What happened to British conservatism? The party was once believed to have a sophisticated understanding of the art of government and a “natural” ability to maintain power. Here he is now, spending the summer trapped in a nightmare of his own making. Celebrity Boris Johnson’s lack of seriousness has been turned into a televised game: unattractive candidates for the next prime minister pander to judges who don’t so much form a party as a youth subculture that has gone geriatric – its codes and styles are opaque to anyone who does not collect 1980s Thatcherite “merchandise”.
All of this – like Johnson’s reign of the flashback – is symptomatic of a longer, broader and deeper ideological decline. Conservative political philosophy used to formulate arguments that opponents had to contend with: keen and informed skepticism about the grand plans of those who know the world only through books and the expectation that the Whitehall technocrats could benevolently and wisely handle all of the world. time. Pointing out the tragic flaws of human nature, warning that efforts to perfect ourselves can give free rein to our imperfections, was an important counterweight to political arrogance. Such grand ideas challenged the rationalists and progressives of the liberal center and the socialist left.
But today’s conservatives have a little idea: that they should be able to do what they want, when they want (to whom they want), and that the rest of us should not just accept it, but facilitate and celebrate it – or be condemned as “snowflakes”.
In recent years, the random aspects have shown this intellectual decline. Congressman Andrew Murrison, complaining about the National Trust’s research into the history of the slave trade, said he just wanted to see “an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake” – as if the land of Great Britain were just a playground and its history a simple task.
Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s initial response to the invasion of Ukraine was not ministerial gravity but the enthusiasm of the schoolchildren; his old regiment had “kicked the ass” of the Tsar in the Crimean War and could “always do it again”. Alongside such slackers and fantasists, the party is filled with student political sectarians who identify as culture warriors and behave like excitable teenagers. They warn of conspiratorial elites they read about online, using imported American slang such as “deep state,” a slant Johnson indulged in his speech on the no-confidence motion his government invoked.
Now the party, advised by spads who can’t stand a drink – if the wine stains on Downing Street walls are anything to rely on – has chosen two ideal avatars of their self-image and set them to fight over who initiated. . On the one hand there is a man considered the richest in the House, a public schoolboy who has never had friends of the working class and for whom politics is a hobby; on the other, a politician free from commitments to anything other than his own advancement, and whose success lies in realizing that he can tickle the belly of the Tories by talking about British cheeses and Yorkshire tea while appearing to be imagining the execution of his speech writer.
What explains this extraordinary infantilization of English conservatism?
The core of conservative ideology has always been a principled commitment to inequality. It exists to defend the aristocracy, not the government of the elegant but the government of the best. Part of its success lies in the way it always manages to change the definition of “the best”: from former landowners to new entrepreneurs who create wealth and let it flow nobly; from the great British to the brave English who break free from the shackles of backward Brussels and the rebellious Scots.
According to conservative political philosophy, nature has made only a few fit to rule, allowing them to see farther, deeper and higher than ordinary people. Consequently, they cannot be limited by conventions and regulations. They have an aristocratic license to break rules because they serve a higher value: defense of the kingdom; market innovation; the mystical will of the people. Basically, this idea has morphed into the belief that because the best aren’t bound by the rules, if you break the rules you have to be one of the best. Refusing to be bound by judges’ decisions, being ostentatiously uncivilized online, ignoring the international treaty you just signed, is reimagined as proof of eligibility for office.
Long rooted in a culture that celebrates boldly evil aristocrats, this kind of thinking has been particularly animated by the concept of the “nanny state”. The term originated, of course, in a Spectator column in 1965. A metaphorical trump card, it has been played indefinitely to block any proposal on what might be in our common regulatory interest. It makes selfish stubbornness seem like a bold statement of maturity, independence, and self-confidence. The myth of the nanny state gives believers an adolescent thrill of anti-authoritarianism. But because the high is fleeting, they always have to look again for a nanny to prove themselves against: trade unionists, judges and human rights lawyers; virologists, statisticians, people wearing masks; the BBC, the SNP, the ECHR. In extreme cases they argue against the nanny laws of physics, which insist on governing the interactions of CO2 molecules with solar radiation.
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Once he has succumbed to this infantile conception of political freedom, other parts of conservatism also retire to kindergarten. For example, the British right has always appreciated the aesthetic dimensions of political life, or rather, the theater of power. Margaret Thatcher was a skilled player, whose skilled political instincts inspired her interpretations of Boudicca, Britannia and Iron Lady. Her political grandchildren only know how to disguise themselves in second-hand stereotypes. Johnson’s cultured disorder evokes a bad but intelligent schoolboy: Just William goes to Parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg has long since lost himself in the method, playing the part of an indifferent aristocrat. And so the leadership candidates argue about their cosplay: Liz Truss’s low-cost Thatcher tribute act wrapped in a bow against Rishi Sunak’s outfits and Prada shoes.
For conservatives today, politics is a role-playing game in which the winners can do whatever they want. They offer neither the maintenance of tradition nor a well-run economy but, once the social contract is broken, they promise their nervous supporters that they too can be among the best, skipping the line and saying their opinion without consequences. Confined by our unsuitable, decadent and inequitable constitution, the rest of us can only look forward to this party of unruly children, knowing full well who is paying for the breakups.
But playing time can’t last forever. The reality – a broken ambulance service, inflation that exceeds wages, the climate crisis – never goes away. It is up to us to take back control of these young politicians and educate them properly.