemption to those unwilling to submit to it. Not only is conservatism fundamentally compatible with progressive society, it is likely to be beneficial and complementary.
Yet, clearly Conservatives have failed to impart this admirable vision. Many, probably even some who vote Conservative, perceive its ideology as being little more than defence of the free market at any cost and securing privileges of the few against the many. And to their credit, recently it has become increasingly difficult to perceive conservatism as being first and foremost an attachment to the way of life.
In the current political landscape, this departure from the core principles of conservativism is most clearly discernible in the Conservative Party’s approach to Brexit. Regardless of whether you believe that Brexit is the right decision for this country or not, one thing is undeniable; the Conservative Party have made a terrible mess of it. Arguably this is because, from the get go there has not been a whiff of a conservatism surrounding the Party’s engagement with the issue, on either side of the debate.
Firstly, for a Party that prides itself on pragmatism and skepticism towards the pie-in-the-sky schemes they attribute to the left, the Brexit wing of the Conservative party were quick to adopt the reckless idealism they so enthusiastically condemned. The British people were sold an extravagant vision without any specification of what it actually meant; utopian promises of effortless trade deals and lofty talk of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘control’ ensued whilst half a century of politics and history was undiscerningly discarded. Loyalism was yoked to that vision to legitimize it and worthless banners like ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Hard Brexit’ were bought at the cost of pragmatic negotiation or compromise. Oakeshott stated that to be conservative ‘is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss.’ In light of how Brexit has seemingly defied every single one of these resolutions, it is hard to see the endeavour as a conservative one.
Another pillar of conservatism sacrificed at the altar of Brexit is the universally acclaimed principle of placing country before Party. From Peel’s Corn laws and Disraeli’s extension of the R.A to Butler’s development of the post-war welfare state and Thatcher’s radical reform, Conservatives have consistently made tough decisions on issues which have polarized the Party, fiercely upholding their commitment to the national interest over the Party line. In 2016, Cameron seemed to do the opposite, in perhaps one of the greater examples of abdication from political responsibility in British politics, calling a referendum to solve the civil war in his Party. This ritual of a wavering appeasement and damage-control mindset has evidently carried on with May, for example in her buckling under the pressure exerted by Party faithful, to trigger Article 50 at the 2016 Party conference.
The third forsaken conservative principle, is a judicious conviction in disciplined democracy, constitutional restraint and those who are skilled and accountable in the exercise of power. If the Brexit referendum illuminated anything, it is perhaps that Thatcher had the right idea in denouncing referendums as devices of ‘demagogues and dictators’. Indeed, throwing deliberation and doubt to the wind and adopting a spurious belief in the instincts of the masses is the stuff of a socialist coups. The Brexiteers slander of the House of Lords, the judiciary and civil servants who dared to ‘frustrate the will of the people’ is certainly more reminiscent of Jacobinism than conservatism.
Indeed, Brexit is a useful prism for illuminating the extent to which the Conservative Party has lost touch with the core principles of conservatism. More than ever before, factionalism and ideological degradation has metastasized beyond free-market libertarians and traditionalists being yoked together through nothing more than an appreciation of Adam Smith. The polarization within the Party is proof of the loss of Burkean dynamism which would allow the Conservatives to ‘reform to adapt’ but more troublingly, it is indicative of the dilapidation of the unifying conservative posture.
Despite this, there have been positive omens that the Conservative Party is relearning its sober conservative approach. May is pursuing a characteristically conservative policy of ‘managed disillusionment’, forcing Party faithfuls to confront the hard choices and difficult trade-offs which will inevitably be involved in Brexit; and less sanguine members of the party are reasserting control to foil further populist shenanigans.
However, the next great challenge of the Conservative Party will be to articulate, strengthen and convey ‘the conservative posture’ whilst endeavouring to ‘defend and maintain existence without a cause’. This will undoubtedly be a difficult balance to strike, yet it promises to be an immensely rewarding one in the national enterprise of forging Britain’s existence as an autonomous political entity.