Conservatism is in crisis but Brexit can help reinvigorate it

Conservatism is in crisis but Brexit can help reinvigorate it

Ten years ago I predicted to a UKIP friend that the only party which would be able to actually deliver leaving the EU would be the Conservative Party. That is not to decry the efforts of those in other parties who played such an essential role in making the Leave vote a genuinely cross-party alliance. The unrecognised heroes of the referendum campaign were the Labour politicians, who knew in advance that they would receive abuse and hostility well beyond the norm in modern politics for nailing their colours to the Leave campaign, but courageously acted out of principle nonetheless.

Yet it is the Conservatives who are now struggling to agree a clear post-Brexit vision. The reasons for this predate Brexit and, at least in part, relate to a crisis of Conservatism or more precisely a crisis as to what Conservatism actually is, with some Conservative politicians wanting to reduce it down to little more than a belief in free market economics.

The crisis of Conservatism

I believe that Conservatism is one of the great ideas of history, or more specifically the history of the English-speaking peoples. However, I would venture to suggest that for several years now there has been a crisis of Conservatism across large parts of the English-speaking world. What is currently happening is not just occurring in the UK, but is also reflected through events in countries such as Australia.

For example, in February 2017 The Australian ran a headline entitled ‘The crisis of Conservatism’. Then in summer last year the Australian Spectator homed in more specifically with the headline: ‘Ideological evasion: Malcolm Turnbull’s speech to London think tank Policy Exchange provided an insight into his government’s ideology and there was little to like for conservatives’. That is part of the background to Turnbull’s recent replacement as leader of the Liberal (Conservative) Party by Scott Morrison. In the UK we have similar issues which, while coming to the surface in the current lack of unanimity over our post-Brexit vision, actually predate the referendum by some considerable time.

Why the crisis happened

To understand this crisis in Conservatism, it is important to understand two things:

The first is that while Conservatism in its essence is about conserving the best of the past, this raises the question of what exactly we should be conserving. Since the Second World War, Conservative politicians have, broadly speaking, answered this in two different ways. One group has followed the traditional Conservative response articulated by Edmund Burke that there are a set of principles to be conserved, although in order to conserve them the actual form in which they are expressed must be allowed to change.

However, others have seen Conservatism more as a process of slow change, preserving as much as possible for as long as possible. Both approaches allow a degree of pragmatism and neither are in the strictest sense ‘ideological’. However, the weakness of the second approach has always been that it allows one’s political opponents to set the direction of travel. This is broadly what happened to Conservative governments between the end of the Second World War and Mrs Thatcher, with the so-called ‘post-war consensus’.

Which brings us to the second factor: the impact and legacy of the Thatcher-Reagan era. The economic impact of the market reforms instituted by Mrs Thatcher following her 1979 election and Ronald Reagan after his election the following year quite literally changed the economic thinking of governments around the western world. They were not only followed by other Conservative governments such as Brian Mulroney’s Canadian government, but even by the Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand in the 1980s. Both Thatcher and Reagan were emphatically politicians who believed that Conservatism was a set of principles which, in Mrs Thatcher’s case, were not merely to be conserved, but actually reaffirmed, where they had been lost sight of by the post-war consensus of a mixed (i.e. part-nationalised) economy. She explicitly rejected what she termed in The Downing Street Years the ‘false’ view of those “who see the task of Conservatives as retreating gracefully before the Left’s inevitable advance”.

For Thatcher, the principles to be defended and reaffirmed went well beyond free market economics. In The Pathway to Power she described the thinking behind her first leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference: “The economy had gone wrong because something else had gone wrong spiritually and philosophically. The economic crisis was a crisis of the spirit of the nation”.

Although she was certainly pragmatic, those principles were applied to every major decision, including education, family policy, defence and international relations. Thatcher’s support for Reagan’s defence policy and refusal to appease the Soviet Union significantly contributed to the collapse of Communism and ending of the Cold War.

Even more significantly, those principles included national sovereignty. Her refusal to countenance joint sovereignty over the Falklands Islands after the Argentine invasion reversed the decline in the UK’s international standing which had existed since the Suez crisis. Similarly, in negotiating the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (the predecessor to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement signed by Tony Blair) she absolutely refused to countenance Irish demands for joint courts in Northern Ireland, recognising this as a concession to joint sovereignty. In fact, she regarded the agreement as a failure, when two years later the Irish Taoiseach spoke of the agreement as a step on the road to a united Ireland.

