Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng (Photo by Dylan Martinez - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Fashioning divinities

The false gods of Ayn Bland

Artillery Row

If someone were transported from, say, the 1870s forward to the modern day, and asked to read Liz Truss’ first two speeches as Prime Minister and guess which political party she represented, I doubt they would hesitate, except possibly to splutter and fulminate about the decline in standards of political oratory. They would instantly conclude, from her talk of her belief “in freedom, in the ability to control your own life, in low taxes, in personal responsibility”, that she was a Liberal.

A Tory, they would think, would not be talking about these abstractions. They would be talking about the principle of duty, the welfare of the people, the health and flourishing of our great national institutions, patriotism and order, loyalty and reverence. They certainly wouldn’t boil down the great tradition of Toryism to something as dangerous as a mere assertion of the primacy of personal licence, individualism and money-worship. No, this Truss person is surely a latter-day follower of Gladstonian liberalism, a doyenne of the Manchester School, the heir to Cobden and Bright.

In many ways the most depressing thing about Truss’ speeches was not so much their contents as their style and approach. Like most economic libertarians, Truss has a rigid, abstract, almost utopian, model of how our economy and society should function. Free markets, low taxes, a shrunken state: these are universally the best principles and must be imposed at all costs. Society is a machine for cranking out ever more money and stuff, such people think, and fixing it merely requires consulting the original blueprint, written down decades ago by Hayek or Friedman or some other cranky Austrian snake-oil merchant or failed American economist. 

Men do not simply seek short-term self-gratification

This approach reproduces all the worst Utopian and economistic elements of the most rigid type of state socialism, except in reverse. It fails to appreciate all of the things that historically made Toryism the rich, convincing, fully-rounded framework for understanding morality, politics and society that it is. 

The first element of this historical Toryism is the idea that society is not some mechanism, a mere agglomeration of self-seeking individuals tied together by the bare threads of contract, mutual convenience and exchange (or, indeed, top-down planning and commands). It is, rather, “a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection”: an organic and collective endeavour that spans generations and ties together disparate groups under the dispensation of a higher calling.

The second is the principle that men do not simply seek short-term self-gratification, an ever greater abundance of material possessions. Rather, they aspire to a whole range of nobler goods: fellowship, community, meaning, reverence and worship. As Sidonia says in Disraeli’s great novel Coningsby, “Man is made to adore and to obey: but … if you give him nothing to worship, he will fashion his own divinities, and find a chieftain in his own passions.” 

The third element of a Toryism worth its name is best summed up by Jesus Christ’s dictum that “unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” That is to say, although privilege and hierarchy might be inevitable, they can only maintain their legitimacy through a corresponding emphasis on duty and a profound sense of moral responsibility on the part of the rich and powerful towards the poorest and least fortunate. 

The fact that these points are almost entirely lost on the modern Right reflects a number of wider shifts. Firstly, we have almost totally lost sight of the truth of our political history. Most modern Conservative politicians and supporters think that their political tradition began with Margaret Thatcher. In this worldview, politics has always been a dichotomy between the “Lefties”, who form a smooth, organic development, from Whig to Liberal to Labour; and conservatives, who represent either reaction and cruelty, or freedom, prosperity and capitalism, depending on your partisan colours.

This is simply not true. From the advent of industrial capitalism in the early 19th century, Tories were far more likely to be critical of laissez-faire and the market than Whigs and Liberals, who were the political wing of the capitalists, factory owners and sweating employers. Figures such as Richard Oastler, Michael Sadler and Lord Shaftesbury, as well as Disraeli’s own “Young England” movement, were among the main critics of child labour, exploitative working conditions and the cruel exigencies of the workhouse. Disraeli himself presided over a government that did far more to intervene in the workings of the market than any Liberal politician did until the rise of the New Liberalism in the 1890s. 

Stanley Baldwin, who was one of the Tories’ most successful ever leaders, understood this very well. In a speech in 1924 he declared that:

If there is any party in the State which, by its traditions and its history, is entitled to put in the forefront of its work and its programme the betterment of the conditions of life of the working classes, it is our party. We were fighting the battle of the factory hand long before he had a vote; and when the Liberals were tied up in the shackles of laissez faire we were speaking in favour of the combination of working men, long before the Liberals had thought of the subject. It is more than 50 years ago that Disraeli was calling the attention of the country to housing and health questions, and they mocked him with the policy of sewage. The sanitation, or let me say the spiritual sanitation, of our people should have the first call on the historic Tory Party.

Tories could see that nothing disrupted social order, true religious devotion and political stability more than the wild, untamed excesses of capitalism, which in a generation created the Babylon of moral breakdown and social distress that led to the creation of Chartism and trade unionism. They also recoiled from the naked greed and irresponsible individualism of the captains of industry who reaped such rich material rewards from the misery and degradation that they caused.

Truss owes more to hard-hearted cranks than to the Bible or Disraeli

The second shift is secularisation. If one principle gave continuity to the Tory Party through its various incarnations, stretching back to the early 18th century, it was the fact that it was the Church Party. Although this could take the form of a mere complacent defence of the social and ecclesiastical status quo, it contained within it the momentous moral consequences of a genuine and selfless piety. What motivated men like Oastler, Shaftesbury, Lord John Manners and indeed Stanley Baldwin, was their utterly earnest commitment to Christian principles. As Oastler famously said about the Poor Law Reform Act, which condemned the destitute to semi-starvation and near physical torture, “if it was truth, then the Bible was a lie”. What was required was to treat human beings according to the precepts of the gospels, not the precepts of political economy. In the words of Baldwin, spiritual sanitation was as important as actually putting in drains.

Secularisation has ultimately created a political Right that has no appreciation of any higher calling or responsibility, no sensitivity to the more honourable and deeper springs of human action and sentiment, and no sense whatsoever of the duties that are the consequence of privilege. Without something greater to worship, modern “Conservatives” have embraced the worship of self and money that underpins their shameless materialism: they have “found a chieftain in their own passions”. A lack of any sense of eternity or respect for stability and tradition has given rise to a crude Right Jacobinism that would trash any institution or custom that restrains our baser instincts or desire for immediate economic or political self-gratification. The emphasis on virtue, self-restraint and moral discipline that is inherent to Christianity is totally absent from modern Conservatism.

Liz Truss is a particularly pure manifestation of these trends. Her brand of “conservatism” owes more to the hard-hearted cranks of the Adam Smith Institute or IEA than it does to the Bible, Disraeli or even the promptings of basic human decency. It is a one-dimensional, incurious, flat sort of political philosophy, the kind that represents human beings as little more than animals, guzzling and buying and selling rather than serving and loving and praying. It cannot or will not attempt to practise empathy or charity or self-reflection. It is the human id elevated into a political philosophy.

Still, this is not a new phenomenon. In 1936 Harold MacMillan gave his thoughts on the Tory tradition and the failures of the contemporary Conservative Party:

Toryism has always been a form of paternal Socialism … The Conservative Party has become dominated by money and the City … a party dominated by second-class brewers and company promoters — a Casino Capitalism — is not to represent anybody but itself.

Nowadays it might be a party more dominated by second-class self-help gurus and Hedge Fund managers, but otherwise the parallel is almost exact. 

After the war, MacMillan restored some of the better instincts of the Tory tradition to the policies of the Conservative Party, with impressive results both electorally and practically. Let us hope something similar will happen after the demise of the Truss administration.

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