Friday, 14 June 2019

Tory Thought

The Conservative party leadership contest is being fought and analysed almost wholly in terms of personality, from the high-wire act that is Boris Johnson's attempt to restrain his sociopathy until he is over the line to the centrist love-in for Rory Stewart's small-bore noblesse oblige. Policy debate has largely been limited to precisely how loudly we will bang the door on the way out of the EU at the end of October. Beyond gestures to the right-wing membership on issues such as abortion and foreign aid, the substantive differences between the candidates are slight. The proposed tax cuts have the feel of a weary obligation - placating the household gods - while the dull rhetoric has been a mix of the platitudinous and the embrace-the-future management-speak of the 1990s (that Matt Hancock referred to himself as "the candidate of the future" in his withdrawal from the race was pure parody). Fundamentally, the Tories have run out of politics.

This isn't a new development. Critics on both the left and right have noted the intellectual barrenness of the Conservatives for some years now, and many of the political obituaries for David Cameron concluded that the party had failed to renew itself beyond the cosmetic during his tenure, remaining intellectually subservient to its Thatcherite heyday and opportunistic in its embrace of Blairite policies and practices. My own view is that there hasn't been a conservative ideology worthy of the name since the introduction of universal suffrage and that most of the policy innovations championed by the Tories over the last one hundred years were simply the adoption of elements of liberalism, from free trade to gay marriage. Attempts to define a conservative philosophy underpinning this opportunism have not succeeded. While thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott emphasised a preference for practice over theory, in reality they were simply trying to provide a coherent frame for a set of prejudices, rooted in social structures and property relations, that were often contradictory in practice.

The fundamental dichotomy in British politics is between liberalism and socialism: capital and labour. The parliamentary party formations do not precisely map to these because of electoral pragmatism. The Labour party is an uneasy coalition of the two, while the Conservative party has sought to fuse liberalism with the anti-intellectual conservatism of its base. The reason why the contemporary Conservative party appears to be a roiling mess of atavistic impulses and wishful-thinking is because that base has become dominant, and the reason for that dominance was the intellectual failure of liberalism a decade ago. On the left, socialism is likewise enjoying a revival, albeit in the form of the cautious social democracy of Corbyn and McDonnell, while a decadent liberalism has retreated to an obsession with virtue and a promiscuous hunt for electoral relevance, producing such morbid symptoms as Chuka Umunna's political trajectory. On the right, the eclipse of liberalism has allowed the Tory id to master its ego.

It is in this context that I think we should read the historian Robert Saunders' essay in the New Statesman, 'The Closing of the Conservative Mind' (a title that echoes Alan Bloom's reactionary jeremiad against modernity). This is a liberal critique of the Tories' intellectual funk that studiously avoids mentioning the crisis of liberalism, casting the party's poor state as the result of cerebral exhaustion rather than decapitation. For Saunders, the change has been nonetheless dramatic: "A party that once set the agenda of British politics – birthing such big ideas as 'Tory democracy', 'One Nation' and 'the property-owning democracy' – seems worn out intellectually. A tradition that was once cautious of change – that distrusted what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called 'the jump-to-glory style of politics' – rushes eagerly towards the unknown; a party that once preached scepticism calls its disciples to 'believe in Brexit', and to the conduct of policy 'by faith alone'".

A glance at the history, from Churchill's calamitous decision to return to the gold standard in 1925 via Suez in 1956 to Thatcher's faith in monetarism in the early 1980s, should be enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that the Tories were habitually cautious and sceptical. It is one of the wonders of political framing that the conventional perception of the Conservative party is so wholly at variance with its record in office. The insouciance of Cameron in gambling on a referendum and the subsequent incompetence of Theresa May were both typical of Tory government, not some erratic diversion from a history of careful judgement and skilful management. In surveying the history of Tory thought Saunders mentions both Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell, but it doesn't seem to occur to him that their emblematic value lies less in their undoubted intellectual rigour and more in their susceptibility to obsessional madness.

Saunders is a good enough historian to recognise that Tory thought has largely been shop-bought rather than home-made: "Its most important inspirations have been borrowed from other traditions: Edmund Burke was a Whig, Joseph Chamberlain a Radical, and Friedrich Hayek, one of the patron saints of Thatcherism, published an essay explaining 'Why I am not a Conservative'". But what he doesn't do is note that Hayek self-identified as a classical liberal and that it was this liberalism, with its emphasis on self-reliance and entrepreneurialism, that attracted Margaret Thatcher. Though he describes her as fiercely intelligent but no intellectual, he fails to appreciate that her radicalism arose from a serious engagement with liberal thought, rather than just being the organic product of her Methodist, small shop-keeping background. It appears she is still suffering from Whiggish condescension.

Saunders treats the history of Tory thought largely in isolation from other intellectual currents, thereby giving it the coherence and narrative thread of a distinct tradition, despite appearances to the contrary: "Conservatism, then, has historically been a tradition of ideas; yet it has also cultivated a reputation for anti-intellectualism. That was partly strategic. It has always suited the Conservative Party to present its ideas not as preferences that might be debated, but as simple common sense: a set of truths about the world, rather than prescriptions for it". This textbook description of hegemony explains how an ideology can present itself as non-ideological, but it doesn't help us understand precisely what that ideology is. Where Saunders comes closest to doing so is in his brief critique of "market liberalism", under which "no institution has been spared the cleansing fire of the market". The contemporary crisis of conservatism is fundamentally a crisis of liberalism.

Boris Johnson is likely to be the next Conservative party leader, and in all probability Prime Minister, because he is opportunistic enough to flex his liberal instincts to suit a conservative, illiberal base. This lack of virtue may appal liberal commentators in the media, but it is liberalism's best hope of keeping the Conservative party together, even if it comes at the cost of leaving the EU. While a split into a Farage-friendly nationalist party and a liberal centre-right party would enthuse those commentators, many of whom are already fantasising about their "dream teams" in respect of the latter, they know full well that this would lead to a Labour government and all the risks for capital that that would entail. Until liberalism can stage its own intellectual comeback, it must rely on whatever comes to hand to maintain capital's political dominance. If it cannot recapture the Labour party, then it must preserve the Conservative party. Johnson is the tool.

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