The political volatility of the last decade has made fools of us all. Very little has panned out as pollsters and pundits predicted, and the rapid succession of bizarre new normals has made it difficult to recover our previous expectations about the likely trajectory of political life. Predicting the course of politics has always involved a speculative flutter; but it’s usually more like trying to pick the winner of a race run on the flat, like the Derby, than punting on the Grand National, where one of the favourites could easily fall at Becher’s Brook. But for a late and largely undetected Labour surge in the run-up to the 2017 general election, Theresa May might now be steering us through the Covid-19 crisis: trusted, sensible and reliable, however costively unimaginative and incapable of the nimble feats of very un-Conservative gymnastics so far performed by Boris Johnson’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak. And without that late surge, Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, would still be blogging in his underground lair, instead of using Downing Street as a launchpad for an assault on the establishment – including the Conservative Party itself, of which he is conspicuously not a member. In that alternate universe, another radical and not quite recognisably Tory disruptor would be at May’s elbow: Nick Timothy, her former co-chief of staff. From the summer of 2016 until the late spring of 2017, the UK was more or less run by May and her two main advisers: Timothy, the supposedly visionary strategist, and Fiona Hill, who was more street-smart and politically savvy.
Everything fell apart on election night, when Hill and Timothy became scapegoats for the loss of the slim majority May inherited from David Cameron. But the real surprise wasn’t the downfall of May’s advisers so much as their earlier rise to brief but utter dominance in a party whose upper reaches have in recent times seemed to belong almost exclusively to Old Etonians. Hill was born in Greenock, a once prosperous port fallen on hard times, and educated at a Catholic state secondary school further along the Clyde in Port Glasgow. She found her way into politics via journalism. Timothy was born in Birmingham, the son of a steelworker and a school secretary. After a degree in politics at Sheffield he got a job at the Conservative Research Department.
It wasn’t only Timothy’s social profile that seemed incongruous in a Tory adviser. His hero wasn’t a member of the Conservative pantheon – Churchill, Thatcher, Disraeli – but the Liberal radical Joseph Chamberlain. As mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s, Chamberlain employed the techniques of municipal socialism to better the lives of its inhabitants, using compulsory purchase to establish efficient local monopolies in water and gas. The prospect of Irish Home Rule drove Chamberlain and his fellow Liberal Unionists out of the Gladstonian Liberal Party in 1886, and the Liberal Unionists found themselves in an increasingly close relationship with the Tories, eventually amalgamating with them. But Chamberlain, a proponent of land reform and prophet of radical imperialism, remained pointedly un-Tory. He favoured a protectionist tariff wall: an external barrier behind which a global empire might trade, the revenues supporting social welfare at home. Tariff reform plagued the Tories for three decades, and a version of it was eventually implemented in the form of imperial preference by Chamberlain’s son Neville, the then chancellor, in 1932.
Since the 1940s, few Tories have invoked either Chamberlain, Joseph or Neville, as their hero. Undaunted, in 2012 Timothy published a pamphlet, Our Joe, on the elder Chamberlain’s legacy. And in the summer of 2016, when May launched her campaign for the Tory leadership, she did so in Birmingham and invoked Joseph Chamberlain. Under Timothy’s tutelage, May saw that it might be possible for her to be positioned as the standard-bearer of a patriotic blue-collar Conservatism, despite her sober middle-class propriety. Populist nationalism presaged the possibility of a turn towards the state. The Tory election manifesto of 2017, which Timothy helped write, was an overtly statist document that dismissed the market-driven Conservatism we have known since the Thatcher era. Indeed, in asserting that ‘we do not believe in untrammelled free markets,’ it openly rejected Thatcherite certainties. But after this startling anti-laissez-faire manifesto, which was blamed by many for nearly losing the election, the campaign descended, as Timothy acknowledges, into ‘sullen, monosyllabic grunts’.
Three years later, Johnson – a more plausible populist – and Cummings find themselves the beneficiaries of the electoral realignment Timothy anticipated. In the event, it took two general elections and parliamentary stalemate over Brexit for Labour’s ‘red wall’ to crumble, and by then Timothy – like Hill and, eventually, May – had long since paid the price for perceived failure. His fall was cushioned by well-remunerated berths at the Telegraph and the Sun, and he has reinvented himself as a more obviously Tory sage. He has also had a complete makeover. In his pomp he sported a luxuriant beard, which made him look like another late 19th-century Tory, Lord Salisbury: jarringly and unsettlingly so, since Salisbury was Chamberlain’s rival and the proponent of an antithetical strain of conservatism, pessimistic, illiberal and anti-democratic. Now clean-shaven, Timothy is no longer Salisbury’s doppelgänger, or, it appears, such an avid Chamberlainite: instead he adopts the more familiar Tory idiom of one-nation Conservatism.
