Where Did It Go Wrong for The Conservative establishment? | Edward Howard
It’s been two years since Boris Johnson became head of the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Undoubtedly in that time, things have been done that are worth celebrating; getting Brexit done after three years of political deadlock and stalemate, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and at least attempting to take some elements of the culture war seriously to name but a few.
However there is also a lot wrong. It seems that the party’s elite is stuck in a liberal phase, much that needs to be done is ignored and worse still, Tory leadership can be blatant hypocrites when it comes to certain policies.
They rail against cancel culture and support free speech – but then back draconian online censorship laws, all the while undermining the right to protest and disciplining MPs for standing with figures the Left disapproves of. It claims to oppose the Left when it comes to economic and some cultural issues – but panders to their alarmist predictions on lockdowns and climate change. When they don’t, it’s out of cronyism rather than principle. Of course also they claim to be tough on immigration, promising that ‘overall numbers will come down’ in their manifesto – yet do very little when it comes to the mass illegal surge on our southern coasts. Johnson himself seems to want millions more people to come, whether it be from Hong Kong or the African continent.
So unfortunately, it is business as usual for the Conservative Party elite, with plenty of sleaze scandals in tow.
But when did the rot set in exactly? When did things become so bad, and why did they? Why is it that when the party’s counterparts in both the Americas and in Europe – and some on the left for that matter – are starting to realise that embracing right-wing policies and talking points as a strength, that Johnson and co. seem willing to embrace the dead spectre of Blairism at a time when it couldn’t be less popular with the British people?
All of this has its origins in the mid to late 20th century, whereby the party started to embrace first social liberalism, and then economic neoliberalism.
For the former, this started with the takeover of Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s, whereby he helped to push the party to the centre politically. This was something he had been advocating for since the 1930s, most notably in his work The Middle Way. This alienated much of the traditional right of the party, who were weeded out for their support of continuing the Empire and of fiscal conservatism.
For the latter, Margaret Thatcher’s premiership ushered in an economic revolution, which enabled many of the social liberals in the party to adopt Thatcherite talking points without her social conservatism or Christian sense of morality. To quote the late, great Peregrine Worsthorne, her tenure left the party ‘in the hands of a group of free-market zealots from whose ranks most of the old-style paternalists had been banished.’
But even that doesn’t reveal the whole story; there were still some lines the 20th century Conservative Party wouldn’t cross in terms of social conservatism or basic morality. In some cases, comparisons can be made night and day between the two variants of the party – after all, the administrations of Edward Heath and John Major were far stricter on immigration than any current one would dare be, and no-one could give a speech as tubthumping in its patriotism as Michael Portillo’s one about the SAS in 1995 nowadays.
So, what changed?
What changed was the Conservative Party elite; the Notting Hill Set took over in the 2000s, and were about as London-liberal centric as that would imply.
Such a takeover couldn’t have happened of course without the Blair landslide providing a power vacuum in the party. The 1997 general election was the catalyst for such changes. After that seismic event, there was no doubt the Conservative Party had to radically change to win back office. Its elite could have done several different things to fix its current unpopularity; heal the crippling divisions over the European Union, attempt to improve its image from the various ‘sleaze scandals’ that plagued it throughout the 1990s, engage at a grassroots level… or it could sell out and embrace Blairism.
To its credit, it initially rejected the last option, opting instead to move to the right in order to try and win votes. It started by attempting to be the right-wing opposition to Blairism, and being tough on immigration, moral values and the European Union, at least in rhetoric, under the tenures of both William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. However, such a stance didn’t pay off – the former lost the 2001 general election by a landslide and the latter was cruelly weeded out of his position, by a combination of party infighting and a liberal media wanting him gone. This then enabled the modernising and liberal minded wing of the party – who have always been more interested in winning elections for power, not principle – to take over and begin anew.
However, no honest observer can claim that the strategy was wrong – opposition to Blairism became a winning ticket in future elections after all. It was simply a matter of right policy, wrong time – Blair during those elections hadn’t become as extremely unpopular as he is now, especially since the fatigue from Iraq and immigration hadn’t set in yet. It didn’t help that in this media age, that the leaders themselves were not ideal for this course of action.
Hague was dismissed often in polling as someone who was at best ‘a wally’ and at worst, that he would ‘say almost anything to win votes’ – something presumably not aided by his occasional insincere air and jumping on bandwagons when it suited him. Duncan Smith was unfortunately tarred by his image as the ‘quiet man’ and seen as unelectable – never mind his impressive record and success in local elections. If nothing else proves Neil Postman right about how when ‘serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk… culture-death is a clear possibility’, the media treatment of Duncan Smith at that time was certainly it.
No matter. It led to the left of the party taking over and dominating what it thinks and promotes ever since David Cameron’s win in 2005. The results of this experiment have been interesting to say the least.
