The crisis of Conservatism

The Conservative Party is in a process of ideological decline or even disintegration, argue James Butler and Richard Seymour.

September 6, 2019 · 15 min read

Photo of Boris with his hand on his head

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During the week Boris Johnson came to power, James Butler and Richard Seymour discussed the changing dynamics within the Conservative Party and the right more generally

James Butler It seems to me that the current crisis of the Tory Party extends well beyond immediate contingencies. As a crude heuristic, we might group the various factors of this crisis thus: first, an electoral headache produced by the Brexit Party, splitting the Tory base and changing the electoral calculus in England; second, the ascent of Boris Johnson and the dominance of Brexit-mania among the Tory grassroots; third, the party’s apparent ideological weakness, and the concentration of its vote among older and wealthier strata of the electorate.

The significance of all of these turn, I suppose, on what you think the causal sequence is: if these defects are largely a consequence of Brexit, then when Brexit is resolved we should expect to see them remedied; if, instead, the initial political impetus for Brexit came from these problems, then we should only expect them to worsen. I tend to the latter view.

There is a tendency among bien-pensant liberals to think the Brexit fervour gripping the party is a sign of a sudden derogation from Burkean principles of fastidious scepticism and pragmatic adaptation; if these things were ever true of the Tory Party, they certainly haven’t been since 1979. But it’s right, I think, to see its current direction as curious. We know that the Conservatives are unlike most other right-wing parties in Europe, as they’re a curious amalgam of feudal land interests, inherited wealth and the beneficiaries of more contemporary forms of capitalism, including the City of London, but also those who profited from Thatcherism. Most, though not all, of these sectors would prefer the relative ease of European Union membership. So what drives the other position – and why has it attained hegemony in the bureaucracy and parliamentary expression of Conservatism now? After all, this position has been popular among the Tory base for decades.

Those inclined to a historical perspective have reached for comparison with tariff reform and the corn laws as issues that have similarly divided the party – i.e. the relation of individual Conservatives to major, structural economic issues, and especially ones that pull individual elements of the Conservative coalition in different directions. Those are useful analogies, but I think there are two other factors here. The first is mass suffrage: there is a popular base of the Tory Party exercising a disciplinarian hand over its political expression, both in the sense that the membership has delivered Johnson to No.10, and that the wider electorate moved significantly towards Farage in the European elections. This surely constrains the options available to the party elite.

The Tory Party has been left with little in the way of intellectual renewal and an instinctual reach for old certainties The second is less tangible, but I think also important. The ideological exhaustion of the Cameron era, and the failure of Theresa May’s attempt at an authoritarian, British version of Christian Democracy, has left the Tory Party with little in the way of intellectual renewal and an instinctual reach for old certainties. Can that sustain a Conservative government, and is it likely to change under Johnson?  What do you make of this broad-brush portrait? Do you think it misses anything?

Richard Seymour I think you’re right, in your adumbration, to emphasise the politics of entropy. I just want to put this in a longer trajectory.

The Conservatives have been in syncopated, secular decline since 1945. Reasons include the decline of empire, its indexed authoritarianism and its promise of national supremacy. The cultural loosening of confessional sectarianism. The absorption of professionals into the public sector. Expanded university education. Traditional Toryism – you’re right that it was never Burkean; even Burke was never Burkean – was dying by 1979.

Thatcherism arrested the decline. She united motley ideologies and interests opposing the post-war settlement: market liberals, nationalist authoritarians, rent-seeking financiers, tax-shy small businesses and careerist workers. That alliance abruptly fell apart in 1992. Since then, the Conservatives have won a single election, in 2015, with just over a quarter of the vote. We’re living through the fall-out from the Thatcherite recomposition of capital, party and state.

Not coincidentally, the precipitating moment of the split was the European Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis, catalysing right-wing dissatisfaction with the Maastricht Treaty. Thatcher had warned that Europe was becoming a vehicle for ‘state socialism’ through such expedients as minimum labour standards. However paranoid, this was rooted in a certain class rationality.

Thatcherism had politically empowered a broad entrepreneurial sector: small business, nouveau riches and middling firms. Medium-sized capital is crucial here. Not the Unilevers and HSBCs. Local businesses with a few hundred employees, like the Brexit-supporting ReidSteel. Boutique financiers like Brexit Party funder Jeremy Hosking.

If Johnson delivers the Conservative Party to the Farageites, it loses its alliance with the ruling class

Or ‘self-made’ spread-betting millionaire and early UKIP donor Stewart Wheeler. Among their ideological clarions are John Longworth, former director‑general of the British Chambers of Commerce, Leave campaigner, and now spokesperson for the Brexit Party. This is quite similar to the class basis of the Tea Party right in the US.

