The Conservatives: Useful Idiots or Unfit for Purpose?
15th June 2019
When the 2016 Referendum went unexpectedly to the Leavers, the Conservative Party was handed a golden opportunity. It had only to manage a reasonable withdrawal, and it could look forward to a generation of electoral hegemony. Three years later, we have still not left, and it is possible we shall not, and the Party is hovering on the edge of electoral oblivion. The question I find most interesting about these events is whether they can be explained as intended or as an effect of political incompetence.
I will begin with what I believe has been a loose Project unfolding through my entire life. Since about the 1960s, we have seen the rise of a new ruling class, committed to the transformation of Britain into a new sort of country. Because I have discussed the Puritan Hypothesis at some length here and here, I will now give only a summary. In short, the new ruling class wants to reshape our thoughts into its own conception of The Good. This means a long-term project of securing cultural hegemony through control of education and the media, and a shorter-term project of compelling us to act as if we already believed in the new order of things. Though I will emphasise that it is in no meaningful sense either Marxist or socialist, the overall Project has been carried through by a careful use of what Louis Althusser called the ideological state apparatus and the repressive state apparatus.
One important element of this Project has been to maintain the appearance of political diversity. Because Britain – or at least England – is a rather conservative nation, this means ensuring a Conservative Party that makes conservative noises, but never does anything measurably conservative. I spent several years after 1997 grumbling about “the Quisling Right.” Though I have mostly fallen silent since then, here it is the idea of the Quisling Right briefly stated in a speech I gave in 2005 during a debate with Boris Johnson.
Though I will not call their predecessors real conservatives, the Conservative Party was taken over in 2005 by a small group headed by David Cameron. These people spent the next five years making vaguely conservative noises, without ever challenging the new order of things that had come fully into shape under the New Labour Governments. Because of this, they failed to win an election against Gordon Brown, but were able to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who were just as committed to the new order of things as Labour.
For the next five years, this coalition government made no departures from the course laid down after 1997. I could give a list of laws not repealed and of new laws made. Instead, however, I will say that laws and their wider policy only become important when they are directed by those who believe in them. Because of the coalition, the Conservatives may not have been able to change the laws. They may have had limited control over the agenda of new legislation. But their numerical weight in the coalition meant they had most of the patronage. The Blair Government had used its patronage to impressive effect, purging almost every institution of conservatives and appointing its own people as replacements. I think, for example, of how outspoken Tories like Jeremiah Harman, were forced from the Bench, making room for those committed to the Project. Indeed, this was the Revolution: the new laws and policies that followed were only made possible by the thorough change of personnel. The Conservatives made no protest in opposition. The Cameron Government made no effort to undo the change. It appointed no actual conservatives to anything. Already marginal, conservative voices within the system continued to wither because of death and retirement. By the time a few token appointments were made – Roger Scruton, for example – there was a new Establishment ready to scream outrage at the first real or pretended opportunity.
So far, so good for the idea of a Quisling Right. In 2015, the Conservative Party won a small overall majority, and seemed set to spend the next five years safely doing nothing conservative. Here, though, the conspiratorial model breaks down.
To counter the challenge from UKIP in the 2015 election, David Cameron had promised a referendum on membership of the European Union. He made no promise of when this would be. Once the votes were counted, there was no pressure on him to call one at any time before about now. But he did call one. He called it for June 2016. This was a year after Angela Merkel had opened the doors to unlimited immigration into Germany – and, by reasonable extrapolation, into Britain once the new arrivals could get their papers in order. He also called it after an attempted renegotiation of our membership that everyone agreed had been a failure. I thought he would win, but the context of the Referendum was always that he had less chance of winning than if he had delayed.
Now, membership of the European Union is not essential to the Project I have mentioned. It is mildly desirable, so far as it makes authority more opaque and government less accountable. But the European Union is a essentially a customs and regulatory union. Within broad limits – presently tested by the Hungarians – it allows its member states to run their internal affairs as they please. Having to withdraw would mean an unexpected focus on trading agreements and regulatory systems, and these would be an unwelcome diversion of effort from the cultural and administrative transformation. But membership of the European Union or any other similar body was irrelevant in itself to the Project.
An able government of the Quisling Right had an obvious course of action after June 2016. This was to rejoin EFTA and remain within the Single Market. That would have honoured a referendum that, let us be honest, did not give an overpowering majority for leaving. The fire-eaters could have been ignored. The issue could have been settled. Those parts of the European project that were useful to the British Project could have been preserved under different headings. Until it got over the shock of the Referendum, the European Commission would not have objected. To be sure, the result was a lost vote of confidence in the system as a whole. It opened the way to further votes of confidence. But it was a lost vote that could have been managed.
It was not managed. The only Conservative politician with any passing resemblance to ability promptly resigned in a panic. He was replaced by a woman with the charm and ability of a dental receptionist. She was then allowed by her colleagues in government to avoid the obvious course of action. She did nothing for nearly a year. She then called an election she had promised not to call, which she failed to win against an elderly Marxist hated by his own backbenchers and feared by everyone who believed in the Project. Mrs May then shambled on for another eighteen months, until she went public with a Draft Agreement that was rejected in outrage by everyone who mattered, and that was always likely to be rejected.
None of this can be seen as the working out of a conspiracy. It has brought on the electoral collapse of the Quisling Right. Even if we can believe it is some kind of controlled opposition, the Brexit Party is less controlled than the Conservative Party. It has provided space for a genuinely conservative voice to emerge. A debate over a set of trading arrangements that had no bearing on the Project has changed, or is changing, to a debate over the Project itself. Perhaps this can be managed – but the careful management now required is another diversion from the Project.
I think it a reasonable conclusion that the Conservative Party is the Quisling Right – and, or but, or both, that it is run by a clique of politicians unfit for any conceivable purpose. Theresa May will leave office with the label fixed to her of the worst Prime Minister in history. But the reason she was able to last so long is that she had no obvious replacement. As I write, her most likely replacement is Boris Johnson. He is lazy. He is unprincipled. He is a thug. He is an adulterer who paid for at least one of his mistresses to have an abortion. He was a ludicrous Mayor of London. He was the worst Foreign Secretary I can recall. This Conservative Government has landed us in a first-class national and international crisis. It has provoked the European Union into refusing to entertain any leaving terms short of the ruinous. It has made no good preparations for leaving without a deal. It has landed us in a position where the best exit involves throwing ourselves on the mercy of the Americans, and to hope that they will treat us no more ruthlessly than they did in 1940. The last person we should ask to navigate this crisis is Boris Johnson.
It seems the sheep in the Parliamentary Party have agreed he is their only hope of keeping their seats at the next election. Perhaps the Party membership will be taken in by his Churchillesque wind-baggery. But this will not do. He will be brushed aside by the Europeans. He will be taken for a ride by his fellow Americans. That is if, before then, he can avoid a general election in which he will by murdered by Jeremy Corbyn. I am told, in his defence, that only he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Well, I have never done what Boris Johnson so far has. So, if I am not the first to ask for one, hand me a stone, and make it a big one.
No conspiracy here. These people have failed us. But it was never their purpose to do otherwise. More importantly, they have failed the Project. For that, I suppose, we should feel minimal gratitude. Even so, their survival in office for so long raises a further question with no comforting answers. How could a clique of total incompetents have been allowed, without meaningful challenge, to take over and run into the ground one of our main parties of government? What does this say about us as a people?
And this, my Dear Readers, is why I have written so little in the past year on politics, focussing instead on teaching Latin, Greek and Classics. It is more enjoyable than following the news. I meet a better class of student. It brings me a modest but respectable income, and it has some chance of making the world a better place.