Conservatism against itself 

1 January 2003

The cultural contradictions of Thatcherism contained the following interesting statement:

“Local MP Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith was elected as the first president of the High Weald AONB in January 2000. As a ‘fighting figurehead’, Sir Geoffrey has two key roles: lobbying national government ministries, such as the Department of Environment, Transport and Regions and its associated agencies, behind-the-scenes to relieve social and economic pressures on the High Weald’s distinctive rural character…”

Stop there. Think of that. “Social and economic pressures on the High Weald’s distinctive rural character”…

What does that make you think of?

A new McDonalds here, a new housing estate for 500 middle-class families moved out from Purley there. A new relief road to speed up the commuting journey to London or Croydon this way, a new nightclub which will play loud music and generate complaints to the local paper that way. All part of the free market, which has always existed to some extent but only took free rein after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979.

At that point “What the Consumer Wants” became the highest priority for British governments. Any lower priorities – observance of tradition, deference to authority or to elders – are now seen as hopelessly outmoded, as a direct result of the 1980s Conservative government, which finally threw on the fire the ideas and values that had been slowly and steadily declining since the 1960s.

But would a ‘conservative’ party in the true sense of the word do such a thing? It would surely work to maintain the old order and to keep Everything In Its Proper Place. The vast paradoxes unleashed by the anti-conservatism of the Conservative Party in the 1980s hold a deep and profound grip on the present UK political orthodoxy. They are reason enough why the Tories are languishing in such a humiliating position by their standards and probably also contributes to the Tories’ failure to enjoy a recent electoral comeback as their European equivalents have.

The German, Italian or Scandinavian centre-right parties simply did not do anything like as much to undermine the societies on whose foundations they built themselves, so the electorates of those countries instinctively take them more seriously. The Conservatives’ reinvention of themselves has effectively split the party into two and created a situation where Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith – one of the longest-serving old-school Tories – who had entered the party perfectly at ease with its sustaining values but for the last 22 years of his 42 years in the Commons would have been forced to continually oppose his own party line (in government for 18 years of that time) taking the side of cultural rather than just economic individuality, eccentricity, resistance to change and local distinctiveness – while his party leadership stood for the forces of economic individuality, uniformity, monolithic business behaviour, rapid change-through-the-market and a bland, entirely consumer-driven culture. The same paradox also applies to Sir Richard Body, a Tory MP between 1955 and 1959 and between 1966 and 2001, whose involvement in campaigns for organic farming and against pesticides – essentially a High Tory environmentalist in the mould of Prince Charles – also put him massively at odds with the standardising suburbanites who took over the party under Thatcher. It is also worth noting what Johnson Smith has to say celebrating a town in his constituency:

“Small towns need small shops to preserve the sense of intimacy … we are still blessed with a variety of locally-owned shops … books, flowers, clothes, ironmongery, interior decorations, electric goods, food, all served with professional care by those who know their trade and the value of old-style courtesy…”

Anyone who has seen the nature of England’s towns and shopping experience in particular change since 1979 will know that old-style courtesy is the last priority on anyone’s mind since Thatcherite free trade took over. There are precious few small shops left in so many towns principally because they do not make enough money to survive by the rules of a purely market-driven society. The question is, does Johnson Smith understand the extent to which his own party destroyed the England he loves? Lovely old man that he doubtless is, I would suspect that he doesn’t and there lies the key to his party’s complete unelectability – just as some say that we lost the Second World War not to Nazi Germany but to America, and that likewise we were effectively invaded by the US during the Cold War when we had our minds fixated on preventing an invasion by Russia and the Eastern Bloc – the Conservative Party was destroyed by itself, or, at the very least, by its own staunch ideological allies.

When Johnson Smith, who retired last year, first became an MP in 1959 the Conservative Party overwhelmingly shared the values he was still expounding, like a charming straw in a vicious wind, 40 years later. The High Tory who enquired at the time “What is this ghastly new American word ‘commuter’ appearing in our newspapers? What is wrong with a good old English expression like ‘people who travel some distance to and from their place of work every day’?” spoke authentically from the heart and soul of the party. While it supported the new suburban middle-classes of the post-war era, and gave them a vision to which they could relate if they wanted a semi in Sutton while their parents had had a two-up-two-down in Camberwell, or a private or grammar school for their children while their parents had had a poor elementary education.

