Let us take a step back.
“It is therefore the greatest of blessings for a state that its members should possess a moderate and adequate property,” says Aristotle in his Politics. He was not wrong. Such a state, he proposes, has the strength to keep the rich in order and to ensure that the poor are not abandoned. Moderate property, widely spread, works as the national foundation you need.
Such an instinct used to be natural to Conservatives in Britain. “A property-owning democracy” is an old English Tory slogan, refreshed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s with her sales to their occupiers of council houses. The “Tell Sid” advertising campaign was an attempt to do the same, less successfully, with the sale to individual investors of shares in a state-owned, but rightly privatised, gas company. If property of all kinds, including social capital such as access to education and healthcare, can be widely spread, the state will have a solid basis on which effectively to help those who need help, and to face down those with great wealth who might attempt to capture it and use it for their own ends.
Implicit in this approach, obviously, is the state’s right to redistribute property as well as simply to tax for expenditure. Conservatives can envisage a state where the rich are too rich and powerful, and the poor too poor and powerless. They regard their job, if one may borrow a metaphor used by Michael Oakeshott, as being to pilot the ship of state safely on its never-ending journey, facing the squalls from whichever direction they come: and that means keeping the ballast in place and the cargo well distributed.
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At various times in the 19th century, this understanding brought Conservatives rather nearer to early socialists than it did to libertarian liberals who argued that so long as just rules for the transfer of property existed, any ensuing outcome was acceptable. But, and it is a huge but, the socialists then threatened to overturn the ship by pushing good sense to the other extreme from the libertarians: all property, they began to say, belonged to the state, and should be taken by force if necessary to be doled out by bureaucrats working for the inevitable forces of history, and other such bunkum.
Conservatives in Britain eschewed both extremes. The state should be powerful; to remedy imbalance, to stand by the weak and stand up to the over-powerful. But not so powerful that it could over-ride ordinary morality and fairness (sometimes dressed up in the language of human rights) in its dealing with citizens.
Of course, the state had from its origins other fundamental duties, too. It had the duty to defend its citizens from external attack, sometimes deploying (but temporarily) all the resources of the nation to do so. It established its right to take to itself a monopoly on the use of force internally to protect citizens on occasion from each other. And from the start it saw as its duty the maintenance of a fair system of justice to regulate disputes and protect the interest of the nation as a collectivity in ways that individuals alone or in voluntary combination could not achieve. Protecting the environment would be one example of this today.
The duty of the state, conservatives thought, was to the collectivity, as well as to the individual. The individual is nothing without society; society that does not respect the individual is a nightmare. British Conservatives at their best got this balance right. They were the enemy of simplistic dogma from one side or the other, libertarian or statist, religious or secular.
This non-doctrinaire pragmatism made them cautious in their respect for institutions, which, like Common Law, often embodied, they believed, the result of much careful experimentation over time. A civil service with long collective memory; a monarchy that embodied national rituals; professions that protected standards; universities that thought the elsewhere unthinkable – all would need change and reform from time to time, of course, but the noisy protest when change was made might need listening to. It might tell you something forgotten by current enthusiasms. The “Blob” – that enemy of every think tank with a nostrum to sell – might indeed sometimes merely represent the forces of entrenched idleness; but it might also contain institutional memory worthy of respect.
So, where has all this gone in the hubbub of current conservative discourse? Seldom do there appear to be more individuals certain they have the answer to everything than those who now sit upon the benches in the House of Commons on which I once sat. Overarching explanations abound. The European Union was the source of all trouble, we are told, or the civil service, or the education system, or social media, or the BBC, or (astonishing from the Conservative side) global markets and the rules of arithmetic. How on Earth have British Conservatives, inheritors of the immensely successful pragmatic intellectual tradition I have described, borrowed out-of-date, business-school speak and paraded themselves as “disruptors” – a word representing everything they should oppose?
