Roger Scruton counselled that pessimism is a defining conservative trait. Even with this in mind, plus accepting the fact that the Conservative Party exists to disappoint its voters and act as a vehicle for securing positions in the managerial state for young politicos, any prospect for implementing a small-c conservative vision seems dead or now. The latest round of the Westminster psychodrama has played out, the bloodless blood sport for the lobby journalist audience. Whilst Suella Braverman has been sacked as Home Secretary, the real miracle for the Sensible Centrist brigade is that Sir Dave of Cameron has not only had his political corpse resurrected by being appointed Foreign Secretary but has also been elevated to the House of Lords. Try not to weep with joy.
For those gleeful at the end of populism and the incipient burial of Brexit, as Michael Heseltine is, what we are seeing is the reconquest of the levers of state by their rightful controllers: the right-neoliberals of serious, grown-up politics. Those in this space have never forgotten or forgiven their loss of hegemony as a result of Brexit and then the majority gained by the party under Boris Johnson in 2019.
This supposedly sensible vision has severed the last threads of our common life
What does it even mean to be a conservative in Britain today? We have been told for years that a mature form of centre-right politics is pragmatic, sensible about what can be achieved, believes in compromise and trade-offs, and aims to adapt to the times. This all sounds level-headed on its face. Some argue that conservatism is progressivism driving the speed limit. In reality, Conservative centrism has been the means for the party and government to attempt the fulfilment of its never-ending quest to win the approval of the neoliberal political and cultural class. It never seems to penetrate the Conservative collective consciousness that in our vibe-based politics this never works, because Tory = right wing = evil.
What exactly does a solid centre-right form of politics amount to? Michael Lind summed it up in his definition of technocratic neoliberalism: “a synthesis of the free-market economic liberalism of the libertarian right and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left”. Change libertarian to liberal, and there we have the Conservatism of the sensible centre ground.
What has this supposedly sensible vision wrought? It has furthered the social liberalism that severs the last threads of our common life, leaving us atomised, alienated, and bathed in the warm waters of a liquifying social order. The individual in the collective mass is all that matters. Forget the bonds of mutual loyalty that bind a nation and its people together. Instead of the ties of history, heritage, and the moral underpinnings of the culture that gives us a sense of belonging to the first-person plural, we have endless talk of values drained of ethical content and cultural specificity, expressed in the hollow words of managerial comms-speak.
As for lowering legal immigration numbers below infinity and controlling the border to prevent illegal immigration, that is naturally a ridiculous example of far-right populism. Grown-up centre-right economics means offshoring, deindustrialisation, austerity for those least able to bear it, kowtowing to the CCP, selling off national assets to foreign states, and ultimately turning Britain into a bazaar for the world through a service economy that makes us into the world’s below-stairs staff. The reign of sensible centrism epitomised by David Cameron saw public services shredded, our military capabilities decimated, law enforcement cut to pieces, the administrative state bloating to monstrous proportions, and a sense, confirmed by reality, that criminals and terrorists are gifted anarchy whilst the law abiding who object are crushed by managerial tyranny.
It’s grimly hilarious that those celebrating the “return to normal” refuse to see or accept that it was their world, created by their policy preference and political choices, that created the wave of so-called populism that they so deplore. The populism of Brexit was their ideological child. The material, social and moral conditions they created provided the soil from which the chaos they lament could grow. In reality, the world of technocratic governance, where politics became de-politicised in favour of procedure, has been consigned to history by events that were made worse by the politics of the sensible centre-right.
To hold onto this vision of the good displays a true ideological fervour, projected onto their opposition by those who condemn anyone who engaged in a bit of conservative empiricism and realised we’d need to change to stay the same. The neoliberal centre right are the real reactionaries, yearning for a RETVRN to the halcyon days of 2015. It still has not registered that their form of politics has already been repudiated by the reality of the world post-9/11, post-2008, post-Arab Spring, post-2015 migrant crisis.
It is not only the inability of either party to articulate a small-c conservative vision in its own way that is so dispiriting. It is the refusal to even countenance it. Whilst Europe, America and elsewhere are embracing such a vision for the new world disorder where we find ourselves, the right-neoliberal segment of Britain’s ruling class is stuck in a perpetual 23 June 2016, unable to accept the world we’re in. No government since has proven equal to the task of reorienting Britain to the world as it actually is.
Attempts to build a new conservative politics have been all talk, no walk
It’s all very well for those like Braverman to complain about immigration being too high, multiculturalism being inimical to a cohesive country, and the police being selective in its law enforcement. She simply represents the fact that attempts to build a new conservative politics on the base of the 2019 electorate have been all talk, no walk. Braverman embodied the error diagnosed by Yuval Levin of using a political position as a platform for self-actualisation and promotion. Punditry is not governing. It’s easier to engage in the politics of culture war vibes than actually accept that “to govern is to choose”; therefore to make policy and exploit the levers of state power to implement your vision. If there are laws, rules and codes that prevent this, use the “elected dictatorship” of being Prime Minister and government at the head of a parliamentary majority to reform and change them. That is what governing entails; it is what Blair did, and we still live with the consequences.
It is a tired cliché to say, as Braverman and others have done, that the ruling class is out of touch, adhering to “luxury beliefs” that benefit itself at the cost of the lower orders. It is still true, however, for all that it has been abused by those who have no substantive alternatives to offer themselves. Peter Hitchens gave a name to the sentiments and dispositions of the majority when he called himself a British Gaullist. The name aside, this vision of “a strong defence, patriotism, a strong welfare state, and national independence” is where most people actually sit. The ruling class is completely detached from this worldview.
This is a form of conservatism that would’ve been recognised, with adjustments for time and place, by Disraeli, the Edwardian conservatives, Baldwin and MacMillan. It has been confirmed by multiple surveys and data that the average voter is “left on economics, right on culture”. Putting it with slightly more colour, Steve Davies has said that the centre ground is “fund the NHS, hang the paedos”. This is the exact opposite of the supposedly sound centrism that so many commentators are crowing over today. A small-c conservatism would pursue a strong defence; law and order; patriotism at home that affirms Britain’s history and achievements, acknowledges its religious roots, and repudiates cultural repudiation; national independence abroad; industrial policy that prioritises investment and subsidies for key industries; lowering immigration to enable socio-cultural cohesion, and slows demographic change; a true family policy that enables family formation.
It is a symptom of a moribund political ecosystem that there seems not the slightest prospect of the political party called “Conservative” enacting any of this. It testifies to the zombified state of this institution. Perhaps from the ashes of an electoral firestorm, new shoots will grow — but I’m not holding my breath.
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