The interests and class purview of medium-sized capital are closer to the petty bourgeoisie than the multinationals. The latter are the predators, the ‘globalists’, snuffing out competition; much as politically-correct bureaucracies supposedly stifle the ‘colloquial’ cultures in which these businesses are rooted. But they are more affluent and influential than shopkeepers, and their voice within Conservatism is magnified by the rabid tabloids.

If Osbornite austerity had worked on its own terms, perhaps they would have remained mostly loyal. But amid prolonged stalemate, with their profit margins under stress, and amid a legitimacy crisis for the state, they have been increasingly politically volatile. In the 2014 Euro elections, more than a fifth of owners and managers of firms employing over 200 people backed UKIP. Most of these would have been dyed-in-the-wool Tories, their Farageism a metastasis of Thatcherism. Hence they couldn’t be ignored, or placated. They’ve now overthrown the Osborne wing of Thatcherism. They just don’t have decisive control of the party.

The question is, will Boris just give it to them? If he tried stringing them along, as I suspect he’d rather, the resulting backlash would burn the party to the ground and salt the earth where it stood. Yet, if he actually delivers the Conservative Party to the Farageites, it loses its alliance with the ruling class. It loses funding, institutional leverage and crucial voters. It becomes a protest party.

James Butler I think we agree that the Conservative Party is in a process of ideological decline or disintegration, marked by the fracturing of its vote (to, as you say, various iterations of Farageism). There is a convincing way of reading the post-’97 variations of Toryism as one attempt after another to find a cohesive ideological presentation with as much appeal as Thatcher: Cameron’s Notting Hill recension of economic Toryism with relaxation on social diversity; May’s authoritarian nationalism combined with a concern for the deserving wretched or creditably poor.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg lying back on the front bench in House of Commons

If Johnson is neither of these, is he just a return to the Thatcherite leitmotiv? As you suggest, I think it’s true that he’s faced with a more acute version of the division over Europe than Thatcher was, and I don’t see a plausible way of holding the two political preferences together. The conflicts you outline at the level of economic interest are persuasive – so if this is true at the structural level, what’s going on at the political level?

There is the question of the membership. Richard Crossman once observed that the Labour Party formed its collective structures as a pooling of strength, to forge a vehicle that could break into a political system otherwise closed to it. Its vitiated internal democracy was key both to forging a sense of control and allowing the relative autonomy of the PLP (with the sad consequences visible today).

But he also noted an inevitable mirroring effect in the party of the ruling class as well: its modernisation and semi-democratisation, in response to socialist threat, and as a mode of party renewal. In the context of a party of capital – which requires strong management of sometimes divergent interests and a stake in preserving inequality – any mode of democratic control has the latent potential for explosive contradictions. Censure and threats of removal of anti-Brexit MPs is a foretaste of that; it has the potential to get a lot worse as it comes in closer contact with political reality. And yet the mechanisms of control and central coercion, the willingness to use them and the historic amenability of Conservative members to central discipline would make it foolish for the left to rely on this slow internal combustion.

Nonetheless, the gradual assertion of Tory grassroots’ preferences over a historically entirely autonomous parliamentary body is significant. I think we should see this in relation to the strangeness of the British party system in a European context: the party institutions have broadly weathered the decline of the mass-membership model, partly adapting to technocratic or mediatised forms without ever quite divesting of their historic structure and form. In Labour, of course, this left the door open to Corbynism. The situation on the right is different in important ways – including at times the existence of electorally viable parties to the Tories’ right – but it prompts me to wonder whether the Johnson ascendancy is the end of an ideological and political conflict within the party, or the opening of a new front in it.

Can the fault-lines within the Tories be wrenched further apart?

I have also been thinking about the Tory attitude to democracy in general. There has always been a greater fondness for decisionism and distrust of deliberation in the Tory ranks than sympathetic historians grant. But this has acquired a new urgency now that a single act of political decision – the referendum – has become identified (cynically or sincerely) with the totality of democratic politics, such that all other forms of deliberation or acts of government are suffered only insofar as they ‘fulfil’ that ‘mandate’.

Obviously, from the left, this is an unacceptable vision of politics. But I wonder if this is the lens through which we ought to view the mania for prorogation which gripped many Tory MPs recently. If so, ought we to look at the new Johnson cabinet – the Britannia Unchained generation in power – through the intermittent Conservative project of attempting to delineate proper ‘bounds’ to democracy? Thus the desire to roll back employment legislation and ‘improper’ intervention in the world of work. (A caveat: the initial Johnson strategy seems caught between this and a retail politics of strategic spending – can the two work together for any duration of time?)

