What is a conservative?

Brexit proved there is a huge audience for a culturally conservative party, but who will fill it?

Artillery Row

What’s in a name? The governing party in Britain today calls itself ‘ Conservative’ but by any meaningful definition of the term it has long abandoned any pretence of being in the business of conserving anything.

The traditional yardsticks of Conservatism: patriotism, sound money, encouraging free enterprise while protecting society’s vulnerable and poor, supporting the family, defending the nation state, maintaining strong armed forces, allowing freedom of expression, creating a homogeneous country, upholding law and order, and backing a tough approach to crime and terrorism – all have been cheerfully discarded by our so called ‘Conservative’ rulers in the name of …. well, what exactly?

The Tory party originated in the 17th century in the aftermath of the Civil War. After the Restoration of Charles II, the Tories stood for the Anglican Church, the Stuart monarchy and peace with England’s traditional enemies Spain and France. After the Glorious Revolution of 1689 got rid of the Stuarts, the Tories entered a long period of opposition to their Whig rivals.

They were re-invented as the Conservatives in the 1830s by Sir Robert Peel, and became the party of Empire abroad, the Church and monarchy, and moderate, gradual reform at home. Around the same time the Whigs evolved into the Liberals, backed by major manufacturers and the Nonconformist and temperance interests.

The issue of free trade versus protectionism of home markets split both parties in the 19th century, but by the 1920s the Conservatives had taken on the shape we are all familiar with : staunchly patriotic, pro- capitalist, and resolutely opposed to the socialism of the Labour Party which had eclipsed the Liberals.

Britain’s Conservatives were always different from Conservatives in mainland Europe, being seen as moderate, pragmatic, less reactionary, and more electorally successful than their continental colleagues. After the Second World War, Europe’s Conservatives in Italy and Germany became Christian Democrats, allied with the Catholic Church and devoted to social reform to stymie socialism.

After the Conservative coup that overthrew Thatcher, normal Tory service was resumed

In keeping with Britain’s reputation for being stable and hostile to ideologies, our Tories similarly evolved with the spread of mass democracy into the greatest election winning machine of the western world. As a result, they became the natural party of government, picking up the pieces after the intervals of Labour rule and accepting such innovations as the end of Empire, uncontrolled immigration and the welfare state.

The reign of Margaret Thatcher through the 1980s can now be seen as a blip in this smooth unrolling road towards the Left. The ideology of monetarism, though it freed up the economy, restored Britain’s confidence in the world, and faced down the over mighty trade unions, disastrously neglected manufacturing industry, and alienated Scotland and the north.

After the Conservative coup that overthrew Thatcher, normal Tory service was resumed: acceptance of a gentle decline, obeisance to the false gods of cultural Marxism and an abandonment of anything remotely resembling original Tory thoughts or Conservative principles. The Tory team drew stumps and left the pitch to the tender mercies of the new left-liberal establishment.

It is still too early to tell what effect the jolts of the last five years – principally the Brexit referendum and the Covid-19 Pandemic – will have on the British body politic . But given the laws of physics that every action causes a reaction, and that nature abhors a vacuum, it is clear that there is a yawning gap on the Right of the political spectrum waiting to be filled.

At the moment the ‘ hungry sheep’ in John Milton’s words ‘…look up and are not fed’. As Brexit proved, there is a huge audience out there for the same sort of party, dubbed ‘populist’ by the Left, that are making such progress elsewhere in Europe. Conservative on cultural issues, but social if not socialist on economic ones. Unless our current ‘Conservative’ party changes its Leftward ways, finds its inner Tory, and reconnects with the nation it is supposed to represent, the gap may well be filled by some much rougher beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

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