Can Europe Make It?

A battle for the meaning of British Conservatism

What rescues Conservatives from internecine conflict like that of the Labour Party? Oakeshott claimed that the conservative does not have a creed or doctrine, but rather a ‘disposition’.

Ben Waite
11 February 2017
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Save Brixton Arches mural. Flickr/Mikey. Some rights reserved.British politics, like politics in general, is awash with uncertainty. Withdrawal from the EU has brought about a Conservative government promising a new direction for the country. Having been in power for six years and with the potential to dominate government for the foreseeable future, the party is in a powerful position. Yet the challenges it faces are daunting. Divisions over the issue of Europe are long-standing. Doubts about the viability of a society with open borders and markets as a core principle are also growing. Understanding the fissures and dynamics of the party and the thinking of conservatives (of both a little and a large ‘c’) could not be more important as we move into a period of potentially momentous change for the country overall.

In July 2016, new Prime Minister Theresa May set out a fresh agenda for her premiership. Immigration clearly will be very important, having been a central issue in the referendum. However on taking office she pledged very directly to fight the ‘burning injustices’ caused by the many forms of inequality present in society. She promised to lead a government dedicated to the interests of those suffering from them.

On the one hand this could be a cynical attempt to steal ground electorally, adopting a centre-left agenda in order to mount pressure on an already woefully divided and inward-looking Labour Party. On the other, it may conform with a long strain of conservative thought which believes that ruling elites should govern in the interests of the whole of society, known alternately as ‘compassionate conservatism’, ‘One Nation Toryism’, or ‘noblesse oblige’. In this, not only is there a moral ‘duty on the part of the rich to the poor and needy’, as Boris Johnson once characteristically phrased it, but that without concern for the welfare of the greater masses of the population, the risk of social instability will grow.

‘One Nation Toryism’ originated with Benjamin Disraeli, whose governments faced huge challenges posed by industrialisation, inequality and rural-urban migration in the mid-nineteenth century. Although inspired in large part by electoral concerns of the time; needing to impress the newly expanding working class electorate, the approach grew roots.

Since Disraeli’s progressive reforms, which included supporting the construction of working-class housing, many Conservatives have claimed his mantle. Though often viewed cynically by commentators on the left, from Disraeli’s reforms, to David Cameron’s legalisation of gay marriage, it must be remembered that real progress has also resulted. 

‘Compassionate conservatism’ and the ‘Big Society’ dominated the early rhetoric of the Cameron years under the omnipresent statement ‘we are all in this together’. Theresa May’s chief of staff Nick Timothy sees the main contest in today’s Conservative Party as being between the different variations on this approach. The ‘Easterhouse’ variety, focusing on the means of combating extreme poverty, the ‘Soho’ variety, which focuses on ‘general wellbeing’ and his own choice of ‘Erdington’ conservatism, focusing on every politician’s best friends: the ‘ordinary, working people’.

A new divide?

These approaches sound appealing enough, but they must be considered in the light of the central policies and legacies of the last six years of a Conservative-led government. The disaster brought about by the 2008 financial crisis meant that economics was, by necessity, central to government in the last few years. Cameron and Osborne chose a course of fiscal consolidation, achieved by substantial cuts to social provisions alongside reductions in tax rates for businesses and the well-off. The results of these policies are very clear: self-made deficit reduction targets were missed and the recovery since 2008 has been the weakest on record.

Even the heralded recovery in employment numbers has been accompanied by declining real wages and stagnating productivity. Moreover cost-savings were proposed or made on the backs of the very weakest in society. Welfare reforms and cuts have been at the heart of the large rises in both statutory homelessness (36%) and rough sleeping (54%) since 2010. Proposals to cut benefits to the disabled by thousands of pounds annually were only overturned after extreme outside pressure. The cap to benefits received per household is something that threatens to push up to 40,000 more children into poverty according to the government’s own sources. Such measures were a centre-piece of the 2015 general election campaign and something that Cameron claimed told you “everything you need to know about our values”.

