I’ve seen a lot of comments about the Conservative Party’s manifesto in the General Election this year; from the Left, it has been branded “more right wing than David Cameron ever dared to be”. From the Right, it has been decried as “blue Labour” or “red Tory”, and an abandonment of conservative principles - one Independent article dared to label it akin to Castro’s Cuba. Posturing aside, these accusations are always thrown around in Elections, and not just by Tories; the social conservatives will despise any liberalisation, while the Thatcherites will see any Statist actions as market distortions or infringements on liberty. So which was right in the case of 2017? I think there is a case to say, for once, it is both.
First of all, I’d like to address the manifesto itself. Reading through, it read not so much like a plan for governance (as some said, due to the fact that the election used to be a foregone conclusion) or a series of policies, but more like a statement of philosophy. Phrases were found in the manifesto that I had seen countless times in publications like Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism, Macmillan’s Middle Way or Kevin Hickson’s The Political Thought of the Conservative Party since 1945.
There was a healthy dose of Statism – the helpfully titled “We believe in the good government can do” was a far cry from David Cameron’s “Big Society, not Big Government” mantra, mixed with a recognition of the significance of social bonds. However, the phrase many have attacked May (and Nick Timothy) for, “the rejection of selfish individualism” was, I believe, merely a clumsy handling of an age-old dilemma in the Conservative Party – the struggle between libertarian individualism and paternal communitarianism. Cameron himself had articulated this much better in the 2010 manifesto when he discussed the need to avoid “hollow individualism” by balancing “communal obligations and institutions” and “individual freedom”. Even Margaret Thatcher decried the welfare state because of its corrosive effect on “personal responsibility and the sense of responsibility to family, neighbourhood and community”.
And the notion of community as a “contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born” was something straight out of Michael Oakeshott’s On being conservative, something that I have discussed one multiple occasions. For conservatives of a philosophical nature, the Conservative Party Manifesto of 2017 was almost exactly what we had been waiting for. But while the manifesto tended in a dirigiste direction, the traditional voter bases of the party – Thatcherites, small and big business owners, low-tax liberals – found themselves with a party they no longer recognised. This was, primarily, a result of Statist policies designed to reduce the burden on the working class – and as one Mallard writer commented in June, “if you put forward Socialism-lite, don’t be surprised when people reject it for the real thing”.
There’s a simple truth in politics: “those who stay in the middle of the road get run down”. But those who lay across the road will be run over from both directions. Almost always in politics, philosophical purity needs to be put aside for practical policy, and in 2017 the Conservatives ignored this. By trying to appeal to everyone, the Conservatives appealed to no-one – broadening their church too far allowed the accusations from both Right and Left to become valid; what’s worse is, no “core” voting group could be identified – even the historic “grey vote” vanished. While the manifesto may be the most philosophically minded we’ve had in a long time, it had no clear message, no definitive “this is where we stand” statement, no single policy aim. In an election that should have been about Brexit, the electorate were left wondering what our Brexit plan was.
There’s a political-philosophical theory referred to as Laclauian hegemony: the idea is that one political group can, by identifying a common ground of disadvantage, forge an alliance between these groups and, in the process, make its own political goals that of the other groups. This is an extremely simplified version of the theory, but Laclau made an extremely compelling argument that hegemony is essentially the process of politics, and democracy; the act of making your own goals the goals of those around you.
But the process is not as simple as a one-way relationship. As you associate your own goal with the goals of your allies, you associate your allies’ goals with your own. This is fine with one ally, maybe two, but extend the alliance – the “chain of equivalences” – too far, and your goal becomes associated with so many (potentially conflicting) goals that you end up losing all substance, and the “goal” may become another empty slogan in political discourse – an “empty signifier”.
In essence, this is what happened with Theresa May’s manifesto; only the Conservatives lacked any single goal of their own - except perhaps for Brexit. But with such an empty goal, the Party tried desperately to adopt everyone else’s political goals, and in the end lost all policy substance they had spent seven years accruing under David Cameron. We are known for being a broad-church party, but with no foundations and support too far apart, even the broadest church will collapse.