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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  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, Turgon. There has to be something pretty deep going on here, because Farage is not an obviously attractive leader. I wonder if people are beginning to realize that the dishonest and cynical toffocracy has neither a heart nor a soul. John Harris is speaking as a spectative member of another tribe, but what he says is quite credible.

  • DC

    Peter Oborne of The Daily Telegraph asks Lord Glasman the architect of Blue Labour, and Conservative MP Jesse Norman who has written extensively on David Cameron’s Big Society, about the Labour party policy review, and whether Labour and Tories are encroaching on each other’s territory.

  • Harry Flashman

    Harris’ article is one of the best pieces of political analysis I have read in years.

    Full credit to the Guardian for publishing it. The calm reasoned debate in the comments section is also a refreshing change from the usual polemics that characterizes CiF.

    Just to point out that li’l humble me in the Eastleigh thread a few days ago also posited the obvious statement that the British electorate are a small “c” conservative bunch who are not currently being served by the establishment parties.

  • terence patrick hewett

    A small political party was started in Britain around the year 1900 and within 20 or so years was helping to form minority governments. It was called the Labour Party. UKIP was formed around 1993 about 20 years ago.

  • Greenflag

    On the nail analysis Turgon .

    @ David Crookes

    ”I wonder if people are beginning to realize that the dishonest and cynical toffocracy has neither a heart nor a soul.’

    Or brain to judge by this latest adventure by Chancellor Osborne .from the Beeb ,

    Chancellor George Osborne is in Brussels determined to renegotiate the European Parliament’s proposals to curb bankers’ bonuses.

    But EU finance ministers in the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) are expected to approve last week’s proposals.

    They include limiting bonuses to 100% of a banker’s annual salary, or to 200% if shareholders approve.

    The City of London fears the rules will drive away talent and restrict growth.

    Mayor of London Boris Johnson has dismissed the idea as “self-defeating”. London is the EU’s largest financial centre.

    On Monday, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: “We continue to have real concerns on the proposals. We are in discussions with other member states.”

    Mr Osborne is concerned that the bonus cap could push banking business, and its brightest talent, away from Europe and its largest financial centre, the City of London.

    So the UK is calling for flexibility, but it is struggling to find allies. Countries that often agree with the British position on financial services – countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany – support this deal.

    Tuesday’s discussion will be followed by a formal vote in the European Parliament in May, and the cap on bankers’ bonuses looks set to become law next year.

    That would mark an extremely rare defeat for the UK on financial legislation in Europe, a real break with how things have traditionally been done.

    But Mr Osborne’s bargaining power may be weakened further by Switzerland’s recent decision to cap bonuses paid to bankers and give shareholders binding powers over executive pay.

    Some EU ministers have looked with approval on the Swiss move, made in a national referendum on Sunday.

    “The Swiss often show the way and personally I think we should take inspiration,” said French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

    Speaking just before he went into the meeting, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said there seemed little prospect of Mr Osborne winning over his eurozone counterparts.

    “There is very little further that we can do for them (the British)… There isn’t really any more room left,” he said.’

    The little c people of England may know little or careless about the EU but it’s no surprise to the majority of Britons that Messers Cameron & Osborne are more beholden to the ‘bankers’ in the City of London than to the majority of their ‘conservative ‘ much less labour or liberal fellow countrymen .

    I wonder what the UKIP position is on the EU move to rationalise the greedy banksters ? If even a majority of the Swiss can vote for such a rational move what is it about such a move that Osborne & Cameron can’t agree with ?

    Unless it’s the now hoary

    ‘The City of London fears the rules will drive away talent and restrict growth.’

    Growth for exactly who and talent for exactly what ? Another financial meltdown brought about by the still unrestrained masters of disaster ?

    You won’t read Greenflag wishing the UKIP electoral success in the next UK General Election for I’m still a believer in the EU and Eurozone generally . But it does seem as if Messers Cameron & Osborne have by their latest EU foray to defend the banksters – proved John Harris’s Guardian article to be more than prescient .

  • Greenflag

    Here’s the BBC link for the above

    Even the Irish have given up on the Cons & Libs .

