Brexit has killed Thatcherism. And about time, too

Boris is returning conservatism to its roots

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

A Conservative government is raising taxes to fund the NHS and telling business to pay its workers more. The world is upside down, and classical liberals are furious. Steve Baker, one of thoseMPs, tweeted a picture of a pile of books including Hayek, Popper and Von Mises and said ‘This is what we believe’, reminding us of a time when Conservatives sought to shrink the government, not grow it. Until recently, most of us thought Margaret Thatcher and Conservatism were synonymous.

We were wrong. While Hayek, Popper and Von Mises are definitely part of the conservative canon, and classical liberals part of the family, they dominated the right at a specific moment in response to specific challenges — i.e. the threat of communism. Absent that danger and they have no special claim over the Conservative party. In fact, it would be deeply unconservative if they did, for conservatism is not an ideology but an instinct, summarised by William F. Buckley’s image of a man standing athwart history shouting ‘Stop’.

During the reign of Thatcher, that ‘stop’ was aimed at over-mighty trade unions and state bureaucracy. Today it is against cultural wokery, obviously, but also against the very free-market anarchy that Mrs T unleashed in her bid to destroy socialism. By breaking with classical liberal dogma, Boris Johnson may have brought his party full circle.

Modern conservatism was born during the 17th and 18th centuries, in reaction to the Enlightenment. Liberals emphasised the wonders of the scientific method, reason and liberty. Conservatives were not necessarily opposed to these things but preferred to root progress in inherited attachments, such as place, hierarchy and church. Forced to defend institutions that had hitherto been taken for granted, they used novel arguments to justify their loyalty to ancient ideas, insisting, for instance, that we should keep our monarchs because they are actually better for liberty than a revolutionary republic.

This paradoxical spirit gained an audience among those groups threatened by political and economic change, which included not just the toffs but, crucially, the poor. Industrialisation in the 19th century made some rich instantly, all of us better off eventually, but in between, millions were uprooted from the countryside to the city, to a life of squalor and atomisation. The Liberal party put itself on the side of free markets; the Tories, realising that with every extension of the franchise their position grew more uncertain, pitched themselves at the losers. Once upon a time, said Benjamin Disraeli, England had been a patchwork of happy classes held together by crown and church, but moneyed elites tried to seize power, divided the nation between extremes of wealth and poverty, and eroded our customs and rituals.

Today the phrase One Nation Conservatism is invoked to suggest economic and social liberalism, but it was somewheres vs anywheres 150 years before Brexit ran with it. The Disraeli administrations didn’t seek to prevent change — that would have been madness — but to mitigate the worst effects with social reform and reduce the psychological trauma with the theatre of tradition. It’s tempting to call it ‘socialism with medieval characteristics’. The evolution from Disraeli to Stanley Baldwin — who oversaw the establishment of the National Grid — culminating in Harold Macmillan — who among other things peppered the country with social housing — was constantly contested but coherent and consistent with the overriding desire to stay in power. At each turn the Conservative party was so acutely sensitive to the popular consensus, so keen to protect what it had inherited, that it wound up conserving some things that critics said were bad for conservatism.

This was where the classical liberals came in. In swallowing the welfare state and interventionism, they said, the silly Tories had subverted tradition by replacing the lovely tapestry of voluntary relations with a hideous new bureaucracy — and the British establishment was digging its own grave by going along with it. ‘This is what we believe!’ declared Mrs T after reading Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, and thus became one of the very few conservatives who tried to turn the clock back.

The problem is that Maggie unleashed a spirit of acquisition and greed that set the individual against the community and materialism before conservation, and her economic policies exacerbated the very social problems that Disraeli had once tried to solve (even her right-to-buy policy helped drive up prices to the extent that the property–owning democracy for my generation became an illusion). She forgot the warnings of the 18th century that revolutions have a habit of devouring themselves, for they undermine the norms and destroy the civilisational checks that are necessary for change to progress peacefully.

David Cameron applied Thatcherism with austerity, injecting enough misery into parts of our society to make the vote to leave the EU more likely. He regretted that vote; the Thatcherites, who saw Brussels as socialism on stilts, were elated.

Yet the triumph of Brexit might be the death knell of the Thatcherite project, for Brexit, as well as causing problems that will require public money to fix, has stimulated a widespread longing for a revived nation state, which in turn has produced a new desire for social cohesion that sits uncomfortably with radical free-market economics. In becoming the party of Brexit, the Tories have bagged themselves a fascinating constituency of working-class towns. That’s a blessing, but these voters bring with them serious social problems, some exacerbated by previous Conservative governments, that require a policy agenda that goes well beyond laissez-faire.

As a result, the Conservatives are returning ineluctably to the themes of the 19th century: better pay and conditions, improved education, localism. Even the push to go green has a Romantic bent, to go back to the land, even to a rewilded landscape of boar and wolves. And though free-trade deals are being signed with gay abandon, ultimately the trend is away from globalisation and towards the restoration of a domestic economy serving a national polity. A pandemic and lockdown have turned us ever-inwards. It might be good to have some strategic industries onshore.

Brexit and Trump, the arch-protectionist, have more in common than we dare admit. Trump was a revolution from below that surprised the Republican establishment. Trump wasn’t a conservative, said the thinktanks and politicians, because he didn’t sound like Ronald Reagan. But Reagan was more like a Jeffersonian Democrat than an old-school Republican, a product of the Cold War consensus that had embraced free markets to beat the Reds.

Trump wasn’t about returning to the 1980s but the 1920s, when Republican elites protected markets with tariffs, curtailed immigration and stayed out of foreign conflicts. And the questions he asked — What is a nation without borders? Why do we want to spread freedom abroad? — again echo those older matters of belonging, identity and nationhood that gave rise to modern conservatism in the first place.

Conservatives are realising that their biggest concern is the maintenance of tradition, and in some cases they might discover that they have more in common with socialists — who at least value community over the individual — than they do with ultra-liberals. When Boris was confronted by businessmen angry with Brexit, his response, capturing the popular mood, was ‘Fuck business’.

To all this, classical liberals raise legitimate objections. The more the state intervenes, the more the market suffers and more state is required, racing us to the bottom — and if conservatives legitimise socialist methods, the left loses its fear factor and some day we might elect a full-on socialist government.

Boris probably isn’t really a One Nation Tory at all; he used to parade himself as a Thatcherite. He allows chaos to happen, such as a labour shortage that leads to fuel queues, and then pretends it was his plan all along — i.e. to push up wages. Voters still hate taxes, warn backbenchers with a finger on the pulse. And yet at the Manchester conference, he was acclaimed by all, not just because he wins votes but because Boris, like Disraeli, has charisma. He articulates ancient themes. He almost embodies them.

Boris and Trump look and sound very different, which is healthy: a politics of instinctive reaction should look different from one society to another. If liberals speak of individuals flourishing in the context of universal ideals, applicable from Hartlepool to Afghanistan, conservatives see difference as natural and healthy — as proof that a local culture has integrity and life. The recent tendency of politicians the world over to imitate one another — representatives of an identikit liberal order — was bizarre. Trump embodied the yearning of parts of his country to turn the clock back; Boris does this, too. While cultural conservatives complain that he’s actually done very little to fight wokery, and might secretly agree with it, perhaps his greatest contribution to public life is to be an Etonian classicist who peppers his speeches with the poetry of Thomas Gray. One suspects he prefers Hornblower to Hayek, which is as it should be.

So long as Boris is in charge, whatever indignities the nation endures, we shall feel like ourselves, which is the real genius of conservatism: to effect change, all the while giving the impression that nothing has changed at all.

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