Anearly 12 years in power, the British Conservative Party has hit a wall, unsure of who it is and what it stands for, what its mission is supposed to be and how it is supposed to accomplish it. After replacing David Cameron with Theresa May, then May with Boris Johnson, he is now replacing Johnson with one of two candidates, both of whom are once again calling for a new direction for the party and, in turn, for the country. Never has Benjamin Disraeli’s angry joke that “a Conservative government is organized hypocrisy” sounded so apt.
During this conservative era, Britain became poorer, taxes rose and wages stagnated. And yet, during this time, the Conservative Party managed to reinvent itself thanks to Brexit, winning a majority once in a generation to reform the country in the process.
So we are left with the strange sight of Johnson’s two potential successors – Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor, and Liz Truss, the current Foreign Secretary – trying to present themselves as the candidate for change simultaneously. and of continuity: the defender of Johnson’s major realignment in 2019, when millions of former Labor supporters voted Conservative, and the embodiment of the traditional values of the party that preceded it.
Both Sunak and Truss promise to return the party to its core beliefs of low taxes and competence, certainty and seriousness – the party, in other words, of Margaret Thatcher. Sunak and Truss declared themselves Thatcherites. For Sunak, this means adhering to fiscal conservatism to fight inflation; for Truss, that means cutting taxes to promote growth. Everyone claims that their Thatcherism is the real Thatcherism – Truss even seems to dress up as the great heroine of the party to make the point.
In many ways, the whole show is deeply absurd. Here we are in 2022, with a host of new problems to solve: war in Europe, the lingering effects of a once-a-century pandemic, inflation at its highest level in 40 years, a aging population, Brexit and a boiling political crisis in Northern Ireland. Economically, the country lags behind its peers; politically, it appears chronically unstable; socially, it remains divided on issues of fundamental importance, including its very existence as a single state. Meanwhile, the nation’s great institutions are no longer functioning as they should, caving in to the pressure of mismanagement, cuts, short-termism and scandal.
But if the country is clearly not working, it is not It does not work in the same way as it was not in 1979. Union power is no more. Unemployment is not a problem. There are few big nationalized industries to privatize, few crippling marginal tax rates to cut and less money to flow out of Europe.
Presented with a chance to renew itself in government for the third time in six years, however, the Conservative Party chose instead to mount a kind of school production of a bygone era, donning the same costumes and unfurling the same cries of war, as if to reassure the supporters that he still has something to say.
In times of great upheaval, political leaders offer parallels to past glory (or non-glory) to reassure that the nation can rise to the challenge again. There is a difference, however, between conjuring up the spirits of the past to push through a revolution in secular disguise, as Karl Marx said, and simply seizing on the past because you have no more say in the present. . .
Inot Dthe great israeli novel Coningsby, the 19th century titan took aim at this terrible new invention, “conservatism”. Disraeli was an incendiary radical, staunchly opposed to the very first “Conservative” Prime Minister, Robert Peel, who split the Conservative Party by supporting free trade over tariffs. Disraeli, on the other hand, was in favor of protectionism because it maintained the established order, which he believed served all members of society – the monarch and the multitude. The dispute between Disraeli and Peel continues to play out today – the former being the father of moderate “one nation” conservatism, the latter the hero of many modern Brexiters.
In Coningsby, Disraeli demanded to know what this new conservative party wanted to keep beyond the resources and policies it had inherited when it came to power, given that it did not seem to care about the principles who supported the old order. The Conservative Party, he wrote, was a rudderless and unprincipled body, rocked by the whims of public opinion.
“Whenever public opinion, which this party never tries to form, educate or direct, falls into some violent perplexity, passion or whim”, he castigates, “this party yields without struggle to the impetus, and, when the storm has passed, attempts to impede and avoid the logical and, ultimately, inevitable results, of the very measures which they themselves have initiated or to which they have consented.