It is for the political historians to trace the origin of this intellectual collapse. We can see the tensions rise in the 1980s in the rhetoric of ‘Thatcherism’ – an -ism that bears little relationship to the caution of the real Thatcher, who left government spending roughly where she found it as a proportion of GDP, deeply respected the conventions of government, made a Foreign Service official her most trusted adviser, and was far more cautious than I about reform of the NHS. But the rhetoric was often different from the practice, especially in the continuous difficult negotiation with European officialdom over the future shape of the Union. Her rhetoric certainly encouraged the nationalism and the European blame-game that fed the Brexit appetite, though she would never have conceded what she contemptuously referred to as a “plebiscite” on membership. And feeding English nationalism fed also the identical rhetoric of the SNP: if nations could not happily exist within larger entities, how could Scotland happily exist within the United Kingdom?
Thence came the easy descent to the expulsion of some of the best of the party in parliament; their replacement by nationalists who had no idea where they were trying to take the nation they were supposed to be freeing. Was it to be Singapore on Thames? Quasi- imperial, global Britain revived? Or a country where all extra money went on an enlarged NHS? Finally, an utterly visionless but brilliant election slogan, “Get Brexit done” (that is, stop the chaos and stasis of the pre-election Bercow parliament) together with “Stop Corbyn” (an objective with which most Labour MPs and their voters happily concurred). Pretty well any leader with any panache could have won that election, and Johnson does not lack panache. But as to guidance about what came next? So little content for the future did that campaign have that it is no wonder every faction, waving every species of ideological banner, claimed the victory as theirs.
Now, who will stand up for the right to doubt the grand theories of these banner wavers, and get back to careful empirical, sceptical conservatism? Doing so, I believe, is a very important task indeed.
The conservatism that needs defending now is arguably one of two great contributions to political theory of these islands (the other being the non-Marxist socialism based on Methodism and the co-operative movement, which drove much of the rise of the Labour Party). The Conservative Party is likely to lose the next election, however well Prime Minister Sunak does. Perhaps he will surprise us all: he is a good man, and I hope he succeeds. But if he cannot undo in 18 months the damage done over a good many years, and defeat follows, what will matter then to conservatives – with a lower case “c” and an upper case one, too – and indeed to the long-term balance of politics in Britain, is who picks up the pieces.
It is easy enough to take over a political party today, particularly when it is out of power, as we have seen in the US. It would not be very difficult in Britain, either, particularly against the background of a parliamentary Conservative Party riven by factions and, if things go wrong for it, as seems likely, demoralised by defeat. It would not be very difficult for seriously bad people to do to the Conservatives what for a year or two happened to Labour under Corbyn. The danger would be that, unlike Corbyn, they had populist electoral appeal.
Will the inheritors be enthusiasts for some soon-to-be-forgotten slogan, financed by a billionaire or two, or crowdfunded, following some political evangelist with the skills of a Nigel Farage? Or worse? Think not just of the US but of Italy and Hungary.
Or will it be those whose instincts derive from no book or focus group, but from habits of civility, decency, respect for tradition and for the middle way? There are hundreds of thousands of such people, millions perhaps, but who will actually do the job of mobilising them?
After the crashing defeat of 1945, Churchill (no dogmatist himself) handed to a powerful team of younger politicians – Butler, Macmillan, Heath, Maudling, Maude and others – the clear task of placing the party on the centre ground by accepting the outlines of the welfare settlement established by Attlee’s government and continuing the retreat from empire, while re-establishing a freer, wealth-creating economy. That was the response of a pragmatic, non-ideological Conservative Party, and it was the right one. Of course, it was easier then: the party had a titanic leader, and discipline, and more than a million members who accepted the concept of leadership.
Today, even if Labour wins a big majority, the need for re-establishing the real Conservative tradition will derive from self- inflicted destruction, not from damage done by our opponents, and the habit of discipline has very nearly been lost. But if the job is difficult, and it is, the urgency is great, because if it is not done, the vacuum will be filled by others.
Those who want to rebuild the old Conservative Party need to start thinking and organising now, or some rougher beast might be ahead of them, slouching its way towards Number 4 Matthew Parker Street.
William Waldegrave is a life peer and served as a Conservative cabinet minister from 1990 to 1997
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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak