how the Tories stopped being serious

how the Tories stopped being serious

What happened to English conservatism? The party once had a sophisticated understanding of the state and a “natural” ability to remain in power. Here it is now, spending the summer trapped in a nightmare of its own making. The cakey seriousness of celebrity Boris Johnson has been carved out into a TV game show: charmless candidates for the next prime minister indulge in judges who form less of a party and more of an aging youthful subculture – whose codes and styles are opaque to everyone, who collects non-Thatcherite ‘merch’ from the 1980s.

All of this – like Johnson’s backfire reign – is symptomatic of a longer, broader, and deeper ideological decline. Conservative political philosophy used to make arguments opponents had to reckon with: sharp and informed skepticism about the grand schemes of those who know the world only from books, and the expectation that Whitehall technocrats could act benevolently and wisely all the while. It was an important counterbalance to political arrogance, emphasizing the tragic flaws in human nature and warning that efforts to perfect ourselves can give vent to our imperfections. Such grand ideas challenged the rationalists and progressives of the liberal center and socialist left.

But today’s conservatives have a small idea: that they should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want (for whoever they want), and that the rest of us not only accept that, we facilitate it and should celebrate – or be condemned as “snowflakes”.

In recent years, casual asides have revealed this intellectual decline. Andrew Murrison MP, who complained 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 some pretty countryside before going for a nice cup of tea and a piece of cake” – as if Britain’s Land would be just a playground and its history just homework.

Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace’s initial reaction to the invasion of Ukraine was not ministerial seriousness but schoolboy enthusiasm; his old regiment “kicked the tsar’s ass” in the Crimean War and could “do it again and again”. Alongside such idlers and fanatics, the party is full of student politics sectarians who call themselves culture warriors and behave like excited teenagers. They warn about conspiracy elites they read about online and use imported American slang like “deep state,” a slant Johnson indulged in his speech on the no-confidence motion his government imposed on itself.

Now the party, advised by spades who can’t stand a drink – if the wine stains on the walls of Downing Street are to be believed – have chosen two ideal avatars of their own self-image and sent them to a battle over who it begins. On one side is a man believed to be the richest in the house, a public schoolboy who has never had working-class friends and for whom politics is a hobby; on the other hand, a politician who is committed to nothing but her own progress and whose success lies in the realization that she can tickle the Tory belly by talking about British cheese and Yorkshire tea while looking as if would she imagine the execution of her speechwriter.

What explains this extraordinary infantilization of English conservatism?

At the heart of conservative ideology has always been a principled commitment to inequality. It exists to defend the aristocracy – not the rule of the noble, but the rule of the best. Part of its success lies in how it can keep changing the definition of “the best”: from old landowners to new entrepreneurs, creating wealth and nobly allowing it to trickle down; from great Brits to brave Englishmen throwing off the shackles of backward Brussels and rebellious Scots.

According to conservative political philosophy, nature has made few domineering, allowing them to see further, deeper, and higher than ordinary people. Accordingly, they cannot be restricted by conventions and regulations. They have an aristocratic license to break the rules because they serve a higher value: the defense of the empire; market innovation; The mystical will of the people. Crucially, that idea has mutated into the belief that because the best aren’t bound by the rules, if you break the rules you must be one of the best. Refusing to be bound by the decisions of judges, being demonstratively rude online and ignoring the international treaty just signed are being reinterpreted as evidence of eligibility for office.

Long embedded in a culture that celebrates rakishly naughty aristocrats, this type of thinking was particularly enlivened by the concept of the “nanny state.” The term originated, of course, in a 1965 column in the Spectator. As a metaphorical trump card, it was used endlessly to block any statement of what might be in our common interest to regulate. It makes selfish stubbornness seem like a bold statement of maturity, independence, and self-confidence. The myth of the nanny state gives believers a youthful thrill of anti-authoritarianism. But because the high is fleeting, they have to keep looking for a nanny to prove themselves to: trade unionists, judges and human rights lawyers; Virologists, statisticians, people in face masks; the BBC, the SNP, the ECtHR. At the extreme, they prevail against the nanny laws of physics, which insist on governing the interactions of CO2 molecules with solar radiation.

Related: Britain’s attack on its own protocol is another exercise in Brexit gaslighting | Fintan O’Toole

Once she has succumbed to this childish idea of ​​political freedom, other parts of conservatism also withdraw into the children’s room. The British Right, for example, has always valued the aesthetic dimensions of political life, or rather the theater of power. Margaret Thatcher was a skilled player whose artful political instincts informed her performances of Boudicca, Britannia and The Iron Lady. Your political grandchildren only know how to wrap themselves in second-hand clichés. Johnson’s cultivated disorder is reminiscent of a naughty but clever schoolboy: Just William Goes to Parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg has long since lost himself in the role of an indifferent aristocrat in methodical action. Here’s how the lead candidates squabble over their cosplay: Liz Truss’ cheap Thatcher tribute act wrapped in a bow versus Rishi Sunak’s suits 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 instead promise their nervous supporters, having broken the social contract, that they too can be among the best, jump in line and speak their minds without repercussion. Constrained by our unfit, crumbling, and unjust constitution, the rest of us can only watch on at this unruly children’s party, knowing who’s picking up the slack.

But playtime can’t last forever. The reality – a broken emergency medical service, inflation that exceeds wages, the climate crisis – never goes away. It’s up to us to give these political youth back control and educate them appropriately.

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