The abandonment of conservatism in British politics

The vast majority of the analysis of the Eastleigh byelection has centred round the failure of the Conservative Party and the success of UKIP. Essentially the analysis seems to be that the Conservative Party has not been right wing enough and most of the prescriptions for it have been to move to the right on social and probably economic issues. The other which is repeatedly raised along with this issue is the disconnect between the political class elite and the rest of the country. For the Tory party this seems an especially acute issue as the socially liberal but fiscally more right wing philosophy of Cameron seems quite disconnected from the Tory party of the shires – it must be remembered that metropolitan London is quite different to much of the rest of the southeast of England. Furthermore in his attempts to “detoxify” the Tory brand Cameron has at times seemed to delight in annoying significant parts of his core vote.

Whilst a number of Daily Telegraph columnists have pointed this out one of the most lucid and interesting analyses of the issue has been from John Harris in the Guardian.

Harris’s analysis bares significant study and analysis and it can relate as much to Labour as to the Conservatives. Centrally he identifies a failure of any of the mainstream political parties to understand conservatism.

From the early 1980s onwards, Margaret Thatcher and her governments embedded a new notion in the collective Tory mind, and British politics more widely: that politicians should be judged by their radicalism and obstinacy. Self-evidently, this was not Conservatism as anyone had previously understood it – but up until the poll tax saw boldness curdling into hubris, the party and its wider constituency were in almost full support. This was because grim times seemed to demand drastic answers, and because the Thatcherites’ mouldbreaking economics were intertwined with their social conservatism.

Here Harris identifies that the Tories under Thatcher were conservative with a small ‘c’ because of their social conservatism in contrast to their highly unconservative (right wing) economic radicalism.

He also identifies a similar strand in Labour:

Meanwhile, serial defeats for the Labour party eventually led to the arrival of the cult of the so-called modernisers, pledged to force their party to swallow the fact that Thatcher had changed the country for keeps. Though Gordon Brown eventually spurned this next aspect of their credo, Tony Blair and his followers also came to be believers in the permanent radicalism that had so gripped the Thatcherites. “Reform” was their watchword and they had one new article of faith: that the best proof of any leader’s bona fides was the habit of loudly defining themselves against their own side. Eventually, this became almost pathological, as swaths of the party, the unions – and, by extension, millions of voters – were decried as hopeless throwbacks.

Conservatism (with a small ‘c’: a big ‘C’ there only because it starts the sentence) is not necessarily a right wing philosophy: nor is it wholly backward looking or reactionary. Rather it looks back and wishes to conserve things it identifies as beneficial in the past. It is somewhat sceptical about social innovations – the more so if those innovations come from the trendy urban elite.

Back to Harris:

Many suspect that the politics of climate change amounts to so much hysteria. They find the recent experience of immigration troubling – not because they are racists, but because they have justified worries about whether our social fabric can cope. The EU does not annoy them quite as much as some people think, but its distant authority and relevance to immigration makes them open to the idea that we may be best off leaving. And yes, many of them are unsure about the idea of same-sex marriage – not because they justify all those amped-up warnings about “bigots”, but because it was a radical change to an enduring institution, and such things always cause some people unease.

To acknowledge all this is not to endorse it: they are not my tribe. But within their politics, there are elements that are traceable to the left rather than the right: an enduring belief in the NHS, a common conviction that the railways would be best off renationalised.

Their views on so-called welfare can seem punitive, but they may yet be rattled by such injustices as the spare bedroom tax, and what the government is doing to disabled people. Besides, though many read the Daily Mail, they do not share the apocalyptic views of, say, its renowned columnist Melanie Phillips: boiled down, their take on the world amounts to a gentle though occasionally tetchy scepticism. It is as much about broad values as anything specific: anti-metropolitanism, a profound dislike of hype and cant, a belief that governments should see to the home front before they fret about anything abroad.

These are not necessarily views which lead one to vote Tory: as Harris points out one of the best examples of this sort of conservatism is actually the Welsh Labour Party.

There is almost certainly a constituency to be tapped (or rather a series of different constituencies) which are socially conservative and even possibly quite right wing on certain social issues but equally economically quite left wing in their suspicion of certain market policies and even maybe on the wisdom of cutting as far and as fast as many on the economic right propose.

Furthermore although Harris touches on it only briefly there is something of a paradox in many people’s views on welfare. Almost everyone is opposed to welfare scroungers and the likes of the Daily Mail are always able to find examples of such people. Equally, however, people are horrified when welfare cuts impact on individuals seen as deserving: pensioners and the like. Even single mothers – the favoured bete noir of some social conservatives in actual fact frequently end up being women struggling to provide the best for their children; willing to go without themselves to ensure a better life for their children and often out of work and on benefits due to a poverty trap rather than a desire to fleece the state. Going back to the Deserving and Undeserving poor of Shaw’s Pygmalion, one finds that although in theory many of the poor are Undeserving actually many supposed conservatives find most individuals are remarkably Deserving.

Cameron seems both by his background and his political instincts incapable of understanding this voting dynamic; Clegg even less so and whilst Milliband has flirted the ideas of Blue Labour thus far he has not gone anything like far enough. This leaves Farrage and UKIP to attract people almost by default.

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