Some would say that some changes were positive – the homophobia of yesteryear was mostly cleared out and the party was brought more in line with public opinion, while fringe elements like the Monday Club, an organisation dismissed as ‘mad’ even by Tory hardliners such as Alan Clark, were also weeded out.
However, most of it has been both electorally and morally a disaster. For modernising, who has had to take a backseat? The social conservatives the party has relied on for votes, and it hasn’t been blunt about wanting these people out. Notably in 2002, the then Chairman of the Party Theresa May damned her own organisation as the ‘nasty party’, condemning its ‘narrow’ base and ‘sympathies’. Cameron in 2006 dismissed voters of rival right-wing party UKIP as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly’, for presumably holding views to the right of Ken Clarke (an action of which he very telling half-apologises for in his autobiography on electoral grounds).
Meanwhile, policy and morality wise, it has little to show for itself. Adopting some of the good points of Blairism was one thing, but continuing much of his programme was the wrong thing to do – especially in the areas of mass immigration, foreign intervention and a left-wing social design that many were already heavily against. Meanwhile the neoliberal economic system that they adopted, mainly through badly handled austerity and a questionable low wage labour market, was one of the worst parts of Thatcherism that they kept, either because some were legitimate believers of the project or others simply benefited from it, especially when it came to boasting about economic figures.
Many of its representatives are also deeply unimpressive and have no strong convictions of their own beyond what the chattering classes believe, hence why they U-turn so much when certain news stories or polls come crudely knocking at their door. Cameron was typical of this – before becoming Prime Minister, he supported relaxing laws on drug abuse, backed the liberal position on multiculturalism and crime, and supported prominent left-wing figures and movements, from Tony Blair to the far–left Unite Against Fascism. When you have supposed allies and friends like that in Parliament, who needs enemies?
It also became hijacked by much of the same managerial class that ran the Labour Party into the ground. The clearest instance of this came during the 2005 leadership election. Arguably the only reason Cameron became a viable candidate at all was that the world-renowned pollster Frank Luntz had set up a focus group on BBC Newsnight, of whose positive response to Cameron gave him a profile he had sorely lacked previously. –Lutz was already a controversial name in his native United States of America – not least of which because of his alleged involvement in the devasting opioid crisis there, including being named in two state lawsuits against Purdue Pharma.
Defenders of this move have claimed that it has helped the party electorally, and managed to help it win elections. This is also untrue.
This strategy has only enabled the Conservative Party to win one election, that in 2015, whereby a recovering economy and UKIP stealing much of Labour’s vote had a far bigger part to play than Cameron’s policy programme in winning the slim majority he got then. Meanwhile, the other elections where the Conservative Party put such an ideology forward, in 2010 and 2017, they didn’t win outright majorities and had to rely on coalitions to get any power at all. Very tellingly, it was only when Johnson adapted the Faragist talking points on immigration, Brexit and the culture wars in the 2019 general election that they won a substantial majority, and rightly so.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone however. This programme may have some support, but at best it is of the elite. And for a national party, it is no good having a support base consisting of an activist elite class that will never vote for it when it comes to social policy, and City of London big business donors who don’t represent the country’s interests on economic policy. Add to that how many of the top brass of the party now are simply nobodies who are there through class and not merit and who have no strong opinions of their own beyond the party line, and it’s no wonder that the Conservative Party elite is hugely out of touch with many of its core voters.
And this is the sad state the current Conservative Party establishment is now in, because of such changes.
So, what can be done about this?
What needs to be done is the party needs to be forced into shape and in line with its core constituency. It’s one thing to complain about how hopeless everything is on social media while voting for very small parties with no audience, becoming the political equivalent of Sisyphus pushing his boulder eternally up the hill to no end, but it is entirely another to actually act. Join the party, demand change from its grassroots, vote no confidence in a bad MP, work with your local group and vote for genuinely good leaders when they arise.
This strategy works. One need only look at the recent ‘blue wave’ that was caused by Arron Banks, when he encouraged socially conservative minded voters to join the party in their droves as proof of this, not to mention the votes of no confidence against those refusing to respect the referendum result. Such pressure also helped to show the many ardent Remain MPs in the party that their positions would lead to serious consequences, especially in the 2019 general election, when many of them thus faded into electoral irrelevance.
Meanwhile, Brexit shows that pressure can be applied to party policy more broadly. As recently as 2015, the Conservative Party establishment were enormously pro-EU and wanted to dodge the referendum question as much as possible. By a combination of the Leave vote, Cameron and May resigning humiliated and the threat of Farage electorally hurting them, they have been forced to adopt the Leave position, something that was unthinkable just a decade ago.
Such a move can work, and it is time for social conservatives to act as united as possible. It’s no good cowering in the corner about how hopeless things are forever. It is time to join the political mainstream, for better or for worse. We will win out, but only if we put our boots on the ground and show where we stand where it counts.