I find it difficult to describe better what happened to the Conservative Party during its 12 years in power. He proposed a referendum on Britain’s joining the European Union but was unsure how to act on the result; he negotiated, signed and ratified a Brexit divorce agreement, the consequences of which he now disavows; and he won his biggest majority in 30 years on a promise to rebalance the country’s economy and tear apart old orthodoxy, only to now be reluctant to do so.
Disraeli warned that at such a time, when the party faced the consequences of its own choices, its leaders would be forced to choose between “political infidelity and a destructive creed”. The weird thing about Truss and Sunak today is that they seem to give us a perfect combination of both.
Truss has chosen political infidelity: once a supporter of the Liberal Democrats and Britain’s EU membership, she is now a radical Tory who says she was wrong to ever back Remain, continuing Brexit with the zealous certainty of a convert. Sunak, who fell far behind Truss in the polls, fell on the destructive creed, stepping up his rhetoric on core conservative issues such as immigration, China and economic nationalism in hopes of winning.
DIsraeli offers us a practical guide to why this old party of reaction and conservation is capable of being somehow one of the most meritocratic in the western world.
Despite being an obvious outsider who suffered anti-Semitic abuse throughout his career – he was of Jewish descent – Disraeli was a conservative who supported what he called the “aristocratic principle” of England. Disraeli wrote that this did not mean rule by an immutable elite, but an aristocracy which “absorbs all aristocracies and receives every man of every order and class who defers to the principle of our society, which is to aspire and excel”. It was thus, as George Orwell once pointed out with much more skepticism, that England was able to maintain order, creating “an aristocracy constantly recruited from among the upstarts”. And no party has more upstarts than the Conservatives, from Disraeli himself to Thatcher – the country’s first female prime minister – to John Major, Thatcher’s working-class successor. That this year’s Conservative Party leadership contest was among the most ethnically diverse of any held in the West is less of a break with the past than it first appears.
Disraeli also offers us a guide to how the Conservative Party has managed to renew itself, but also why it often doesn’t. In 1867, years still from the post of Prime Minister, he delivered a speech in Edinburgh in which he posed the challenge of a party anxious to preserve the established order in a constantly changing world.
In a progressive country, said Disraeli, change is constant: “The big question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether this change should be carried out with respect for mores, customs, laws and traditions. of a people, or whether it should be performed out of respect for abstract principles. This, he says, is the essential divide in politics: “One is a national system, the other […] a philosophical system. In this division, he argued, the Conservative party was the national to party; his adversaries were the philosophers in favor of abstract beliefs.
The problem facing conservatives now is that they are stuck in a rut trying to be both. Brexit, in its most essential sense, is the expression of a nation, a cry against the change that is taking place within the EU and undermining the traditions of a people. It is a conservative revolution to be protected and preserved, not the expression of a universal ideal. Yet Sunak and Truss compete to show how much they believe in the creed of Brexitism and its precursor, Thatcherism.
Both candidates, in fact, are really liberals, not conservatives – Truss ideologically, Sunak pragmatically. Truss believes in freedom, markets, global free trade and capital. In recent years these have been confused with conservative values, but they are certainly not Tory in the Israeli conception. For Sunak, the challenge is that beneath his belief in sound and sound management, there are no real beliefs, other than those that Disraeli hated so much as conservatives. This is the issue that worries Sunak, the source of the cabinet leaks about his skepticism about spending billions to support Ukraine and his drive to secure a deal on Northern Ireland. These policies may seem pragmatic, but are they rooted in principle?
The candidates and the party are no longer focused on the true calling of the Conservatives: the careful management of the nation and its institutions, on which, according to the Conservatives, the country’s wealth and freedom rest. Instead, what they offer is a desire for ideological purity as state institutions wither.
“Whenever the Conservative Party degenerates into an oligarchy, it becomes unpopular,” Disraeli wrote caustically. “Whenever national institutions fail to fulfill their original intent, the Conservative Party becomes odious.”
This is the situation in which the party currently finds itself.