From Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May, British conservatism defended the small state. He has maintained a disruptive but strategically active relationship with the European Union. His social program included any social mobility the market could offer, as well as charity. Its defense priority was NATO’s eastern flank. His connection with Ulster unionism was existential.
Today, just 28 months after May’s resignation, the Tory Party does not support any of the above. Government spending as a percentage of GDP is higher than at any time since the 1950s. Having made a firm strategic break with Europe, the UK about to enter a trade war with this.
The Conservative Social Agenda dictates that entire communities must be “aligned” through arbitrary and crony subsidies. Defense priorities are concentrated everywhere except in Europe. And Northern Ireland – notwithstanding the forthcoming application of Article 16 – on my way to an economic union with the republic.
To understand what happened to the Tories, we must abandon our assumptions about what the party is. When he earlier jumped from protectionism to free trade in the 1840s, to imperialism in the 1890s, to the Keynesian welfare state under Harold Macmillan, or to monetarism under Margaret Thatcher, these changes were, in fact, a reaction to the modal changes of capitalism.
The change-to-save principle, established by Edmund Burke, assumed that the interests of the ruling class and the nation-state were preserved. Conservatism represented a broad alliance between old and new British money, between the rich and respectful poor, and between the class of officers who first won victory at Ypres and the village church communities where their monuments stood.
Things are different today. The changes that capitalism demanded after the 2008 crash were completely contained by the Tories before Johnson: an activist central bank, an increased pile of debt, a willingness to periodically nationalize some railroad companies. The Johnson Revolution is not a traditional Tory adaptation to organic change.
Rather than viewing the Tory party and its evolving ideologies as the political representative of the broader ruling class, we must face the terrible truth: It has become the ruling caste itself. This alone explains his behavior in the past two months.
He prompted MPs to vote for a permit for water companies. discharge wastewater into rivers and seas… Then he turned it over and ordered a repeat vote. He voted to acquit Owen Paterson for “flagrant” violation of bribery prevention rules. And then he rolled over again, expelling him from the House of Commons.
Numerous conflicts of interest are now being discovered. Ian Duncan Smith receives money from a hand disinfection company and, as the head of the government task force, recommended changes to the rules that would benefit this firm. Jeffrey Cox “works from home” in the Virgin Islands defending their tax evasion regime against the British state for a million pounds.
Boris Johnson himself, by refusing to reveal the details of who paid for his renovated Downing Street apartment, is now blatantly exploiting loopholes to avoid revealing how much a party sponsor spent on the prime minister’s recent vacation. Fifteen former party treasurers have become unelected legislators in the lords, while countless boorish blobs from the bottom of the conservative barrel transfer control over major cultural institutions.
The Conservative Party has become a machine for enriching Conservative MPs and for awarding contracts to specific businesses in order to receive, largely without competition, the huge amounts of government spending that the party is used to nodding at.
This development should not surprise us because it is happening to the already entrenched ruling parties elsewhere. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party has more or less merged with the Turkish state; if he was expelled in the next election, it would be like evisceration, not a change of government. Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has also gained a foothold in Hungary’s media and judicial system, creating a corrupt oligarchic capitalism in its own image. And in 18 US states, Republican administrations have used the post-Trump instability to pass voter suppression laws designed to make their control permanent.
On one level, these events represent a factional rift within the national business elite: a corporate, globally oriented wing of managers and investors willing to defend globalization and an international order based on rules, while a more insular faction based on family fortunes and individuals … capital, retreats to the strategy of ruining a neighbor.
But in Britain, with its service-oriented corporate culture, the transformation of the Tories into a fickle, rule-breaking and culturally transgressive political force does not find organic support in the broader ruling class. This is not done in the name of British capitalism – it is being done for the self-enrichment of a tenacious clique.
For opposition parties, the task of fighting this new kind of elitist politics has proved difficult because they are not ready to confront what it is. They are still scratching their heads and asking how a “conservative” can do what Johnson is doing with Britain’s position in the world, with its institutions, with decency and the rule of law?
This is the wrong question. The best way to understand the ideology and behavior of the Tories today is through the quantum metaphor in physics. German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg solved the problem of the observed instability of matter at the subatomic level by replacing numbers with tables: an electron, jumping from one orbit to another, will always be somewhere, but he realized that it was pointless to try to pinpoint its exact location or trajectory.
Today’s British conservatism will always be there to stay in power. If he maintains zero carbon emissions today but rants against it in Daily mail tomorrow – or borrowing and spending additional billions in the budget, gloomily preaching about austerity – that’s not inconsistency: it’s just what it takes to rally a coalition of self-enriching politicians and their electoral cheats. This is what you do so that Boris can continue to wallpaper his house with gold interspersed wallpaper, so that Rishi can continue to wander around in his £ 95 sandals, and Jeffrey can continue to sip his evening gowns on Tortola.
[see also: What is the Geoffrey Cox scandal all about?]
Rather than trying to fit post-Brexit conservatism into a political category, we should simply assume that it moves from one project to the next – rising levels, net zero carbon emissions, HS2, Serko Test and trace – whatever conservatives believe in textbooks.
To end this state of affairs, we must follow a rigid logic. If the Tory party is now a machine for keeping a few empowered people at the end of a conveyor belt of taxpayer money and corporate bribes, then the opposition must become a machine to remove it from power.
The opposition is currently fragmented into parties that, in their own bizarre and deceptive way, still believe that politics exists to represent a set of common interests that broadly coincide with the political philosophies of liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, and social democracy. As a result, no party other than Johnson’s Conservatives can change shape at will; no other party can demonstrate such blatant disregard for truth, law, and the principles of natural justice. Likewise, no other party could have aroused even the temporary loyalty of billions of media outlets if it, too, had not joined the project of self-enrichment and greed.
Faced with this mystery, both in Ankara and Budapestthe opposition went to great lengths to rally around the moderate conservative democrats. I’m not suggesting going that far in the UK, but we need to do more: more conversations between the parties, more strategy, more confidence-building, more grassroots alliance building.