Ohat happened to English conservatism? The party was once believed to have a sophisticated understanding of statecraft and a “natural” ability to retain power. Here he is now, spending the summer trapped in a nightmare of his own making. Celebrity Boris Johnson’s lack of serious cakeist has been turned into a game show: charmless candidates for the next Prime Minister pander to judges who are not so much a party as a youth subculture gone geriatric – its codes and styles are opaque to anyone who does not collect 1980s Thatcherite “goods”.
All of this – like Johnson’s blowback reign – is symptomatic of a longer, wider and deeper ideological decline. Conservative political philosophy used arguments opponents had to reckon with: pointed and informed the skepticism about grand plans of those who know the world only from books and the expectation that the technocrats of Whitehall could benevolently and wisely manage all the time. Pointing out the tragic flaws in human nature, warning that efforts to perfect ourselves can give vent to our imperfections, it was an important counterweight to political arrogance. These big ideas challenged the rationalists and progressives of the liberal center and the socialist left.
But today’s conservatives have a small idea: that they should be able to do what they want, when they want (to whoever they want), and that the rest of us shouldn’t just accept that, but facilitate and celebrate them – or be condemned as “snowflakes”.
In recent years, occasional asides have highlighted this intellectual decline. MP Andrew Murrison, complaining about the National Trust’s research into the history of the slave trade, said he only wanted to see ‘an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a good cup of tea and a piece of cake” – as if the British lands were just a playground and its history was just an assignment.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s initial response to the invasion of Ukraine was not ministerial gravity but schoolboy enthusiasm; his old regiment had “kicked the ass” of the Tsar during the Crimean War and could “always start again”. Alongside these idlers and fantasists, the party is full of bigoted students of politics who identify as culture warriors and act like excitable teenagers. They warn against the conspiratorial elites they’ve heard about online, using imported American slang such as “deep state”, a penchant Johnson indulged in his no-confidence motion speech his government called himself.
Now the party, advised by spads who can’t hold a glass – if the wine stains on the walls of Downing Street are anything to behold – have chosen two ideal avatars of their own self-images, and forced them to fight over who started it. On the one hand, a man considered the wealthiest in the House, a public schoolboy who has never had friends in the working class and for whom politics is a hobby; on the other, a politician free from commitments to anything other than her own promotion, and whose success lies in the fact that she can tickle the conservative belly by talking about British cheeses and Yorkshire teas while having the seemingly imagining the execution of his speechwriter.
Where does this extraordinary infantilization of English conservatism come from?
The core of conservative ideology has always been a principled commitment to inequality. It exists to defend the aristocracy – not the rule of chic but the rule of the best. Part of his success is how he can always change the definition of “best”: from former landowners to new entrepreneurs creating wealth and nobly letting it flow; from tall Britons to brave Englishmen throwing off the shackles of backward Brussels and rebellious Scots.
According to conservative political philosophy, nature has made only a few fit to rule, enabling them to see further, deeper and higher than ordinary people. Consequently, they cannot be confined by conventions and regulations. They have an aristocratic license to break the rules because they serve a higher value: the defense of the kingdom; market innovation; the mystical will of the people. Basically, this idea turned into the belief that because the best are not bound by the rules, if you break the rules, you must be one of the best. Refusing to be bound by the decisions of judges, being ostensibly incivil online, ignoring the international treaty you just signed, is reimagined as proof of fitness for office.
Long entrenched in a culture that celebrates boldly naughty aristocrats, this type of thinking has been particularly driven by the concept of the “nanny state.” The term naturally finds its origin in a column in the Spectator in 1965. A metaphorical trump card, it was played ad infinitum to block any proposal on what it might be in our common interest to regulate. It makes selfish stubbornness seem like a bold assertion of maturity, independence, and self-reliance. The myth of the nanny state gives believers a teenage chill of anti-authoritarianism. But because the high is fleeting, they always have to look again for a nanny against whom they can prove themselves: trade unionists, judges and human rights lawyers; virologists, statisticians, people wearing face masks; the BBC, the SNP, the ECHR. In extreme cases, they oppose the nanny laws of physics, which insist on governing the interactions of CO2 molecules with solar radiation.
Once it succumbs to this childish conception of political freedom, other parts of conservatism also retreat to the nursery. For example, the British right has always appreciated the aesthetic dimensions of political life, or rather the theater of power. Margaret Thatcher was a talented player, shrewd political instinct informing her performances of Boudicca, Britannia and the Iron Lady. His political grandchildren only know how to camouflage themselves in second-hand stereotypes. Johnson’s cultured tousle evokes a naughty but clever schoolboy: Just William Goes to Parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg has long since gotten lost in the method, playing the role of an indifferent aristocrat. And so, the contestants are vying for their cosplay: Liz Truss’ low-cost tribute act to Thatcher wrapped in a bow against Rishi Sunak’s suits and Prada shoes.
For today’s conservatives, politics is a role-playing game in which the winners can do whatever they want. They offer neither the maintenance of tradition nor a well-managed economy but, having broken the social contract, promise their nervous followers that they too can be among the best, jump the queue and say what they want. think without consequence. Confined by our unfit, decadent and inequitable constitution, the rest of us can only watch this party of unruly children, knowing full well who pays for the breakages.
But recess cannot last forever. Reality – a broken ambulance service, inflation outpacing wages, the climate crisis – never goes away. It’s up to us to regain control of these political minors and educate them properly.