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What’s Next for British Conservatism?

“While material prosperity should be a priority, it shouldn’t be the only priority. Simply possessing the latest consumer goods won’t provide a meaningful life that comes from a sense of dignity, purpose and responsibility rooted in community.”

On the long night of the 2017 General Election, when fate swung away from the Conservatives Party towards Labour, British conservatives wondered where it all went wrong. Why had Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, denied the Conservative Party a majority? The echoes of “nothing has changed” rang through the campaign from the release of the Conservative Party manifesto. Except, this wasn’t true then, and it is not the case now. Conservatism is in dire straits in Britain, divided and confused. The 2019 local elections and the subsequent European elections were a bloodbath. Now, in the context of the aftermath of these electoral catastrophes, alongside the ascension of Boris Johnson to Prime Minister, and the revitalization of American conservatism through the discussions around the National Conservatism conference, it is imperative that British conservatism find a way to evolve. 

The problems facing the Tories partly reflect more short term factors like Brexit. According to polling, 64% of 2016 Leavers voted Brexit Party, 53% of 2017 Tory voters voted Brexit Party, 67% of Brexit Party voters want a No Deal Brexit, and 52% will stay with Farage if his Brexit Party runs in a general election. Finally, from the same poll, we find that 50% who voted in the 2019 EU elections voted Remain in 2016, while 45% voted Leave. Even so, 50% would now vote Leave and 46% would Remain. In other words, British conservatism, if it wishes to survive in the short-term, needs to take Britain out of the EU. If it doesn’t, it won’t. 

However, those like Steve Davies of the IEA argue that these events demonstrate a more significant long-term realignment in British politics. Rather than left vs right, we now see the divide as one of cosmopolitanism vs communitarianism that breaks down the old divides between classes, communities, and parties. As Davies argues, we see a realignment of our politics roughly every 40 years. The last was in the late 1970’s and ushered in the Reagan/Thatcher era, with its emphasis on greater individualism and economic freedom. Society was out; spending was in. If we take Davies’ diagnosis seriously, then it should not be surprising that we are currently experiencing another realignment. From the chaos of the British political system, the fact that we are going through some sort of shake-up should be obvious. 

That we are experiencing a reordering of our politics is demonstrated by the fact that there are significant numbers of potential voters who are culturally conservative and believe in some economic redistribution, the opposite of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” type beloved by so many among British and American conservative elites. These cultural conservatives currently have no party that represents them. If British conservatism doesn’t evolve on these economic and cultural questions in line with the new order, we risk handing power to a man who does not have this country’s best interests at heart. 

Corbyn’s policy attractiveness requires reflection, as he is partly a manifestation of our changing political times. As a March 5, ComRes poll demonstrates, people are increasingly unhappy with our current political dispensation, from the handling of Brexit to politicians listening to people to what our political parties offer. To put this in perspective, think of the last decade: the financial crisis, austerity, transport costs in exchange for bad service, tax avoidance by big corporations, executive bonuses and pay. There is a sense that our social fabric is severely frayed and that those in power don’t care about any of this and deride those who raise a hand of complaint. The Brexit vote was a warning of the unhappiness that had been bubbling away. Such unhappiness continues, with both Leave and Remain voters united in their often justified discontent.

While Brexit is important, it is a flashpoint and points to the much wider picture of the state of our national politics. There is a longing for a different settlement that neither main party is fulfilling. The Conservatives shouldn’t be complacent when it comes to economics. While most people don’t like Corbyn the man, they certainly have warm feelings to what Matthew Goodwin calls “Corbynomics,” a combination of re-nationalization and redistribution through higher taxes. 60% want to increase taxes to pay for increased spending on healthcare, social benefits, and education. This is not just limited to Labour voters; 53% of Conservatives want this too. People just don’t want a Singapore-on-Thames post-Brexit settlement, nor do they want a return to the centrism that they see as having caused many of their problems in the first place.

To argue that we should ignore changing reality in favor of clinging to rigid principles is the purview of the dogmatist, not the empiricist. Conservative empiricism takes the world as it is and applies the lessons from experience to contemporary issues. 