They are values that contribute very directly to the ‘burning injustices’ that Theresa May has since pledged to fight. And they are a stark reflection of another influential strain of conservative thought: one that emphasises the need for individualism, self-reliance and the importance of non-interference in the ‘natural workings’ of the market. This ideology, increasingly well-known as ‘free-market fundamentalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, rose to prominence in the 1980s under the conservative icon Margaret Thatcher.

It developed in response to the breakdown of the British 'corporatist' model in the 1970s, which triangulated relations between business, government and labour forces, which until then had overseen an era of strong economic growth and increasing shared prosperity. Neoliberals advocated laissez-faire economics as the centre-piece of their model for government, one that extended far beyond. 'Economics are the method', Thatcher once said, 'the object is to change the soul'.

Core policies focused on privatisation, loosening regulation and the cutting of taxes on businesses and the wealthy. Yet more profound effects came from the focus on crushing organised labour, attacks on the foundations of the welfare state and spreading the ethics of the market into aspects of life far beyond modes of exchange and production. 

This was little short of a revolution in the social and economic life of Britain. Neoliberal policies and principles have since been the ‘common-sense’ of governments and business elites alike. For the conservative, it is a reflection of close ties to business and capital. Staunch dedication to capitalism has long been a hallmark, yet the ‘neoliberal turn’ created a more dogmatic devotion to the free market.

This devotion quickly overwhelmed the desire for controlling or limiting change. Instead it embraced the aspect of capitalism which Schumpeter described as ‘creative destruction’ and which Marx identified when he spoke of the need for capital to reproduce the relations of production and society, creating change in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’[i]. As a result, de-industrialisation swept across the nation alongside the imposition of ‘flexibility’ on labour markets. The years since Thatcher’s government brought huge rewards for some, yet the effects for many others were marginalisation and insecurity[ii], something even steadfast neoliberal institutions like the IMF are beginning to recognise.

Those who have borne the brunt of de-industrialisation have experienced the double-impact of economic insecurity combined with the loss of identity associated with stable and secure working practices. Yet rather than fuelling the rise of anti-capitalist or other left-wing beliefs, these problems have fed the evolution of ‘blue-collar conservatism’.

Anger is directed at ‘liberal elites’, who have indulged the forces of globalisation and its embodiment in the flesh: immigration. In a context of decreasing opportunity and a strong sense of ‘competition’ for increasingly scarce state provisions and jobs, migrants have become reviled figures and the appeal of nativism has grown. The sense of identity gained by nationalism may, in part, be a substitute for the identities forged among traditional, male-dominated blue-collar jobs.

NYU Professor Corey Robin argues that this form of conservatism is of particular appeal to those who feel as though they have lost out. 'It may be as material as money or ethereal as a sense of standing', but conservative populism allows its followers to vent grievances and agitate for recovery[iii]. The righting of recent wrongs, be they EU-inflicted or otherwise and the restoration of a halcyon past has formed a powerful populist current.

Although traditionally right-wing populism harnessed the power of the masses without threatening the power of elites, there are increasing signs that control is being lost. It was this current that forced a vote on EU membership and drove through a victory for the 'leave' campaign. And it is far from restricted to the British. These were the sentiments, of course, which propelled Donald Trump to the US Presidency and have become a much greater concern as a result.  Nationalist, anti-immigration and specifically anti-Muslim fervour is on the rise. The spectre of crypto-fascism looms menacingly in a number of forthcoming European elections. All of which strikes fear into the pro-business factions in conservatism, for whom the liberal-capitalist order on which they are reliant is looking increasingly unstable.

Conservative tradition and scepticism

If the modern forms of conservative thinking look strained and uncertain, what of the more established elements? The essence of it would appear to be the desire to conserve practices, institutions and items of intrinsic value[iv]. Yet this desire is as likely to appear among left-wing organisations as it is conservative ones. In London, the campaign to ‘save Brixton Arches’ from Network Rail’s plan to evict independent traders, refurbishing and hence hiking rents was an example of a protest against the forces of market logic, and certainly not conservative in its foundations.

Contrary to this, one of the ‘founding texts’ of conservatism, ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, recognised that conserving things of value may in fact require changes in the status quo.  The author, Edmund Burke, was fearful of the effects of the eruptions of 1789. However, he placed blame with the French monarchy, for failing to recognise the need to adapt in order to preserve itself[v].