We think this idiom is familiar, but almost everything we think we know about it is wrong. We assume that the principal begetter of one-nation Toryism was Benjamin Disraeli, author of the suggestively titled novel of class reconciliation, Sybil; or the Two Nations (1845). In fact, the phrase was coined by Stanley Baldwin, who in 1924 all too successfully remythologised Disraeli. Baldwin told his party that ‘we stand for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke … union among our own people to make one nation.’ Then, in 1950, a One Nation Group of Tory MPs was set up, but it was not, as legend subsequently had it, a straightforwardly paternalist faction at odds with free market economics: it was a discussion group that encouraged self-critical debate within the party, its membership deliberately not confined to any single position. Its founding members included proto-Thatcherite free marketeers like Enoch Powell and Angus Maude alongside consensual modernisers sceptical of market-based solutions like Iain Macleod and Edward Heath. The diversity has continued: later members have included ostensible one-nation Tories – Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Ian Gilmour – but also Keith Joseph and Nicholas Ridley. The politics of the Tory left were actually advanced in various factional groupings and dining clubs, such as Nick’s Diner, the Lollards and the Tory Reform Group.
The term, however, remains a well-understood code in the party for a gentler, more herbivorous Toryism. One-nation Conservatives promoted a centrist, often Europhile Conservatism that appealed to middle-class voters who had a bilious response to hanging-and-flogging, jingoism and laissez-faire harshness. Thatcher liked to call these wets ‘no nation Conservatives’.
Timothy is using the code to try to frame a post-Brexit Conservatism which doesn’t automatically confirm Thatcher’s assumption that social conscience belongs in the same factional pigeonhole as Europhilia. But he certainly doesn’t intend the term to recommend any kind of rapprochement with the Liberal Democrat middle ground. Curiously, given his hero – or former hero? – Chamberlain’s Liberal origins, Timothy’s principal quarry is liberalism, or more precisely its deformations. He distinguishes between what he calls ‘essential liberalism’ – the necessary checks and balances of a free society under the rule of law – and the ‘excesses’ of an ‘ultra-liberalism’ found as much on the right as on the left. He disapproves both of ‘right-wing market fundamentalists’, such as George Osborne, and ‘identity-obsessed left-liberals, who value minority identities only and disparage majority culture’. The ‘original sin of liberalism’, he argues, is the emphasis on liberty to the exclusion of community. When he worked in the Conservative Research Department, Timothy remembers, he was encouraged to read the works of Ayn Rand, but her ‘selfish individualism left me cold’. He isn’t much fonder of Thatcher’s hero Friedrich von Hayek. Part of her act was to whip Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty out of her Tardis-like handbag and pronounce: ‘This is what we believe.’ But it’s not what Timothy believes, and he points out that Hayek’s postscript is entitled ‘Why I Am Not a Conservative’. Instead he favours a Toryism that attempts to heal class divisions, and describes the Thatcherism of the 1980s as ‘radical’, ‘ultra-liberal’ and ‘not conservative at all’.
Liberal so-called Conservatives, Timothy argues, have devoted too much attention to the question of the proper balance between market and state, when they should have been focusing on establishing ‘harmonious and healthy’ relationships between state, market and community. Conservatives need to become ‘more sceptical about the perfections of the market’, he says, and rediscover the benefits of active government. Ultra-liberalism – whether in the form of laissez-faire political economy or identity politics – sits at a remove from public opinion, which occupies positions ‘marginally to the left on the economy, and marginally to the right on cultural and national issues’. But a neoliberal consensus has served to thwart the will of the people. Timothy is particularly unhappy with the use of that well-worn ploy, the ‘liberal technocratic’ cop-out, used by politicians to detoxify an issue by removing it from democratic political debate and getting a sound, unbiased elite liberal to chair an inquiry. In 2010, for example, the new coalition government asked Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP, to chair an inquiry on university fees. The elite liberal presents his proposals; his fellow elite liberal politicians acquiesce – what else could they do? – to the imperatives of market-based rationality; as a result, students in England are lumbered with the higher fee levels that market fundamentalists wanted but were too craven to propose openly to the electorate. This didn’t detoxify that issue, of course, though it ended up being an electoral albatross for the Liberal Democrats rather than the Conservatives.