The fact that conservative elites still cling to the paradigm of the 1990’s and 2000’s arguably demonstrates again how out of step they are with their own constituents and potential voters. There seems to be a fear on the Right that any questioning of the way economic policy has been carried out over the last 20-30 years means an automatic swing towards socialism. This is a straw-man designed to deflect from serious debates about policy issues surrounding trade abroad and economic conditions at home. To argue that because of changing times our policy should change is simply facing reality, not caving into a malevolent ideology. As Stephen Harper writes in Right Here, Right Now, “conservatism begins with the issues it needs to address rather than the policies it wants to apply.” To argue that we should ignore changing reality in favor of clinging to rigid principles is the purview of the dogmatist, not the empiricist. Conservative empiricism takes the world as it is and applies the lessons from experience to contemporary issues. 

The empiricist will observe and accept that while globalization has lifted a billion people in the developing world out of dire poverty, there have been negative consequences for large numbers in the West. National-populism is the political expression of this dissatisfaction. Indeed, a post-Brexit study found that regions more affected by the increase in Chinese imports over the last 30 years had significantly more Leave voters. Ian Goldin and Mike Mariathasan have demonstrated that the increasing interconnection that globalization brings entails a greater fragility in global economic, political, and social systems. Meanwhile, Dani Rodrik has argued that globalization rests on inherently shaky foundations; we can’t pursue economic globalization, national self-determination, and democracy at the same time. Give governments too much control and you have protectionism and stagnation. Yet, if markets have too much freedom, the economy becomes unstable, and the negative impacts will affect the more vulnerable in society as a result of our greater interconnection. 

This was all foreseen by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations, when he wrote that the optimism of 1990’s neoliberalism, “was based on the highly dubious assumption that commercial interchange is invariably a force for peace. Such, however is not the case. Economic growth creates political instability within countries and between countries, altering the balance of power among countries and regions. Economic exchange brings people into contact; it does not bring them into agreement.” As a result of the negative consequences of the goals pursued by the free-market and free-trade purists—namely the hollowing out of middle-income jobs through a combination of off-shoring and automation, massive deregulation that fed into the 08 crash, its continued aftermath of slow wage growth and some of the highest rates of inequality in the Western world—British voters wish for a rebalancing.

This dissatisfaction with the global economic settlement goes further back than Corby’s rise. He simply tapped into it. Nearly 60% in a 2014 YouGov poll backed more wealth equality for less overall wealth. Even Conservatives were evenly split. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the country supports the policies of Chávez’s Venezuela. What this does arguably signify is that though people are generally accepting of the way our globalized economy now works they are also concerned about its negative aspects, as they have a right to be. They accept that there will be changes, but they are not happy with the speed of change. Neither do they accept the argument that this is inevitable or uncontrollable, so they should sit down and let the adults deal with it. Instead, they wish to ensure that any prosperity is passed on to posterity, and that any collateral damage is as limited as far as possible in the interests of the common good. Most people favor an economically nationalist position, with more limits on unfettered capitalism at home as well. Again, support for economic policies geared towards the common good, towards a conservation of civilized society, enjoys broad support from both Labour and Conservative voters.

A nation’s health isn’t only summarized in its GDP, however. There are many people who feel neither party speaks for them on cultural issues. Both adhere to an individualism that overemphasizes unfettered freedom at the cost of ties that provide the support people need to feel useful and valued—what gives their lives meaning and purpose. Consideration of the common good is vital, but that itself requires a conception of what the “good” is. This is much harder without a sense of shared loves, ideals and even a sense of a shared moral basis which we broadly hold in agreement. We must also be able to see that we’re meant to have the good in common, with each other. This, in turn, necessitates the need for society, the feeling that there is an us, of what Roger Scruton calls the first person plural. If we do not have a sense of ourselves as part of a society, then we’re just a collectivity of atoms who bump into each other every so often, who have no bonds of loyalty or fellow-feeling on which to prosper when times are good or find support when times are hard. 

Some would see that as needed emancipation and liberation. They have a point: in a democracy, there is always a tension between individual desire and the common good—and cohesion and unity prioritized over individual liberty. However, an excessive individualism that dissolves all the ties that bind leads to a wintry isolation, leaving people shut away and lost, unable to answer the basic existential question, “Who am I?” This isolation manifests in a loneliness epidemic in Britain of 9 million people. This is the silent companion to a wider erosion of Britain’s civic core. There is a lack of family formation and collapsing fertility rates, spiraling religious participation and rising drug abuse and alcoholism. As Hannah Arendt argued, loneliness with the concomitant breakdown in trust is one of the major preconditions for political extremism. This point is echoed by Michael Sandel, who wrote that, “intolerance flourishes most where forms of life are dislocated, roots unsettled, traditions undone. In our day, the totalitarian impulse has sprung less from the convictions of confidently situated selves than from the confusions of atomized, dislocated, frustrated selves, at sea in a world where common meanings have lost their force.”

