Monday, 27 May, 2024
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OPINION

Tories Lose Their Ideology?



William Davies

 

What does the Conservative party stand for in 2019? If you survey the central tenets of Tory ideology from the past 50 years, it is hard to find a single one that is still intact. The party of business is hell-bent on undermining access to an export market of half a billion people. The party of law and order is now raging against the judiciary – with senior Tories being regularly asked whether their government intends to obey the law.
The party of “family values” – “back to basics”, as John Major put it – has now fallen for the charms of a famous philanderer, who is currently being dogged by questions about how his “close friend”, Jennifer Arcuri, was awarded £126,000 of grants during his time as London mayor. The party of the establishment is provoking a constitutional crisis, angering the Queen and expelling some of its most distinguished MPs from its benches.

Pertinent question
So perhaps the more pertinent question is whether there is anything the Conservative party won’t stand for. But the answer to that isn’t much clearer: the Johnson-Cummings strategy depends on cultivating the sense that they will say or do anything to achieve their ends; their only principle is a refusal to rule anything out. And to the extent that they face any constraints, these are not coming from inside the Conservative party.
Surviving Tory moderates kid themselves that the problem is all with Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, as if they hadn’t fallen into line behind a man famed for dishonesty and recklessness. They kid themselves that the party is still theirs, as if it hadn’t swelled with Brexit fanatics with no interest in governing. The fact that Amber Rudd resigned simultaneously from the cabinet and the Conservative whip clarified the stakes: the current toxicity belongs to the party, not any individual strategist or leader.
For a party that had been losing its political and philosophical moorings for many years, Brexit has become a substitute for ideology – something more potent and emotional than just a vision for a good society or a policy manifesto. For Conservative party members and many MPs, Brexit is almost theological: it is a crusade requiring sacrifice and suffering. It is not possible that the reality of Brexit will ever live up to the divine version, while parliamentary democracy now appears hopelessly compromised in comparison with the pure “will of the people” that the 2016 referendum is believed to have revealed.
This fanaticism is being escalated and exploited by men without any apparent ideology of their own, or even any particular faith in Brexit. On the actual question posed by the referendum, Boris Johnson was famously ambivalent. And after writing tens of thousands of words about British politics on his own blog, it’s still not clear how Cummings really thinks society should look, or if he even identifies as a “conservative”.
To pinpoint the origins of this ideological decline, one has to look back much further than the referendum. The identity and purpose of the Conservative party has been slowly unravelling for three decades. The year of the “big bang” was 1986, when the City of London was dramatically deregulated, disrupting the old boy networks of Britain’s business classes with the shock of a new, aggressive style of international finance.
But 1986 was also the high point of Tory Europeanism, the year of the Single European Act, which set Europe on the path to a single market, and was driven and crafted by Margaret Thatcher and her allies. Before this point, the crusade for “free markets” was an ideological rallying cry for the new right backers of Ronald Reagan and Thatcher – a soaring ambition that could only be brought to fruition by brave leaders in their mould.
Over those 30 years, there was one force in Britain’s public life that never gave up on the Tories: the press. All those resentments that took the place of conservative ideology – the loathing of multiculturalism, Brussels, Blairism, immigration, and the vast riches being made in London – were given a safe space in the pages of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph. With their constant attacks on all symptoms of liberal globalisation, these papers provided the incubator for the rage currently sweeping British politics.
With one of those newspapers’ favourite sons ensconced in No 10, the boundary between the opinion pages and Westminster has dissolved. The resentments that had brewed for decades – towards “political correctness” and the milieu of metropolitan graduates – now flood public life, with the arrival of a prime minister who speaks his mind as recklessly at the dispatch box as he once did on the page.
Johnson could win a workable majority in the next few months. And yet there’s a marked absence of triumphali1sm in the party. The current poll lead feels precarious; 59 per cent of Tory members have already voted for the Brexit party once (in the European parliament elections), and many could well do so in future. The Conservatives are now to the Brexit party what cocaine is to crack: more acceptable in polite company, but ultimately made of the same stuff.

Resentment
Rage and resentment are powerful political forces, but dangerously unpredictable. Unlike a newspaper columnist, a prime minister takes far more flak than he dishes out, and Johnson now appears harried and uncomfortable. Lacking any positive vision of the economy or society, he and Cummings are entirely reliant on channelling resentment towards various foes, from supreme court justices to Jeremy Corbyn.

(Davies is a sociologist and political economist)
--The Guardian