What has happened to English Conservatism? The party was once believed to have a sophisticated grasp of statecraft and a “natural” capacity to hold on to power. Here it is now, spending the summer trapped in a nightmare of its own making. The cakeist unseriousness of the celebrity Boris Johnson has been spun off into a TV game show: charmless candidates for the next prime minister pander to judges who form not so much a party as a youth subculture that has grown geriatric – its codes and styles opaque to anyone who doesn’t collect Thatcherite “merch” from the 1980s.
All this – like Johnson’s reign of backfire – is symptomatic of a longer, wider and deeper ideological decline. Conservative political philosophy used to make arguments with which opponents had to reckon: sharp and informed scepticism about the grand plans of those who know the world through books alone and the expectation that technocrats in Whitehall could manage benevolently and wisely all of the time. Emphasising the tragic flaws in human nature, warning that efforts to perfect ourselves can give free rein to our imperfections, it was an important counterbalance to political arrogance. Such big ideas challenged the rationalists and progressives of the liberal centre and socialist left.
But the Conservatives of today are possessed of a small idea: that they should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want (to whoever they want), and that the rest of us should not just accept this but facilitate and celebrate them – or be condemned as “snowflakes”.
In recent years, casual asides have shown up this intellectual decline. Andrew Murrison MP, complaining about the National Trust’s research into the history of the slave trade, said he wanted only to see “an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake” – as if Britain’s land were but a play park and its history mere homework.
The initial response of the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, to the invasion of Ukraine was not ministerial gravitas but schoolboy enthusiasm; his old regiment had “kicked the backside” of the tsar in the Crimean war and could “always do it again”. Alongside such idlers and fantasists, the party is full of student politics sectarians self-identifying as culture warriors and acting like excitable teenagers. They warn of conspiratorial elites they read about online, using imported American slang such as “deep state”, a penchant Johnson indulged in his speech on the no-confidence motion his government called on itself.
Now the party, advised by spads who can’t hold a drink – if the wine stains on the walls of Downing Street are anything to go by – has chosen two ideal avatars of its own self-images, and set them to fight over who started it. On one side is a man thought to be the richest in the House, a public schoolboy who never had any working-class friends and for whom politics is a hobby; on the other, a politician unrestrained by commitments to anything other than her own advancement, and whose success lies in realising that she can tickle the Tory tummy by talking about British cheeses and Yorkshire tea while looking as if she’s imagining the execution of her speechwriter.
What accounts for this extraordinary infantilisation of English Conservatism?
The core of Conservative ideology has always been a principled commitment to inequality. It exists to defend aristocracy – not the rule of the posh but the rule of the best. Part of its success lies in how it can always change the definition of “the best”: from ancient landowners to new entrepreneurs creating wealth and nobly allowing it to trickle down; from great Britons to plucky Englishmen throwing off the shackles of backwards Brussels and rebellious Scots.
According to conservative political philosophy, nature has made only a few fit to rule, enabling them to see further, deeper and higher than ordinary people. Accordingly, they cannot be confined by conventions and regulations. They have an aristocratic licence to break the rules because they serve a higher value: defence of the realm; market innovation; the mystical will of the people. Crucially, this idea has mutated into the belief that, because the best aren’t bound by the rules, if you break the rules you must be one of the best. Refusing to be bound by the decisions of judges, being ostentatiously uncivil online, ignoring the international treaty you just signed, is reimagined as proof of fitness for office.
Long embedded in a culture that celebrates daringly naughty aristocrats, this kind of thinking has been particularly animated by the concept of the “nanny state”. The term originated, naturally, in a column in the Spectator in 1965. A metaphorical trump card, it has been played endlessly to block any and every proposition about what it might be in our common interest to regulate. It makes selfish obstinacy feel like a bold assertion of maturity, independence and self-reliance. The myth of the nanny state gives believers a teenage thrill of anti-authoritarianism. But because the high is fleeting, they must always search again for a nanny against whom they can prove themselves: trade unionists, judges and human rights lawyers; virologists, statisticians, people wearing face masks; the BBC, the SNP, the ECHR. In extreme cases they assert themselves against the nannying laws of physics, which insist on governing the interactions of CO2 molecules with solar radiation.
Once it has succumbed to this childlike conception of political freedom, other parts of conservatism also retreat to the nursery. For instance, the British right has always appreciated the aesthetic dimensions of political life, or, rather, the theatre of power. Margaret Thatcher was a skilled player, artful political instinct informing her performances of Boudicca, Britannia and the Iron Lady. Her political grandchildren know only how to cloak themselves in secondhand stereotypes. Johnson’s cultivated dishevelment evokes a naughty but clever schoolboy: Just William Goes to Parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg has long since lost himself in method-acting the part of an indifferent aristocrat. And so the leadership candidates argue over their cosplay: Liz Truss’s low-rent Thatcher tribute act wrapped up in a bow versus Rishi Sunak’s suits and Prada shoes.
For Conservatives today, politics is a role-playing game in which the winners get to do whatever they want. They offer neither the maintenance of tradition nor a well-managed economy but, having broken the social contract, promise their nervous supporters that they too can be one of the best, jumping the queue and speaking their mind without consequence. Confined by our unfit, decaying and inequitable constitution, the rest of us can only look on at this unruly children’s party, knowing full well who is paying for the breakages.
But playtime cannot last for ever. Reality – a broken ambulance service, inflation outstripping wages, the climate crisis – never goes away. It’s up to us to take back control from these political juveniles, and school them properly.
Alan Finlayson is professor of political and social theory at the University of East Anglia