Our elites preach unlimited social emancipation for everyone but themselves, while emancipating themselves from the responsibility of national attachment.

Despite this erosion, community—familial, local and national—still means a great deal to a great many people, and this is a perfectly legitimate position. Not that you’d know that, given the denigration of these attachments from our elites. As Joel Kotkin argued in Quillette, our elites deny that their ability to enjoy the lifestyle they do has been enabled by a critical mass of people who have enough mutual loyalty to each other that undergirds the stable societies that the elites rely on. Our elites preach unlimited social emancipation for everyone but themselves, while emancipating themselves from the responsibility of national attachment. Harper makes the point that our elites, “seem to believe that they can pick from whatever national basket they like…and if they do not get what they want, they affirm a right to just pick up and leave—on a passport provided by their nation-state.”

If increasing numbers of people behave in the hyper-individualist manner our elites proclaim, there will be no society or stability. Our elites, even if only in pure self-interest, should wish to see our societies and the social order they provide continue. To paraphrase Charles Murray in Coming Apart, rather than pay homage to the suicidal causes that Kotkin lays out—climate catastrophism, identity politics and libertine narcissism—they should preach the more traditional habits they practice for themselves but despise in others. Consistent talk of personal freedom from elites, conservative and liberal, was appropriate for Thatcher and Reagan’s time. Times change, and now conservatives should be concerned with the tyranny of anarchy rather than the tyranny of stability that the Soviet Union represented. 

All this begs a question that conservatives should at least consider: at some point, we’ll all be gone, but the country will remain. What sort of country will Britain be? At the end of the day, most people want to feel that the society they hand off to those yet to be born is one worth living in. This should be what matters for a decent society that believes we are bound to each other by bonds of sympathy and sentiment. While material prosperity should be a priority, it shouldn’t be the only priority. Simply possessing the latest consumer goods won’t provide a meaningful life that comes from a sense of dignity, purpose and responsibility rooted in community. The fundamental belief that the good should be conserved for successive generations is something conservatives should hold closest. To continue to adhere to the paradigm of idealized economic and social libertarianism that emphasizes individual autonomy above all else (at the expense of social structures that mold individuals and which ground society) is a recipe for social and political anarchy. 

This is arguably why we see so many dissatisfied with current cultural trends. Two thirds want a tougher approach to crime, with 38% feeling unrepresented on this issue. This will have been reinforced by the rising violent crime, especially knife crime, on our streets. This dissatisfaction also extends to immigration, which as Eric Kaufmann has shown is a major driver of populist sentiment. BSA data reveals 65% of people think that it’s been too high or much too high. Meanwhile, 58% worry about the prospects of integration and social cohesion. Further, as the YouGov poll mentioned earlier shows, 16% want tighter restrictions but feel unrepresented. Moreover, most people are not looking to enter a post-national world, and we should not want to. Many of us still have strong feelings of national attachment, and this attachment engenders what Yoram Hazony calls bonds of mutual loyalty that bind people together across different identities. We must find a way of living together, of forming a sense of an us. Therefore, we must strengthen these bonds to repair the damage done both by the hyper-individualism of the right, and the identity politics of the multiculturalist left. Conservatism’s current default position on these issues is as Patrick Deneen argues, a slightly more right-wing version of a social/economic liberalism that cleaves us from the consolation of our tradition and casts us adrift from our roots in community and culture. This is out of step with where we are. 

The appeal of Corbynomics to Left and Right, Leave and Remain is allied with a legitimate cultural conservatism among significant parts of the electorate. British conservatism faces a choice: take the cultural and economic concerns seriously and reach a compromise that doesn’t leave their economic principles too far behind—or ignore what people are saying and risk the increased likelihood of a Corbyn government. The choice is ultimately this: a little bit of cultural conservatism and economic reformation now, or suicide by socialism later. It’s a choice that needs to be made.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.

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