Since 2008, the LGBT Labour merchandising department has had massive success selling ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ T-shirts. They have generated so much fuss that in 2018 Owen Jones had to make clear: ‘If you want to kiss Tories, Momentum are not going to stop you.’ However, to large swathes of the left, the idea of doing so has remained anathema (the former lord mayor of Sheffield ruled it out, in his ‘Ten Commandments’ for the city). Tories are comedy material, like Rik Mayall’s fictional creation of the late 1980s, Alan B’Stard MP. Googling ‘Tory MP’ throws up a rich array of associations, from ‘rapist’ and ‘jailed’, to ‘cronyism’ and ‘orange’ (a reference to the sexual practices of the late Stephen Milligan).
Tories, however, have tended to have the last laugh, because, as Edmund Fawcett suggests early in his book, the left has been a ‘rash chess player’, too cocky and blinkered to strategise effectively against its opponents. Fawcett, a veteran Economist journalist who describes himself as a left-wing liberal, seeks to understand conservatism as a historical phenomenon. He surveys political practice and political thought in Britain, the US, France and Germany since 1800, with authority and perspective. For him, conservatism is about defending core values against the encroach of liberal modernity. He shows that many conservatives have taken ideas more seriously than is generally supposed, and summarises the arguments made by dozens of them – from de Maistre to Maurras, Schumpeter to Scruton. Conservatives have ‘fought for a tradition’ against the excesses of liberalism, but also against rival strategies on the right. They defend the status quo, but have often rebelled when forced to accept its compromises. This tension is long-standing and unavoidable, but has allowed for renewal and reinvention. Once conservatism is seen in its proper historical context, Fawcett claims, there is no such thing as a ‘new right’: there are just different emphases and priorities, which each generation has repackaged to suit new circumstances, enabling it to cope with, and triumph in, the democratic political order.
Conservatism was created by a series of interlocking challenges: the French Revolution, industrialisation, and the insistence of late Enlightenment thinkers that human reason could make a better society than that ordained by traditional religious worldviews. In the 19th century, liberals fashioned a new political world, one founded on representative principles and the idea of public discussion. Legislative assemblies reflected religious pluralism, critical thought and newly powerful capitalist interests. Liberals presented this as a dismantling of the oppressive, arbitrary powers of an ancien régime. They were not hostile to order, but believed that a more supple, just and acceptable form of it would emerge from discussion and consensus-building in national political institutions.
Fawcett’s argument is that conservative political thought emerged from an attempt to warn these liberals that their untested idealism about human nature threatened stability and social harmony. He depicts generations of conservative writers celebrating the values that liberalism endangered – social unity, authority, custom and property – and redefining each of them as necessary over time. Social unity was originally seen mainly organically, as constituted by a hierarchy of ranks and estates, but class tensions made this increasingly inappropriate, so cultural ideas of nationhood have become more common instead. The first authorities to be upheld by conservatives were local gentry and clergy, and sometimes the military, but the objects of defence are now more likely to be the nation-state’s legal authority, the market’s economic authority, and occasionally ‘the people’, an invention by particular elites for particular purposes. Custom could be interpreted as religious belief, social deference or loyalty to established institutions and normative ethical and cultural standards. Property originally meant land, then more broadly the interests and profits of economic corporations and individual shareholders, as well as human capital and skills. This range of aspirations has often created tensions. Ever since conservative parties forged an alliance with capitalist interests to defend their property, the most awkward faultline has been between the defence of community and convention, on the one hand, and the liberty to innovate and create wealth, on the other.
Conservatives began by being resentful of the new forms of politics that liberals had created. Many were aristocrats who were used to giving orders. They were suspicious of public argument, and slow to see the need for an intelligentsia and media of their own. Some – especially in 19th-century France and Germany – entered politics hoping to guarantee their own authority by restoring past practices, or by experimenting with authoritarianism. In Britain and the US, this was impossible: representative assemblies were already well-established and in the process of being further democratised. In these countries, conservatives had to enter the marketplace of political ideas, accepting that political argument would be endless, and that victory or defeat would never be permanent. In time, they came to realise that this world of elections and debate was not as unattractive as they had assumed. Most propertied interests gravitated to the conservative side, fearful of plans to tax or reallocate it. Most organs of the state – the legal system, the churches, the armed forces – tended to sympathise with conservative objectives. And much public opinion still identifies with traditional cultural values and the defence of existing privilege. As a result, conservatives have dominated Western politics since the 1950s, certainly in Germany and Britain, but also in France and the US.
