What has happened to English conservatism? The party was once believed to have a sophisticated understanding of statecraft and a “natural” ability to cling to power. Here he is now, spending the summer trapped in a nightmare of his own making. The lack of seriousness of celebrity cakeist Boris Johnson has become a TV show: charmless candidates for the next prime minister pander to judges who form not so much a party as a youth subculture gone geriatric: their codes and styles are opaque to anyone who doesn’t collect Thatcherite 1980s merch.
All of this, like Johnson’s backfire reign, is symptomatic of a longer, broader and deeper ideological decline. Conservative political philosophy used to present arguments opponents had to reckon with: sharp, informed skepticism about the grand plans of those who know the world only through books, and the expectation that the technocrats in Whitehall could handle benevolently and Wisdom all the time. Emphasizing the tragic flaws in human nature, warning that efforts to perfect ourselves can unleash our imperfections, he was an important counterweight to political arrogance. These big ideas challenged the rationalists and progressives of the liberal center and the socialist left.
But today’s conservatives have one little idea: that they should be able to do what they want, when they want (to whomever they want), and that the rest of us should not only accept this, but facilitate and celebrate it: or be condemned as “flakes of snow”.
In recent years, casual asides have highlighted this intellectual decline. Andrew Murrison MP, complaining about the National Trust’s inquiry into the history of the slave trade, said he just wanted to see “a fancy pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before I go for a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake.” “. if the land of Great Britain were but a playground and its history a mere chore.
Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace’s initial response to the Ukraine invasion was not ministerial seriousness but schoolboy enthusiasm; his former regiment had “kicked the tsar’s butt” in the Crimean War and “could always do it again”. Alongside these idlers and fantasists, the party is filled with sectarian student politicians who self-identify as culture warriors and act like excitable teenagers. They warn against conspiratorial elites they read about online, using imported American slang like “deep state,” a slant Johnson indulged in his speech on the no-confidence motion his government asked of itself.
Now the party, advised by chumps who can’t take a drink (if you count the wine stains on the walls of Downing Street), have chosen two ideal avatars of their own image and set them to fight over whom. he started it. On one side is a man considered the richest in the House, a public schoolboy who never had working-class friends and for whom politics is a hobby; on the other, a policy free from commitment to anything but its own advancement, and whose success lies in realizing that it can tickle a Tory belly by talking about British cheeses and Yorkshire tea while looking like it’s imagining execution. of your speechwriter.
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 rule of the fancy, but the rule of the best. Part of its success lies in how it can always change the definition of “the best”: from the old landowners to the new entrepreneurs who create wealth and let it flow nobly; from great Britons to brave Englishmen throwing off the shackles of backward Brussels and Scottish rebels.
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 the rules because they serve a higher value: the defense of the realm; market innovation; the mystical will of the people. Fundamentally, this idea has morphed into the belief that because the best are not bound by rules, if you break them, you must be one of the best. Refusing to be bound by judges’ decisions, being blatantly impolite online, ignoring the international treaty you just signed, you reinvent yourself as proof of fitness for the job.
Long embedded in a culture that celebrates daringly mischievous aristocrats, this kind of thinking has been particularly encouraged by the concept of the “nanny state.” The term originated, naturally, in a column in the Spectator in 1965. A metaphorical trump card, it has been endlessly played to block any and all propositions about what might be in our regular common interest. It makes selfish stubbornness feel like a bold assertion of maturity, independence, and self-sufficiency. The myth of the nanny state gives believers an adolescent thrill of anti-authoritarianism. But since the high is temporary, they must always go back to look for a nanny against whom they can prove themselves: trade unionists, judges and human rights lawyers; virologists, statisticians, people wearing masks; the BBC, the SNP, the ECHR. In extreme cases, they assert themselves against the nanny laws of physics, which insist on governing the interactions of CO2 molecules with solar radiation.
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Once it has succumbed to this childish conception of political freedom, other parts of conservatism also retreat to the nursery. 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 interpreter, with a witty political flair that informed her interpretations of Boudicca, Britannia and the Iron Lady. Her grandsons-in-law only know how to dress up as second-hand stereotypes. Johnson’s cropped scruffy evokes a mischievous but clever 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 over his costume: Liz Truss’s low-cost bow-wrapped Thatcher tribute versus Rishi Sunak suits and Prada shoes.
For conservatives today, politics is a role-playing game in which the winners can do what they want. They offer neither the upholding of tradition nor a well-managed economy but, having broken the social contract, they promise their nervous followers that they, too, can be one of the best, skipping the queue and speaking their minds without consequence. Confined by our inadequate, decadent and inequitable constitution, the rest of us can only watch this rebellious children’s party, knowing full well who is paying for the breaks.
But playtime can’t last forever. The reality — a broken ambulance service, inflation outpacing wages, the climate crisis — never goes away. It is up to us to take back control of these young politicians and educate them properly.