Burke lamented that the guiding principles of the revolution were abstract principles of liberty, equality and fraternity rather than the values of experience and tradition. This, he said, could have disastrous consequences, as philosophical abstractions ignore the complexities of human nature and society. The violence which occurred during the ‘Reign of Terror’, deemed by many to have proved Burke right, is still invoked when warning of the law of unintended consequences to those who advocate radical social change.

Such scepticism continued among later intellectuals. Michael Oakeshott’s famous essay ‘On Being Conservative’ spoke of the preference for the ‘familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried’, whilst government should be a ‘specific and limited activity’ not seeking to lead, direct or galvanise, but act akin to an ‘umpire’ enforcing rules of the game[vi]. For conservatives like John Gray, who is disdainful of the liberal belief in human beings as ‘endless reservoirs of possibility’, politics is a way of coping with the ‘hazards that come from the unalterable defects of the human animal’[vii].

However, acting with respect to human frailty does not necessarily mean conforming with tradition and experience. Appeals to these traits are as old as recorded history. In cementing his place as the first true Emperor of Rome (often seen by historians as a quintessentially conservative culture), Octavian made use of ‘traditional idioms’, claims to noble lineage and the revered offices of power that meant he was able to consolidate ‘a new axis of power’ with himself at the apex[viii]. By the time he died he had savaged the existing political system, set in motion a revolution that would colour the next four hundred years of Roman history and secured himself a place among Roman deity.

The revolutionary tendencies of conservatism then, are not uncommon. The many contrasting, even seemingly contradictory themes that make up the conservative label do not make it untenable, however. What is it that prevents Conservatives from descending into internecine conflict like that of the Labour Party? Oakeshott famously claimed that the conservative does not have a creed or doctrine, but rather a ‘disposition’.

If that exists it is not as a natural sense of caution and scepticism as he suggested rather, it is this: Conservatives  primarily seek the preservation of hierarchy and the protection or extension of rights and privileges for the already privileged. From Octavian entrenching his dictatorial power, through Burke and Disraeli attempting to dampen the growing power of the mob, to Thatcher and her disciples in recent years, this has been both a core objective and binding force.

The potential for schism is real, however. Whichever strands of conservatism influence May’s government, it is certain that her time in office will be determined by the handling of withdrawal from the EU. Elites across the world are beginning to realise the need to respond to populist anger in an active way. The nationalistic, anti-immigration rhetoric now common in western discourse stands in opposition to the needs and desires of large business. May and the Conservatives will have to seek to balance these competing elements whilst charting their exit course. Yet, in contrast to the clarion call of ‘taking back control’, the tough negotiations with larger and more powerful actors means that they are far from being masters of their own fate. In the power struggles that will ensue, the defining nature of Conservatism will be contested. And the stakes for the future of the government, the party and the country as a whole could not be higher.

[i] Schumpeter, J; (1943 [2010]) Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy; London: Routledge  &

Marx, K & Engels, F; (1854 [1998] The Communist Manifesto; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Contemporary inequality is covered best in Milanovic, B; (2016) Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization; Massachussets: Harvard University Press. The effects of insecurity are covered in Standing, G; (2014) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class; London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[iii] Robin, C (2011) The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin; Oxford Oxford University Press

[iv] Cohen, G; ‘A Truth in Conservatism: Rescuing conservatism from the Conservatives’ [Retrieved from http://crookedtimber.org/2007/11/21/the-truth-in-conservatism/ 1/8/2016]

[v] Burke, E; (1790 [1999]) Reflections on the Revolution in France; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[vi] Oakeshott, M; (Date) ‘On Being Conservative’. [Retrieved from: http://faculty.rcc.edu/sellick/On%20Being%20Conservative.pdf 12/9/2016]

[vii] Gray, J (1991 [2010]) ‘The Conservative Disposition’ in Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings; London Penguin Books.

[viii] Beard, M; (2016) SPQR, A History of Ancient Rome; London: Profile Books.

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