Timothy was one of the authors of May’s controversial ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech, whose notoriety, he argues, was undeserved. The target of its invective was not, he claims, Remain voters, but the social irresponsibility of the multinational business class. ‘Too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street,’ May said in the speech. Timothy praises the rootedness of Labour’s new deputy leader, Angela Rayner, and hymns the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman, but fizzes with rage at the naked, un-communitarian ambition of the liberal Cameroon Conservative Justine Greening, who not so fondly recalled ‘all the years I spent growing up in Rotherham where I was aiming for something better’. He cites too the bien-pensant disdain of the former Tory MP and Times columnist Matthew Parris for the ‘tracksuit-and-trainers … all-our-yesterdays Britain’ of down-at-heel Clacton. Timothy, who admits that there are forgotten ‘communities in crisis where the invisible hand has not come to the rescue’, is riled by the condescension of the liberal elite, whom he quotes copiously and to devastating effect. I found myself squirming as he worked his way through his ‘Book of Snobs’. Conservatism, he insists, should not be about rising out of the working class – or about getting on your bike, Norman Tebbit-style, in the hunt for self-betterment. Place matters. ‘Three in five of us,’ he notes, ‘live within twenty miles of where we lived at the age of 14,’ and it is ‘only the most obnoxious’ meritocratic climbers who experience delight rather than sadness in their ‘escape’ from the places where they grew up.
He also characterises ultra-liberals as evaders of social responsibility: they like to find tax loopholes, and prefer to bring in cheap labour from abroad rather than training up local young people. Timothy remains obsessed with the problem of health and care costs in an ageing society, though his proposal for what was billed as the ‘dementia tax’ bore quite a large part of the blame for the Conservatives’ election failure in 2017. Although they backtracked on the issue, the problem remains. The two most obvious solutions are to reduce welfare spending or to make younger generations pay more through higher taxes. He proposes a third way: taxes on accumulated wealth. This will make some Tories – who reasonably enough see the Conservative Party as first and foremost a party for the propertied – extremely unhappy. Timothy admits that these taxes are controversial, but they are levied in other countries. Why not here?
His formulation of a non-vanilla one-nation Conservatism that dissolves divisions of race, class, religion, gender and sexuality also contains some more familiarly right-wing elements: a Brexit-based solidarity; a commitment to British nationalism; a reappraisal of white working-class grievances; an antipathy to supranational governance and political correctness. These John Bullish attitudes seem far removed from the polite Europhile paternalism we tend to associate with one-nation Conservatives.
Johnson has some similar attitudes, and has a following of scary nationalists on the Tory right, but he is careful to keep a foot firmly in the one-nation tradition. The niftiest political performer of his generation, he is able to present himself as what he has called a ‘Brexity Hezza’ – someone with Michael Heseltine’s appeal who can triangulate between populist nationalism and a Bonapartist strategy for industrial and infrastructural renewal. Both Johnson and Timothy would claim to want to revamp the British economy in the interests of workers as well as bosses. Johnson hoped, presumably, to go down in history as a one-nation statesman who delivered Brexit and levelled up the forgotten regions of Britain.
In the wake of Covid-19, that now seems wishful thinking. The best we can hope for in the medium term is to keep the economy, or what remains of it, afloat. But Brexit has shown that the state is powerful enough to challenge conventional economic wisdom, and that Toryism is not reducible to the views of a self-interested coven of market-led property-owners and capitalists. Conservatism in the UK never evolved overtly into the Christian Democracy found in other parts of Western Europe, but it has always carried a tinge – sometimes more than a tinge – of its origins as an ecclesiastical party that defended the Church of England against Dissenters and those Erastians who wished to subordinate the independent spiritual authority of the Church to the temporal power of the state. Theresa May, the churchgoing vicar’s daughter, was – in a long line of Whiggish aristocrats, secular Conservatives and Liberals – probably the most authentic Tory ever seen in Downing Street. In recent years, the Conservatives have attempted to give the party a broader appeal, from Cameron’s Big Society to Brexiteering populism. But were there intimations that beneath the beery bravado of the new English nationalism a socially responsive Anglican ethic persisted? Or did these suggestions have no more substance than the cynically ritualised campaigning incantation of ‘compassionate conservatism’? We are about to find out. Thatcher’s chancellor Nigel Lawson once said, with the hint of a sneer, that the NHS is ‘the closest thing the English people have to a religion’. There seems every likelihood that the NHS will become the defining feature of a new one-nation mutation in post-Anglican Conservatism, whether the Tories – and their financial backers – like it or not.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.