For a generation, politics has been dominated by one thing: Brexit. Ever since 1988, when Margaret Thatcher addressed the College of Europe in her ‘Bruges Speech’, the prospect of a Britain outside the EU has been the pole star which has guided conservative political thinking. Now, 35 years later, as Brexit dreams continue to flounder, conservatism is at a crossroads.
Brexit: more grimy sump than sunlit uplands
Seven years after the 2016 referendum, the much-vaunted Singapore-style economic boom that was supposedly going to follow naturally after Brexit, has failed to materialise. The turgid performance of the British economy has become so harrowingly clear that even Nigel Farage recently admitted “Brexit has failed”.
That is the background to Liz Truss’s return to public life. Truss recently appeared at the Institute for Government and provided a preview of her up-coming book Ten Years To Save The West, a characteristically ludicrous and bombastic title, entirely appropriate for a politician whose economic decisions caused such damage to our economy.
Back in the real world, what may actually lie ahead for the modern conservative movement, after Truss, after Covid-19, and in the midst of the oil slick that has replaced the technicolour dreams of Brexit?
Where does conservativism go from here?
The first thing that can be said for certain is that the pro-EU, so-called ‘moderate’ wing of the Conservative Party is now effectively dead. The ‘modernising’ Conservatives of the 2010s, the David Camerons, George Osbornes, Ed Vaiseys, who once gathered around kitchen tables in Notting Hill, have vanished. With them has gone their combination of Thatcherite economics with a modicum of social liberalism. What remains will make up the future of the political right in Britain.
One of the big mistakes made by many centrists and liberals when Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, was to think that his election represented the kind of dignified climb down for the party needed to make in order to win power again in a modern, multicultural nation, relaxed about LGBTQ+ issues. No one is a social conservative anymore, they said, when a Conservative prime minister supports gay marriage. UKIP are a million miles away from mainstream Britain when even a Conservative leader talks about how much he appreciates the NHS caring for his disabled son, they said.
But in retrospect, this turned out to be wishful thinking. The Cameron/Osbourne wing of the Conservative Party never made up a sizable proportion of the membership. It’s worth remembering that post-referendum, 76% of Conservative members actively welcomed a no-deal Brexit on World Trade Organization terms.
‘Johnsonism with a human face’ …
With the Cameron-Osborne wing gone, what’s left, so to speak? There are, roughly, two options available, and neither is particularly edifying. The first is what might be described as neo-nationalism and is represented by the recently formed Conservative Democratic Organisation. This grassroots group’s purpose is, it might be argued, to provide a toehold for Boris Johnson in the modern-day Conservative Party.
The former communist leader Alexander Dubcek once promised the people of Czechoslovakia “socialism with a human face”. This new brand of conservative neo-nationalism is a kind of ‘Johnsonism with a human face’. It will almost certainly be influential once the Conservative Party civil wars really begin, a likely development should they lose the next general election.
…or something worse?
As rebarbative a spectacle as all this is, there is a worse direction the right could go in, one that is far darker and more dangerous. A significant portion of the modern Conservative Party could easily drift into the kind of paranoid, conspiratorial, fascistic politics that has taken hold in the Republican Party in the US. A 2020 survey by Hope Not Hate showed that as much as 25% of UK adults believed in some variety of right-wing conspiracy theory.
Progressive forces in the UK need to be extremely careful
It’s critical to understand that since the Covid-19 pandemic, a perception has developed on the right, which says progressive values and social democratic politics have ‘won’. This is a perception that can be partially borne out by reality. For example, in 2020 in the UK, public spending rose dramatically to meet the challenges of the global health emergency. Likewise, in the United States, which already has an openly fascistic faction within the Republican Party, a number of welfare-state-style solutions were included in Biden’s 2021 $1.9 trillion stimulus package.
The growth of an anti-democratic, anti-scientific, anti-government, extremely anti-migrant populist politics is arguably a negative reaction to these policies. Many Conservative Party members who share the objections of the populist right in America, may easily fit in with the fascist right in Germany, France, or Italy, were they not in the British Conservative Party, the traditional home for the centre-right in the UK.
At the moment, these kinds of views may be a minority, but they may very well influence the overall direction of the party if its efforts to reinvent Thatcherism for the 2020s are met with failure, as they almost certainly will be.
It’s lonely being on the right today. The free-market dreams of Thatcherism forever, a permanent monetarist revolution, which has been a constant expectation on the right since 1998, have floundered since Covid-19 brought the world economy to a halt. Believers share one thing in common: the dream of creating Thatcherism 2.0. But this is based on a patchy and often misinformed analysis of why she triumphed in the 1980s. They also don’t appear to understand the evidence that, unlike the late 1970s and early 1980s, globalisation appears to be slowing, or possibly even going into reverse.
To prevent the rise of a fascistic right, as conservatism prepares for life after Truss, there needs to be a really aggressive, dynamic, and multi-layered effort from government to restore the concept of justice to the British economy. If that happens, the kind of fascistic tendencies we’ve seen on the rise after the Covid-19 pandemic might be beaten back. If that doesn’t happen, then the alternative might be too difficult to contemplate.