The heart of the party still lay in the conservation and eternal continuation of the England that John Major celebrated in the 1993 speech, which best highlighted the extent of the party’s self-contradiction by that time. A local branch line, a locally owned bakery, agriculture thriving and everyone happy and content that, essentially all change was superficial. Already in the late 1950s and early 1960s the Conservative Party was brewing up internal paradoxes which pointed the way to a very different England. New town building, closure of many railways and modernisation of those that remained and the early development of the motorway network suggested that despite appearances, this was no longer a party devoted entirely to the preservation of England as Home Counties and West Country romantics always dreamt it. By the time of its landslide election victory in 1959 – both the pinnacle and the beginning of the end for the old Tory party – it had fostered an economic boom, which, through the arrival of supermarkets and commercial TV, was beginning to encourage a whole new British psyche. A relaxed acquisitive classless way of behaving, wholly alien to the stiff insular emotionally repressed, class-bound national psyche believed in by traditional Tories.

Look through a 1959 copy of The Times and you can almost smell the stuffiness and arcanity of it all – letters about school hats and weighing machines stolen from the Garrick Club, antiquarian blocky typeface with a sort of “keep off working-class people, this is for top people” look – but an important article by an anonymous writer published in the establishment newspaper in July of that year reveals how things were beginning to change:

“Glittering glass and aluminium skyscrapers cut the City skyline; the Notting Hill Gate bottleneck is being gleefully smashed by muscular workmen stripped to the waste as if for sunbathing on the Cote d’Azur … how streamlined, functional and colourful are the new glass, brick and metal factories and schools. Many more people to drive to work these days”.

A similar political divide was emerging within the Conservative Party at this time – the League of Empire Loyalists, who were later a major force in the foundation of the National Front, came through as a splinter group angry at Macmillan’s realistic, down-to-earth attitude to the inevitable break-up of the British Empire and his belief in a new future for this country in Europe.

It didn’t really seem to interfere much with the party’s prowess – Macmillan could claim in one of his many interminable memoirs that Dr Richard Beeching, who destroyed so many of the old rural railways and with them a key part of romantic High Tory England, had done a job “indeed Herculean” and that “the nation owes him a debt of gratitude”… completely ignoring the fact that Beeching had removed a key part of the England beloved of rank-and-file members of Macmillan’s own party, and did not yet seem contradictory.

The post-war consensus began to decline only in the late 1960s and when the Conservatives were re-elected in 1979 the party’s core voters saw it as an opportunity to remove the trouble-making trade unions from positions of importance and to restore order and stability to the nation. They did the former – it is the latter criteria by which they failed, having set new criteria by the time of the 1983 Thatcher landslide. Meritocracy, ambition, brashness, competitiveness and a disregard for traditions and customs, manners and restraint were to be the new sociological and political orthodoxy.

Among their other influences between 1979 and 1997, the Tories gave us Sky TV, which established a new ethos of unprecedentedly Americanised entertainment, wall-to-wall blockbuster movies, US cable-style rolling news and brash colourful sports coverage. This effectively forced the terrestrial broadcasters to move away from their familiar, reassuring earlier incarnations so as to compete. They introduced a similar deregulatory policy into the radio industry, again forcing the BBC to become something that would inspire more and more irate letters to the Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail and therefore irritating many of their own core voters.

Far more seriously, they privatised almost every major national asset and found out to their cost that when something is in private hands (for “shareholder value”) rather than in public hands (for “all the citizens together”) then it becomes much harder to create any sort of communal feeling among the public and people feel much more isolated and alone. The Tories probably felt in the 80s that this would increase people’s desire to vote for the individualistic anti-communal Thatcherites, but they reckoned without the fact that people still psychologically, linked the idea of “voting Tory” with a subconcious collectivism.