    Speaking just before he went into the meeting, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said there seemed little prospect of Mr Osborne winning over his eurozone counterparts.

    “There is very little further that we can do for them (the British)… There isn’t really any more room left,” he said.’

  • Because the Conservative Party experience is so often referenced in American conservative debates about the future of the Republican Party, a couple of years ago I bought a number of histories of the Conservatives online and gave them to a Republican friend of mine for Xmas. From what I could gather from one of them that I partly read before turning them over, and “The Strange Death of Tory England,” by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, which I ordered after that, the Tories pre-Thatcher were much like Eisenhower Republicans. After their repeated election losses they nominated David Cameron, who is probably closest to one of the Bush brothers in American Republican terms.

    In America the radicals have organized within the party as the Tea Party, which was at its height soon after emerging in 2010. In Britain the radicals have abandoned the Tories for the UKIP, which is very weak but gaining in strength. Judging from the post-election analysis in the GOP the fever has not yet passed and the party will have to lose at least one more presidential election before coming to its senses. The GOP is the party of older white men and white women, which is a demographic minority in America. I believe that the Commonwealth influx in the 1960s and 1970s has probably done to Britain what illegal immigration and higher birthrates have done in America as far as changing the racial demography of the country. Cameron, I believe, is trying to forge a new relationship with an over-reaching European project that has failed. This is the British equivalent of attempting to rein in spending that has seen the deficit rise out of control. Unfortunately the GOP radicals seem to be blind to the waste in the defense budget and the huge expenses involved in foreign crusades that accomplish little of what they were designed to do.

  • Not only can Clegg not represent this small-c conservative position, but he should not. Someone has to be on the other side, and Britain’s Liberal party should be it.

  • A cynic intrudes …

    Back in 1966, the New Statesman published a Christopher Logue poem:

    I shall vote labour because
    God votes labour
    I shall vote Labour to protect
    the sacred institution of the family
    I shall vote Labour because
    I am a dog
    I shall vote labour because Labour tolerates
    the traitor Ian Smith
    I shall vote Labour because
    I am on a diet
    I shall vote Labour because Ringo votes Labour
    I shall vote Labour because
    upper class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants
    I shall vote Labour because if I don’t
    somebody else will


    I shall vote Labour because if one person does it everybody else will be wanting to do it.
    I shall vote Labour because
    my husband looks like Antony Wedgwood Benn
    I shall vote Labour because I am obedient
    I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
    my balls will drop off.
    I shall vote Labour because there are too few
    cars on the road
    I shall vote Labour because
    Mrs Wilson promised me five pounds if I did
    I shall vote Labour because I love
    Look at Life films
    I shall vote Labour because
    I am a hopeless drug addict
    I shall vote Labour because
    I am a Wincarnis shareholder
    I shall vote Labour because
    I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three
    I shall vote Labour because labour will build
    More maximum security prisons
    I shall vote Labour because I want to see
    Nureyev and Fonteyne dance in Swansea Civic Centre
    I shall vote Labour because I want to shop
    In a covered precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow
    I shall vote Labour because I want to rape an air hostess
    I shall vote Labour because I am a hairdresser
    I shall vote Labour because
    The Queen’s Stamp collection is the best in the world
    I shall vote Labour because
    Deep in my heart
    I am a conservative

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

    Which is why, after fifty-odd years of trying, I still carry a party card, and call myself … a socialist.

  • Greenflag

    @ Tmitch57 ,

    ‘Judging from the post-election analysis in the GOP the fever has not yet passed and the party will have to lose at least one more presidential election before coming to its senses.’

    Assuming there is any sense left to return to 🙁 .They’ve been able to exaggerate their house majority only through ‘redistricting ‘ .But instead of benefiting the GOP this has instead isolated them even more from the American middle and working class majorities . They have become just ‘spokesmen ‘and paid lobbyists for the large corporate interests . Not that the Democrats haven’t been either -it’s just that the latter have been less stupid ?cleverer ? in disguising such influences ,

    ‘The GOP is the party of older white men and white women, which is a demographic minority in America. ‘

    So rich and not so rich fat white people in the USA and indeed elsewhere decided not to have kids and now complain that ‘immigrants ‘ are swamping the country and taking away jobs , increasing crime etc etc .