Most politicians do not reflect very deeply on the politics they possess or the world they engineer. That is almost certainly true of Johnson. So what value, then, in attempting to discern these deeper issues? I think if we can understand the deeper contours of the project, we can make decent predictions about what strategy will work, and what won’t.

For instance, how far ought Labour to pursue a renewed constitutional and democratic vision, and how can it be made to bite on the opposition; where will their weakness lie? Can the fault-lines within the Tories be wrenched further apart? And, most importantly, what route will Johnson take on Brexit? My bet is that he will pursue brinksmanship and ramp up anti-parliamentary rhetoric until he believes he can consolidate all the pro-Brexit forces behind him, believing that as we approach the deadline, the Commission will concede, or, if not, he has hegemonised the ‘no deal’ forces and can win an election. If this is so, where can he be prised apart?

Richard Seymour You’re right, we can’t rely on Tory indiscipline. But mark the death‑drive of today’s right. It is already detonating ‘explosive contradictions’ within the party, though not necessarily in ways that benefit the left. Underlying this, I think the Tories have never properly got to grips with democratic governance. Until 1965, the selection of leaders was left to a party elite known as the ‘magic circle’, so they didn’t even have to bother listening to MPs. Until the ‘Hague rules’ in 1998, they didn’t have to listen to the members. When the membership did get a say, they preferred unelectable rightists like Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. They had to be brutally demoralised before they’d choose Cameron.

Cameron should have delivered a new phase of modernisation but didn’t. In addition to his policy feints, he wanted to attract more passive, centre-seeking members and more representative MPs. But it went nowhere, for three reasons: wrong predicates, wrong leader and wrong party. The predicates were wrong, because the electorate wasn’t, even in 2006, as centrist as was assumed. The Tories were already losing votes to a fragmented right: UKIP, the BNP, the English Democrats and Veritas. The leader was complacent and his commitment weak. He fully resembled his caricature in Steve Bell cartoons where he is suited in a condom: slippery, soft-edged, disposable. Hence his ability to ditch ‘red Toryism’ on the turn of a dime. Hence the ‘big society’ proving to be a White Paper tiger.

As for the party, it was, even before the coagulating moment of Brexit, permeated from top to bottom by an increasingly chaos-addicted right. Cameron, pursuant to party unity, offered the reactionaries cabinet posts and concessions. Immigration caps, racist vans, a referendum and the resumption of the Tory hobby he most derided: ‘banging on about Europe’. Cameron was weak, the right was ruthless. Concessions didn’t stop record backbench rebellions, or defections to UKIP: two MPs, several big donors, dozens of councillors, and thousands of members. Nor did it stop almost half of the parliamentary party campaigning for Brexit against the Downing Street position. Dominic Cummings was famously prepared to cut off Cameron’s head every day to get Brexit. As recent polling confirms, moreover, there are a huge number of Conservative members who are not particularly attached to the Conservative Party. For the poujadiste base, this is their last chance to free the ‘little man’ from the ‘globalists’ (dixit Nigel Farage).

So the situation is volatile. If you’re right in your estimate that Boris Johnson seriously intends to lead us into a ‘no deal’ Brexit, then what was an insurgency is a takeover in progress. But a snap election simplifies things. The Tories are ill-prepared for an election and many MPs would struggle to fight an election on a ‘no deal’ platform. The Hammonds, Mundells and Gaukes would find themselves in the wrong party. Labour could make a good offer to Remain voters without sacrificing the salience of class and climate, and keep a lot of Brexit voters on board. It could also offer sweeping constitutional reform as an alternative to mere status quo Remainerism. I am not at all certain Labour would win, and the risks are enormous. A victorious Johnson administration would need to find a growth formula for British capitalism outside Europe. The only thing on their agenda is the Brexit right’s minimalist democracy and bonfire of the regulations. However dysfunctional for capitalism, business will adapt: Trump shows us this. But this is a scenario in which the left has some idea of what it’s doing.

I, however, think the situation is more ambiguous than this. Johnson’s actual affiliations remain unpredictable. The gamble of Tory Remainers is that Johnson will betray his base for the path of least resistance: another Brexit delay. I think that’s highly plausible. I don’t think Johnson wants to be the one to have to cope with the massive economic difficulties resulting from a ‘no deal’ Brexit. But that betrayal would mean an even more toxic meltdown at the top of government, a further discrediting of parliament, and a hysterical and violent atmosphere of victimhood on the right. That sort of diffuse popular phenomenon is difficult to tackle directly, and unpredictable in its effects. I fear Labour, due to its timidity on race, is not well disposed to cope with that. And if the Tories do crash and burn, Farage – a more difficult, ideological opponent than Johnson – is waiting.

(photo by Chatham House via CC 2.0)

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