What has happened to English conservatism? The party was once believed to have a sophisticated grasp of statecraft and a “natural” ability to hold on to power. Here it is now, spending the summer trapped in a nightmare of its own making. The cachetist frivolity of celebrity Boris Johnson has been spun into a TV game show: charmless candidates for the next Prime Minister submit to judges who constitute not so much a party as a youth subculture gone geriatric – its codes and styles opaque to all which does not collect Thatcher “merchandise” from the 1980s.
All this – like Johnson’s reign of backlash – is symptomatic of a longer, wider and deeper ideological decline. Conservative political philosophy used to make arguments that its opponents had to reckon with: sharp and informed skepticism about the grand plans of those who know the world through books alone and the expectation that technocrats in Whitehall could manage benevolently and wisely all along. By emphasizing the tragic flaws in human nature and warning that attempts to perfect ourselves can give free rein to our imperfections, it was an important counterbalance to political arrogance. Such big ideas challenged the rationalists and progressives of the liberal center and socialist left.
But the conservatives today have a small idea: that they should be able to do what they want, when they want (to whom they want), and that the rest of us should not only accept this, but facilitate and celebrate them – or be judged as “snowflake”.
In recent years, random pages have shown this intellectual decline. Andrew Murrison MP, who complained about the National Trust’s research into the history of the slave trade, said he just wanted to see “an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before he has a good cup of tea and a piece of cake” – as if the land of Britain was just a play park and its history just homework.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s initial response to the invasion of Ukraine was not ministerial gravitas but schoolboy enthusiasm; his old regiment had “kicked the rear” of the Tsar in the Crimean War and could “always do it again”. Alongside such idlers and fantasists, the party is full of student political sectarians who identify themselves as culture warriors and act like exciting teenagers. They warn against conspiratorial elites they read about online, using imported American slang like “deep state”, a penchant Johnson indulged in in his self-imposed no confidence speech.
Now the party, ruled by spades who can’t hold a drink – if the wine stains on the walls of Downing Street are anything to go by – has chosen two ideal avatars of its own self-images, and set them to fight over who started it. On the one hand is a man believed to be the richest in the house, a public schoolboy who never had any working-class friends and for whom politics is a hobby; on the other, a politician unencumbered by commitments to anything other than her own advancement, and whose success lies in realizing that she can tickle Tory bellies by talking about British cheeses and Yorkshire tea while looking as if she himself the execution of his speechwriter.
What accounts for this extraordinary infantilization of English conservatism?
At the core of conservative ideology has always been a principled commitment to inequality. It exists to defend the aristocracy – not the rule of the distinguished, but the rule of the best. Part of its success lies in how it can always change the definition of “the best”: from ancient landowners to new entrepreneurs who create wealth and nobly let it trickle down; from great 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 capable of ruling, enabling them to see further, deeper and higher than ordinary people. Consequently, they cannot be limited by conventions and regulations. They have an aristocratic license to break the rules because they serve a higher value: defense of the realm; market innovation; the mysterious will of the people. Crucially, this idea has mutated 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 judges’ decisions, being ostentatiously uncivil online, ignoring the international treaty you just signed are recast as evidence of fitness for office.
Long embedded in a culture that celebrates bold badass aristocrats, this kind of thinking has been particularly animated by the concept of the “nanny state”. The term naturally originated in a column in the Spectator in 1965. A metaphorical trump card, it has been played endlessly to block any suggestion of what it might be in our common interest to regulate. It makes selfish persistence feel like a bold assertion of maturity, independence, and self-reliance. The myth of the nanny state gives believers a teenage thrill of anti-authoritarianism. But because the high is fleeting, they must always search again for a nanny to prove themselves to: trade unionists, judges and human rights lawyers; virologists, statisticians, people wearing face masks; BBC, SNP, ECJ. In extreme cases, they argue against the nanny laws of physics, which insist on governing the interactions between CO2 molecules and solar radiation.
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Once it has succumbed 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 skilled player, artful political instinct informing her performances of Boudicca, Britannia and the Iron Lady. Her political grandchildren only know how to dress up in used stereotypes. Johnson’s cultured confusion evokes a naughty but clever schoolboy: Just William Goes to Parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg has long since lost himself in the act of method as an indifferent aristocrat. And this is how the leadership candidates argue about their cosplay: Liz Truss’ low Thatcher tribute act wrapped in a bow versus Rishi Sunak’s suits and Prada shoes.
For the Conservative Party today, politics is a role-playing game where the winners get to do whatever they want. They offer neither the maintenance of tradition nor a well-run economy, but after breaking the social contract, they promise their nervous supporters that they too can be one of the best, jump the queue and speak their mind without consequence. Restricted by our unfit, decaying and unjust constitution, the rest of us can only look on at this unruly children’s company, knowing who pays for the violations.
But playing time cannot last forever. Reality – a broken ambulance service, inflation outstripping wages, the climate crisis – never goes away. It is up to us to take back control from these political youth, and educate them properly.