    Pardon my French but they have only themselves to blame . As my mum used to say the ‘rich’ have stuff and lives of ease whereas the poor have children . The fact that business in the USA as well as elsewhere prefers cheaper labour should come as no surprise to anybody who calls themselves a ‘capitalist ‘ .Without the 12 million illegal immigrants and the 20 million legal immigrants the USA population would be in decline probably even faster than Japan or the Soviet Union .Both Britain and Ireland owe their current just about or above replacement birth rates to that 25% of ‘mothers ‘ who are immigrants .And the same applies to Germany, France and Italy and others .Why large numbers of working people in western societies choose to opt out of ‘family creation’ is a question which remains unaddressed by our public representatives ? Perhaps the answers to such questions might destabilise current right and left wing political conventional beliefs ?

    ‘Cameron, I believe, is trying to forge a new relationship with an over-reaching European project that has failed. ‘

    Has it ? I’d have said that Cameron is simply trying to defend the interests of the City of London in European and world financial markets and to date to put it bluntly both he and Chancellor Osborne are making the right noises for the little ‘cons’ but effectively getting nowhere .

    ‘Unfortunately the GOP radicals seem to be blind to the waste in the defense budget and the huge expenses involved in foreign crusades that accomplish little of what they were designed to do.’

    Very true .It’s the old my battleships are bigger and can shoot further than your battleships . YOu would never think listening to neo conservative commentators on defense spending in the USA that the USA alone now accounts for over 50% of all weapons expenditure on the planet while being just 4% of the worlds population .And then there are those 20,000 nuclear weapons and ICBM’s etc etc .

    Arrogance gone berserk abroad while at home capital and social infrastructure is collapsing -prisons are overflowing and rising levels of obesity are reducing the numbers of those who can even pass the medical to join the services .

    All of the above have been delivered by right wing economic radicals (though not entirely to be fair ) who disguised as neo conservatives have in truth been masters of financial and geo political disaster for the small ‘c’ people of the USA , UK etc etc etc . But for their small coterie of backers in Wall St and the City of London and their political puppets in Congress , Westminster and the Dail they have been ‘manna ‘from heaven . Unbelievers in any extra terrestrial participation in the Great Looting of the first decade of the 21st century may choose instead to see the ‘manna ‘deliverers ‘as hedge fund tyros , insider traders , and CDO merchant high finance pirates .

  • Greenflag

    @ malcolm redfellow ,

    Thanks for the above piece of ‘realism ‘ In Ireland it was/is /used to be different .People voted Fianna Fail,because their families ‘always ‘ (an historically short but elastic term in the greater scheme of things ) voted FF .Ditto for FG . In Northern Ireland familial voting patterns reached such a level of predictability that it has been ascertained that political DNA is responsible .

    But despite the above there remains those skeptical few -those unhappy campers -we few -who will not be corralled into the designated lobbies of follow the latest mob/trend /fashionistas or ideology .

    Theres more to life than romance as the Cavan farmer said and theres more to life than politics n’est ce pas?

  • abucs

    Many people do not identify with the mindset of the class of modern politicians, be it financial, social or cultural. They do not identify, and more than that, they are never going to identify.

    Something has to give at some time.

  • @Greenflag

    Re illegal immigrants, I have long believed that there has been a de facto alliance or conspiracy to support illegal immigration by both big business and the Democratic Party. Big business, especially agricultural interests and meat packers, restaurants, etc. wanted them as a source of cheap labor. The Democratic Party, which has a long tradition of managing immigrants through immigrant leaders who deliver the votes of their followers, want a cheap, easily-managed source of future votes through their children and a wedge issue with hispanics to prevent them from drifting into the Republican Party. The illegal immigrants have the net effect of driving down labor costs, which is good for manufacturers and unskilled service industries, but bad for America’s own unskilled laborers in terms of wages. To have a constantly arriving new wave of immigrants from a neighboring country retards the assimilation of hispanics–which is why I believe that solidarity by legal hispanics with illegal immigrants is against their own interests.