Politics as we know it is at something of a crossroads. Brexit has thoroughly eroded confidence in the UK’s two-party system, with no clear majorities being found for either Labour or the Conservatives at the last general election. Additionally, the local elections were a total disaster for both and the European elections are looking like they will have a similar outcome.
When David Cameron first came into power, joined at the hip with Nick Clegg, the affable-yet-sometimes-laffable, hamster-faced Lib Dem leader, he brought with him a surge in centrist support for the Conservatives. After Labour’s “New Labour” domination under Blair and then Brown, Cameron transformed the Conservatives into a party that could steal votes away from this new centre-ground, and even won his second term outright.
Now, however, the Tory party is in disarray. After disastrously misjudging the public’s opinion on Europe, the result of the Brexit referendum has slowly but surely split the party in two, much like the laser out of Goldfinger if our lad Jimmy B hadn’t talked his way out of getting his “Commander Bond” zapped off. The previous centrist policies of the Cameron conservatives have given way to the hardliners of the ERG, with the leadership more concerned about the right-wing voters than those in the centre.
At the beginning of what might be a period of great change in politics, it feels apt to explore conservatism and what might come next.
What Does Conservatism Mean?
At its core, the philosophical difference between the Conservatives and Labour comes down to this:
- The Labour Party is socialist, and by extension Utopian – this means that they proactively try to change society for the better by making it more equal.
- The Conservative Party is pragmatic – rather than try to change society through a set of political beliefs, the Tories are meant to change themselves to reflect society as a whole.
Labour governments will usually be hands-on, with higher taxes and increased emphasis on the public sector – i.e. nationalised railways, more funds for the NHS and benefits schemes etc. Tory governments, by contrast, will take a step back and allow free-market capitalism to define the economy instead – their belief is that if they tax people less, they will spend more, and the money will naturally find its way to required goods and services rather than the government choosing it for them.
So far, so pragmatic – rather than try to change society, the Tories believe that government should be a reflection of it.
And What Of The Tories Now?
The word pragmatic goes out of the window like a cat chasing a squirrel.
Cameron’s Conservatives attracted voters because of their appeal to a huge, politically-engaged portion of society. In the UK, especially in the cities, we have a massive middle-class of relatively affluent but socially-liberal people, and a Tory party that reflected this would always attract that vote (it was Cameron who legalised same-sex marriage, after all) .
The problems within the Tories now, however, stem largely from one aspect of pragmatism that is the exact opposite to the above – the importance and maintenance of tradition.
Utopianism, by its definition (i.e. creating a utopia), suggests that there is something wrong with society that needs to be fixed. Pragmatism suggests that if society is fine, it shouldn’t be fiddled with – society should be reflected by the government but left alone. This emphasises the importance of tradition, because if society isn’t broken, it is because the institutions that govern it are working fine.
However, the institutions that govern ours are not working fine. This is about as obvious as a hippo at a guinea-pig sanctuary.
The obligation for our current government should be to recognise that some of the institutions that have got us to this point are fundamentally failing – the NHS is crumbling, the wealth gap is rapidly expanding, food bank usage is massively increased, homelessness is seemingly everywhere… All of these facts are extremely damaging for the fifth-largest economy in the world, and could even be considered embarrassing, yet our current Tory government is sat on its hands, refusing to acknowledge or change anything.
Why?! All Of Those Things Are Objectively Terrible!
Because of the concept of free-market capitalism. Despite these alarming and arguably immoral outcomes of Tory leadership, our economy is performing well. To the Tories, this suggests that nothing is particularly wrong at all, as a stronger economy means more spending and more wealth generation, but they have systematically failed to remember the most important thing about government:
The people vote you in, not the economy.
The middle-class, Cameron-supporting moderates see homelessness on the rise, they see the Windrush scandal, they see a benefits system that demeans and belittles those in need and they think, “What the hell is going on?” These moderate, socially-liberal voters cannot stand to see government policy heading in this direction and are put off by the Tories.
However, many Tories come from a more traditionalist, right-wing viewpoint – some harbouring Thatcherite levels of belief in free-market capitalism. While I don’t believe that Theresa May is one of them, I do believe that some of those in her party who hold the real power are, such as those members of the ERG who have held the government to ransom over the last few months.
No matter how well the economy is performing, however, the failures of the Tories to look after those who need it most, the most basic fundamental requirement for decent government, will come back to haunt them after Brexit is done.
The Brexit logjam has exposed this rift within the party, defined by the single issue of the EU but applicable to Tory policy on the whole:
- A number of moderate conservatives that understand the value of the EU in a new, globalised society, despite its flaws;
- VS the right-wing Tories that believe that it encroaches upon the traditions of the UK that made it great and got it to be a top-five economy in the first place.
The Tories are being destroyed by their inability to follow one of their core dogmas – pragmatism. Melanie Phillips recently wrote in The Times that the Conservative Party has forgotten what conservatism truly means – adapting to the challenges of society to remain constantly electable, not a party built on dogma like the socialist left.
While the Conservatives are not trying to change society, they are fundamentally failing to listen to it. While they are growing the economy, they are shrinking the existence of millions of people within it. While they are in power, they are failing to adapt to the electorate that will keep them there.
And, as a result, they have seen their moderate votes go to the Lib Dems and Green Party at the local elections, and their hard-right votes will go to the Brexit party at the European elections.
It is hard to see what might happen after these defeats, but to acquiesce fully to the hard-right supporters under a Boris-led party would, for many moderates, sound the death knell for this grand old party.
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