Hoist by their own petard, praising ideas of “community” and “the British people” which they had themselves destroyed, seeming hypocritical and mealy-mouthed by the mid-90s, the Tories found it an impossible task to reconcile their history of people voting for them “as one” and holding on to the new voters who had supported them in 1983 and 1987 as “money-making, successful individualists”. The early 90s recession exposed the shallowness of the foundations on which the “Big Bang” of 1986-87 was built. By the end, the Tories were struggling to hold on to either set of the electorate, losing the more communally-minded, especially in the West Country, to the dramatically resurgent Liberal Democrats and almost universally losing the venture capitalists – by then all too aware of how two-faced and inconsistent the Tories were – to bright, shiny Tony Blair and New Labour.

One of the last acts of the Conservative government was to break all links between the ownership of the modern railways and the ownership of the archive of railway history – at the beginning of 1997 with the Tories still in power, the British Railways Board still owned British Transport Films, and several train operating companies were still “British Rail Subsidiary Companies”. By the time of Labour’s election in May, the BTF archive was ensconced with the British Film Institute and the likes of Virgin, Stagecoach and Connex had fully taken over. Launching a new railway with a violently year zero mentality – blatantly throwing aside long-serving staff with a great understanding of railway operation and history, because they were not “competitive” enough, and replacing them with executives recruited from commerce and the bus industry, marketing men and venture capitalists, who would have seemed utterly soulless and depressing to any pre-1979 Tory – was kneejerk anti-traditionalism again, anti-conservatism at its worst, creating a mess that the Labour government are still having to sort out.

So desperate is the modern right to portray themselves as a purely free-market and business-oriented movement, as though their old cultural traditions and prejudices never existed that they actually rewrite their own history. A Daily Telegraph editorial during the 2001 election campaign stated that while the problem now was Tony Blair’s obsession with destroying or at least obscuring the past, this had not been the case previously in the Labour Party’s history – then the menace was corporatist nationalisation of everything. A quick glance at the rightwing press archive from the Wilson years would show this to be untrue – the 1960s right felt at least as threatened by the Beatles’ MBEs or the relaxation of theatre censorship as they did by the government’s statist attitude to media and broadcasting. Indeed, when manifested in the banning of the offshore pirate radio stations in 1967, the statism of the Wilson government, which the Telegraph now claim to have fought against at the time actually warmed their hearts because it reduced the threat posed by Americanisation, casual English, noisy music, mid-Atlantic DJs … all the things that turned in the space of only 20 years from the devil to the angel as far as the right was concerned. The subleties and idiosyncracies of political history are ignored by the modern right as they play their childish game of “We Defend Freedom, Statist Blair Takes It Away”.

If one compares the actual history of paternalistic Conservatism with liberal Wilsonian social democracy, it is obvious that the social democratic option conserves people’s individual freedoms far more. Destroyed by their own success, devoid of a cultural platform on which to base their assumptions through their own actions, the Tories desperately search around for a new self-definition, making increasingly absurd gestures at “libertarianism”. This works drastically against the assumed consensus of one-nation Conservatism and ultimately, despite appearances, also contradicts the ultra-competitive dog-eat-dog of Thatcherism. No wonder they are no longer taken seriously – they sell themselves with ideas that have no real root in any sort of Conservatism anyway.

Ultimately it is hard to see the cultural tide swinging back in the Conservatives’ favour, even if the political tide might appear to. The “and Unionist” part of the party’s name has never been more of a hindrance – the mood of devolution makes the whole idea of British togetherness seem like a distant, untimely ethos for a party to use as its ideological basis. If they respond to the death of the Union and pick up the English nationalist baton they will be rejected by most of the public because their vision of England will seem ridiculously old-fashioned, like a litany of tourist board ideas combined with recycled Spectator editorials – being presented as though it was a credible political vision.

The Tories could potentially be elected again within 10 years. To do so they would have to admit that they themselves undermined their historical cultural basis during the 1980s and 1990s and that their wilderness years are down to their own free-market policies and the American influences subsequently unleashed, turning people against the fundamental small-minded insularity of the party by opening them up to how much more there is in the world, and directing them towards more liberal-internationalist parties like New Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

For as long as the Tories continue displaying a total ignorance of their own history and of ideas of the British psyche that all their predecessors held dear, than the right can look forward to many more wilderness years yet.

They will have to concede that they did more to destroy themselves than Blair, the EU and asylum seekers, those tedious bedtime bogeymen of the right, have done to destroy them. The only problem is that to do this would involve admitting their own self-contradictions, and that is something the Tories have never been good at.

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