The price of this victory has been compromise. In particular, conservatives have had to accept a welfare state. Conservatives originally stressed the limits to government power, in order to defend property rights and the authority and status of local landowners, and still instinctively do so. However Fawcett sees, more clearly than many of conservatism’s opponents, that few conservatives have made hostility to the state a first-order principle, despite their relish for anti-socialist rhetoric. The idea that far-reaching political discussion should take place in national legislatures with the aim of imposing nationwide political solutions was contentious until at least the second half of the 19th century. But it was also from the outset an idea with a conservative aspect, most famously articulated by James Madison in the debates about the United States constitution, when he argued that a national government was better placed than individual state legislatures to mitigate the petty selfishness of local interests and popular pressure groups, and that therefore the fetish of state independence from central ‘oppression’ should be challenged. Between the first Reform Act of 1832 and the third of 1884, British Liberal governments sought to extend state power, but took care to reassure property-owners that the aim was not to undermine them but to strengthen social stability, through national policing and prison reform, state education and increased powers over poor relief and drunkenness.
Many books have tried to get to grips with the 20th-century British Conservative Party’s views on state intervention. One of the more interesting, Ewen Green’s Ideologies of Conservatism (2002), was concerned with two debates in particular – the argument in the first decades of the century about whether a return to tariffs would reduce unemployment and develop imperial markets, and the historical discussion about how far the policy of the Thatcher governments differed philosophically from that of previous Tory administrations. He concluded that Thatcher’s economic agenda seemed to have killed British upper-C Conservatism, defined as an ideology of organicism, traditionalism and intellectual imperfection. This seems too sharp. Fawcett stresses the continuities: Thatcher was able to manage her party’s internal divisions by drawing on its various traditions. She presented herself as a defender of open markets, free trade and limited government. Her language rallied those who distrusted ‘socialism’ as practised by local government and overmighty trade unions. She broke the power of both and claimed to be reversing national decline in doing so, but concentrated authority instead in Whitehall and on the boards of large companies and banks. Thatcherite ‘liberty’ left some people distinctly freer than others. She burnished her reputation as a freedom fighter and strong leader by standing up to some convenient foreign opponents – petty dictators in Argentina and moribund Russian gerontocrats.
Fawcett might have added that Thatcher also understood that ‘responsibility’ is an even more potent political concept than ‘liberty’. Prime ministers practise hands-off government at their peril. Modern governments inherit a complex set of duties, and cannot avoid blame for failures that arise on their watch. In the mid-19th century, Disraeli hoped to exploit this: he began a Tory tradition of berating Liberals for selfish and divisive market-oriented individualism, a tactic that would have paid more dividends had the Liberals been willing to play up to the caricature. The unpredictability of foreign affairs brings particular risks: the 1982 Falklands campaign aimed initially to avoid the humiliation of loss, even though there was always a chance of electoral gain. As for Europe, Fawcett astutely remarks that Thatcher’s strategy was an amalgam of rival 18th-century approaches: Whiggish participation in Continental affairs and Tory isolationist rhetoric of the kind that appealed to the English shires.
Political historians increasingly appreciate that the effectiveness of any political language is contingent on circumstances. The cry for smaller government has historically depended on its ability to rally a coalition of supporters against the forces that are seen to have captured the existing state. In Thatcher’s case, the most useful ‘socialist’ enemies were union bosses and high-spending left-wing councillors. In the first half of the 19th century, a similar role was assigned to the beneficiaries of ‘Old Corruption’: the vested interests who, it was alleged, controlled the levers of power and squeezed the taxpayer dry in order to fund lucrative jobs for favoured individuals in church and state, while levying heavy tariffs to protect landowners’ profits. Liberals, and liberal Tories like Robert Peel, realised that slimming the state allowed them to defend it better against this radical critique. After the 2008 financial crisis, the Conservative political strategy of ‘austerity’ meant that Labour could be identified as irresponsible high spenders, and set the agenda for coalition with the Lib Dems. It became widely unpopular in 2012, when George Osborne made clear that high-income earners would endure less austerity than everyone else. The polarising effects of the cuts and the rise in university tuition fees then conveniently destroyed the Lib Dem brand and any threat it might have posed to the Conservative electoral juggernaut at the 2015 election. Nick Clegg and David Laws would have done better to reflect on the lessons of the 1880s. If free-market pro-EU Liberals had fought the 2015 election as a small but boisterous and essential entity within a Cameron-led coalition, on the model of the Liberal Unionists after 1886, it is possible to imagine a different balance of forces in government after 2015, with significant consequences for the direction of British Conservatism.