The attempt to reduce Conservativism to free market economics

However, the Thatcher-Reagan legacy is now commonly seen in almost exclusively economic terms. While at the same time a number of Conservative governments have adopted a very different approach to other aspects of Conservatism, seeing them less as set of principles to be conserved, than simply slowing the process of change. In an attempt to persuade the electorate that the lies told by the left about ‘Tories’ are untrue, they have only rarely presented a positive alternative of compassionate Conservatism. Rather than pursuing genuinely ‘one nation’ policies, the temptation has been to introduce some aspects of the left’s own political agenda, such as ‘identity politics’, albeit at a generally slower pace than the liberal-left itself. However, not only has this allowed the liberal-left to set much of the political agenda, it has also led to a real sense of uncertainty as to what Conservatism really is, and how it differs from, for example, Liberalism.

The importance of sovereignty

Yet one of the areas where Conservativism does clearly differ from Liberalism is in the importance of issues such as sovereignty, national identity and values. Any country may freely choose to lend an aspect of its sovereignty to an international body such as the UN, NATO or even an international court such as the International Criminal Court, in exchange for a vote in its governance. However, any submission to such a body without such a vote would be an act of subservience and amount to a loss of sovereignty.

Brexit and the crisis of Conservatism

When one examines the actual arguments put forward by Conservatives who want to remain in the EU in all but name, what is striking is that their arguments are, in almost all cases, almost entirely about economics, in particular, the economy of South East England. Although they often fail to address the impact on other parts of the UK which as Jake Berry MP recently demonstrated, are resilient and positive. In fact, it is worth bearing in mind that one of the results of joining the EU was that a significant amount of manufacturing industry in many other parts of the UK, particularly ports, relocated to the South East. However, we hear no arguments at all about ‘European identity’ or culture. That is not simply because they know those arguments will cut almost no ice at all with the overwhelming majority of ordinary people, but because their vision of Conservatism, is, if not exclusively, then at least primarily, an economic one.

The crisis of Conservatism in the UK can be traced fairly clearly by looking at Conservative membership statistics. In 1990 party membership stood at around 1 million, representing 3% of the electorate. Two years later it had collapsed to around 400,000. That was when John Major forced the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament, which transformed the European Economic Community (EEC) into the overtly political European Union (EU). As former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith recently recounted, he and nearly 50 other Conservative MPs signed a motion calling for the treaty’s renegotiation. It was also the time when the UK adopted a common set of exchange rate rules with the EU, the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), which resulted in tragedy and misery for both businesses and any homeowners with a mortgage as interest rates hit 15%. Not only did Conservative membership fall off a cliff edge in those two years, collapsing by around 60%, it never recovered subsequently and now stands at 124,000, representing less than 0.3% of the electorate.

Brexit and the renewal of Conservatism

However, it is worth remembering that the word ‘crisis’ is really a medical term, denoting the ‘critical’ state at which a patient will either die or recover to full health. Brexit actually presents an opportunity to reinvigorate Conservatism with, amongst other things, a renewed focus on the importance of our national identity and the historic freedoms which we share with other English-speaking nations. At this juncture in our history, the Conservative Party must not only provide Brexit arrangements which give the UK the best possible economic future outside of the EU, it must also set out a wider vision for our national identity and role in the world in the years after Brexit.

In doing so, it would be an act of great wisdom to turn to the vision set out by another great Conservative leader, John Howard, Australian Prime Minister from 1996-2007. In his 2011 Margaret Thatcher Freedom Lecture at the US Heritage Foundation entitled The Anglosphere and the Advance of Freedom, he spoke of the common heritage and values of the English speaking peoples, observing:

“If I have learned anything from the time I’ve spent in politics…it is the thing which binds nations together more than anything else is a common set of values. You can have a deep and abiding economic relationship with a country, you can be bound together by treaties, you can be bound together by common economic objectives, but unless there are shared values, the bonds are never as close as between countries that have shared values.”

That is a vision which Conservatives in Britain should set out as a clear vision for the UK after Brexit. The Prime Minister’s recent visit to Commonwealth countries such as Kenya, the first visit to that country by a UK Prime Minister in 30 years, a is certainly a step in the right direction.

One should not underestimate the emotional and political damage done to the UK’s relations with Commonwealth countries when Britain joined the EU. However, in some of those countries there have been signs in the last few years that the tide may now be turning. In 2014 Australia even made Boris Johnson, then London Mayor, Honorary Australian of the Year, in recognition of his help for Australians living in the capital. The early signs of Australia’s new Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggest he too shares something of John Howard’s vision of the importance of the Anglosphere. These are the sort of relationship our own government should treat as high priority.

Brexit doesn’t have to be a crisis for Conservatives, it can be a great visionary opportunity – if only we will seize it.