Ronald Reagan did much the same as Thatcher, forging an effective coalition out of the various traditions of the American right. He made a pitch to former Democrats who felt threatened by urban crime and the expanding ambitions of the civil rights movement, as well as to fundamentalist Christians and inheritors of the self-reliant Jefferson-Jackson tradition. His rhetoric warned of the evils of big government: he rallied businesses and banks against regulation, family-minded moralists against permissive laws, and the vestiges of the America First lobby against expensive foreign intervention. He attacked waste and high taxes, but never sent Congress a balanced budget. His greatest achievement was to leave office before the balancing act became too difficult, and he died an American hero.
Successful governments use a national pulpit to proclaim an uplifting narrative which explains the policy needs of the moment while at the same time flattering the political traditions and myths endorsed by their support bases. The message needs constant revision and renewal; Thatcherism long ago outlived its usefulness. As Fawcett remarks, few now remember the last Tory privatisations, of the railways, for example, which have since been renationalised by stealth. The contingent nature of political appeals creates snares for parties, because many of their members continue to admire past heroes whose agenda no longer suits present requirements. Few things in politics are sadder than a nostalgist unaware that the circus has moved on. In Britain, the main function of the works of Friedrich Hayek and his school now seems to be to supply a Zoom backdrop for the increasingly forlorn public interventions of the backbench libertarian MP Steve Baker.
The political – as opposed to the philosophical – parts of Fawcett’s book are most sophisticated in their handling of the last fifty years, when the perspectives offered derive from his ringside seat as a journalist. In particular, he analyses the re-emergence of a ‘hard right’ in reaction to the failure of political leaders in America, France and Britain to keep delivering the goods, especially after the financial crisis of 2008. One part of the right yearns to escape the compromises that governments have had to make with welfare capitalism and multiculturalism. Another part appeals to unhappy voters who have suffered from the limited economic imagination of established centre-right leaders, neatly satirised by Pierre-André Taguieff as ‘Bougisme’ and encapsulated by Norman Tebbit’s injunction to the unemployed to get on their bikes if they wanted to survive in the market economy. Fawcett’s ‘hard right’ is an alliance of these two theoretically incompatible groups, those who want to set the economy free from interference and high taxes, and those who seek economic and cultural protections from globalisation. This ill-matched marriage is held together only by the identification of common enemies: elites and experts, whether MPs, judges, or ‘woke’ influencers who preach the virtues of cosmopolitanism. It invents a ‘people’ for whom it claims to speak, and a body of vested interests that seeks to obstruct the popular will. It promises to rebuild stable, cohesive neighbourhoods organised around the exclusion of alien influences, but without damaging international big business, which provides its funding. Donald Trump, the Brexiters, Marine Le Pen and the German AfD all use these tropes, while also borrowing from the traditions of right-wing rhetoric in their respective countries.
Fawcett’s comparisons across the West are so suggestive that it would be churlish to criticise him for not exploring more fully the impact each country’s political system has had on the trajectory of its brand of conservatism. As he remarks, the identity of the French centre-right is so unstable that it frequently changes name from one uninspiring acronym to another – UDR, RPR, UDF, UMP. The German right has not used the label ‘conservative’ since 1918. In both countries, governing usually involves cross-party coalitions. The conservative movement has faced different challenges in Britain and America, where one party has been able to represent it continuously, so long as it accepts the discipline that unity requires. The dominance of two competing parties in these countries has limited voter choice, facilitated elite control and made elections relative judgments, in which the trick is to paint your opponents as less reassuring, more extreme and less patriotic than you are. There is only one right on offer at the ballot box, and its leaders need to be adroit and flexible if they are to emerge victorious.
In trying to understand the culture of the British Conservative Party, one might take Fawcett’s history lesson further and reflect on the significance of its extraordinary longevity and success. Its peculiarity as a party is that its roots are too deep to be in party at all. The people who formed the first Conservative Party in the 1830s were the heirs of the Whigs and Tories who had come together under William Pitt the Younger and his successors to govern Britain almost continuously in the wake of the American and French Revolutions, until the Reform Act made changes of ministries commonplace. They defined their creed in terms of the king’s government: they would uphold the authority, legitimacy and virtue of the crown against its enemies. They stood against party, in the form of the self-interested factionalism of opposition Whigs. They also stood against the threats posed by British and Irish popular radicalism, French revolutionaries and Napoleon. The Conservative project has always been a project for governing – and saving – the country.
When the party had to mobilise to win elections in a semi-democracy, from the 1870s, it established a highly professional organisation, with a hard-working membership. But whereas the Liberal Party, and later the Labour Party, felt that they had to involve their members in discussions about policy, the Conservatives did not. The party’s leaders assumed that the return of a government devoted to the maintenance of authority, stability, property rights and national interests was what Conservative members wanted, and so there was little policy to discuss, and little appetite to discuss it. Debates in the public sphere were tricky enough; there was no call for such things at home as well. Instead, organisations like the Primrose League offered Conservative workhorses entry to the world they wished to defend: garden parties at local country houses, formal dinners to toast the monarch, lantern shows to celebrate imperial greatness. In theory, this risked taking members for granted – as Robert Peel had done in 1846 when he felt a responsibility to repeal the Corn Laws and failed to listen to shire Tories who, he sighed, ‘spend their time in hunting and shooting and eating and drinking’. But few issues were as stark as the Corn Laws, and all subsequent Conservative leaders learned from Peel’s rapid fall. In recent years, aspirants to the role, like Michael Heseltine and Theresa May, have spent Friday evenings eating and drinking with Conservative constituency associations on the ‘rubber chicken circuit’. This interaction is much more than gestural; so is the requirement that the party leader face backbenchers regularly at the 1922 Committee. But the dialogue is rarely profound. R.A. Butler failed to become leader mainly because everyone knew that the members distrusted his intellectualism and his fondness for guying core values. Party conferences are for letting off steam, but debate and dissent are not in the party’s character. The ease and ruthlessness with which 21 Conservative MPs were expelled in 2019 for voting against Boris Johnson’s revision of the Brexit arrangements should not have been surprising, and few inside the party were surprised by it. Nor are Conservative members fazed by their occasional duty of choosing a new prime minister.
In other words, the Conservative idea of party has always incorporated the idea of managing the nation. The important battles within the party have not been over economic doctrine, but about how to craft an idea of the country with which Conservatives can feel at ease. One Nation Conservatism has been shorthand for any number of ways of presenting the Conservative agenda, and defining its ideal audience. In Fawcett’s taxonomy, Enoch Powell is a divisive figure, which of course he was, in terms of British social relations. But, as Andrew Gamble showed nearly fifty years ago in his classic account, The Conservative Nation, Powell offered members and voters a politically potent vision of a Conservative patria in a way Edward Heath never did. At many points during the last 150 years, Tory backbenchers and members have been frustrated by the inability of their leaders to provide the inspirational direction they crave, though they have often struggled to define what that might involve.
Unsurprisingly, a party preoccupied with an idea of nation has had a lot of difficulty with overseas affairs. Foreign policy has posed an existential threat to Conservative governments several times: during the Napoleonic Wars; in the 1870s, when Russia simultaneously threatened Britain’s Mediterranean and Indian prestige; in 1938-39 after Munich, and in 1956 over Suez. Conversely, its claim to defend national unity and power has been of great electoral benefit to it, particularly after 1886, when the Liberals could be accused of making a pact with violent Irish nationalists to undermine the Union. Opposition to Irish Home Rule, and defence of the empire, were fundamental to the Tory appeal for the next few decades. But after 1922, with the Conservatives in office and responsible for imperial matters, and southern Ireland lost, the empire card gradually became less effective. Tory diehards complained about the drift to imperial self-government in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, but could not raise much interest among the electorate. In the 1980s, Thatcher was tempted by hardline positions, but managed to avoid being boxed into a policy of ‘no surrender’ on Ireland or Southern Africa. Faced with the complex realities of decolonisation, Conservatives have preferred to rally against more easily defined external bogeymen, namely the Soviet bloc and then the EU.
Every step of the Brexit saga has been dictated by the Conservative Party’s struggle to save itself: to prevent voters defecting to the more uncompromising Ukip, and then to check the paralysing internal divisions that arose after the party realised the issue would not go away. It’s pointless to complain that its tactics have put ‘party before country’; most party members do not see the distinction. In fact, they are not good at making distinctions more generally. The Brexiters never resolved the fundamental tensions within their project, between global free-market aspiration and protective nativism, and between an outward-facing nationalism and an internal unionism. They also refused to tolerate Theresa May’s attempts, as a cautious Remainer but devoted party loyalist, to paper over the cracks by making careful and defensive policy compromises, based around membership of the customs union. The aim was to save the union with Northern Ireland, and as many trade benefits as were compatible with leaving the single market. Johnson has chosen instead to paper over the cracks by denying that most of the difficulties exist, except at a petty technical level which time will resolve. His effrontery has been more effective than many people, including me, believed possible, and this has been a political education for us all.
However, rhetorical sleight of hand will only achieve so much. Choices have been made. The government has prioritised sovereignty and distinctiveness over trade benefits. It will not accept any deals that make Britain look like a client state of the EU (in the way that Norway and Switzerland are said to be). In the meantime, bureaucratic obstacles to trade with the EU will be slow to disappear, and many Continental purchasers of British goods will decide to buy elsewhere. Britain will have to try to prioritise other markets for goods and financial services. Cakes cannot be had and eaten, and it turns out that there is no cake at all for the owners and employees of many small businesses, some of whom bought into the Brexit dream and are now living a nightmare. One day, if the Lib Dems position themselves more astutely than they have managed in recent years, it’s possible that they may be rewarded for their party’s consistent hostility to Brexit, but this will take time and some major crisis. Until then, opposition parties are probably best advised to concentrate on building a reputation for competence on other matters.
If sovereignty means anything, it means taking responsibility for national policy. In this sense too, there is now little scope for Conservatism to take a free-market direction that would hardly be compatible with talk of ‘levelling up’ and helping ‘left behind’ communities. In a pandemic almost everyone prefers a nanny state; moreover, major reconstruction will be needed to tackle the social devastation it has caused. The Conservative project may or may not work. If it doesn’t, Labour has a number of trusted tropes of its own to fall back on. It can charge that the Tories are after all just irresponsible libertarians. And it can revive the allegations of private greed, vested interest corruption and class favouritism that were levelled against North, Pitt, Sidmouth and Wellington, as well as John Major, Neil Hamilton and Alan B’Stard, and that did most to destroy the Tory regime in 1830 and again in 1997.
The new trade border in the Irish Sea may well prove difficult to remove, especially since the government seems reluctant to admit to it, and it’s hard to see how Northern Ireland’s politics will integrate effectively with Britain’s. The Democratic Unionists have no loyalty to the Conservative Party; for most of the 2010s, they looked irreconcilable. Though May’s brand of Conservatism put loyalty to the Union very high, the defence of Ulster didn’t become a Tory cause until Edward Carson and Bonar Law in 1912-14 made it one. The original argument for Irish unionism in the 1880s was framed much more broadly, against radicalism, ‘lawlessness’ and imperial disintegration; defence of Northern Ireland today cannot carry the same associations. Historically, unionism in Scotland has been much more straightforwardly a Conservative cause (dating from the late 18th century). The need to show Scots some benefit of London rule, despite Brexit, will be another nail in the coffin of a laissez-faire policy. Again, it is far from clear whether this strategy will work (or what it will actually involve). If it fails, it will be a catastrophic failure of governance.
But even Scotland is a second-order issue for the Conservative nation, whose spiritual centre remains the associational culture of provincial England, its golf clubs and women’s institutes. The rhetoric of Conservative leaders has sometimes been nostalgic, sometimes plodding and mundane, and sometimes boosterishly patriotic. But, in all these guises, they have aimed to offer Tory England the reassurance that the people in charge of their party and country are people with whose values they can feel secure, and who can take the responsibility of national leadership. Now, the Conservative Party must also show that it can respond to the opportunity, or duty, to redefine its nation to include those ‘left behind’. It remains to be seen how far these two strategies are reconcilable.