I’m not sorry for voting Tory on 12 December 2019. If I were to go back, I’d do it again. Like millions of others, I had two main reasons for doing so. First, Brexit. And, the Conservatives delivered. It was the most important political decision of my lifetime and je ne regrette rien.
Second, the state of the Labour Party, riddled with anti-Semitism and personal vindictiveness, with people cancelled for the slightest ideological slip, with its gender wars obsessions, with its hatred of the very idea that one might love one’s country. It was a huge personal relief to leave all that behind. Good riddance.
At first, my switch of allegiance to the hated Tories came as something of a relief. And in the early stages of our relationship, it was easy to keep on making excuses for the things that did not sit quite right with me. I found myself, less than a month after the vote, inwardly cringing at the refusal of Tory MP’s to support the bid to reunite unaccompanied child refugees with families in the UK. It seemed heartless and unnecessarily petty — a kind of unvirtue signalling designed to send a strong message to the faithful that this government wouldn’t be manipulated by any of that sentimentalism so beloved of the Left. Perhaps you just have to take the rough with the smooth, no party is ever going to be perfect. And with this sort of unconvincing blah, I soldiered on, morally embarrassed.
I’ve had other wobbles. But now, with the reduction of the aid budget to 0.5% of GDP, the romance is well and truly over. The idea that we export our Covid-related economic pain to the most vulnerable is just too much for me to swallow, especially as the Conservatives made a clear electoral commitment on this one. Not only was their previously stubborn defence of the 0.7% figure a bunch of garlic that could ward off the “nasty party” tag, it was also a promise to some of the poorest people on the planet. Theresa May was right when she spoke against this £4 billion drop in funding, warning that: “Fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die.”
An instinctive distrust of grand, over-arching theories of morality is one of the principle features of the Conservative mindset. Practice trumps theory. Utopianism is dangerous. Human beings are messy, complicated, conflicted creatures, and strict moral prescriptions are often inhospitable to the lived reality of human life. I get all of that. I agree with it. But one of the inherent weaknesses of this position is that morality can become so bendy and pragmatic as to be practically non-existent. And there is nothing Conservative about the abandonment of guiding moral ideals, however qualified they might have to become when they bump into reality.
What distinguishes this government from so many Conservative governments of the past is that this one doesn’t seem to do morality at all. One suspects they think that morality is for lefties. Which is just rubbish. Because Conservatism has always had a moral core, albeit a different one from that of the Left. It honours the implicit moral tone of communities, customs and institutions – monarchy, law, military, the family. Traditionally, it has had a close relationship with the Church of England and its establishment.
It has a ready affinity with environmental concerns, with its instinctive preference for the countryside over concrete. And while it does not typically appreciate the way modernity has formatted the moral instinct, it nonetheless holds important things like honourable conduct, something that used to be called character, keeping your word, being fair, even that much derided idea of noblesse oblige, which, when sympathetically understood, is a sense of social responsibility by those who have much, towards those who do not. All of these add up to a powerful conjunction of obligations — something we used to be comfortable describing as implicit in what it was to be British. And they are deeply conservative instincts.
But what do we have with this government? No one can say that Boris has ever made any great play of being constrained by morality, certainly not anything like a Judeo-Christian one. Perhaps he thinks that the air has gone out of this particular balloon. But if that’s the case, another one of the bulwarks of moral Conservativism has been dislodged. I wonder if he thinks that the sense of honour implicit in keeping one’s word is equally old fashioned. Green MP Caroline Lucas is right to be concerned that with Boris Johnson there has been a gradual “normalisation of lying to the house”. And this normalisation is highly corrosive of one of key institutions that Conservatives have traditionally respected: Parliament itself.
I don’t care so much about the money spent on soft furnishings, but it’s that creepy conjunction of greed, entitlement and sexual licence that eats away at the integrity of our public life. I am not terribly judgmental about a bit of old-fashioned hypocrisy; the gap between what we want to be and who we are is there in most of us. What I find so deeply dispiriting is its, yes again, normalisation — as if, for instance, there was nothing about Matt Hancock’s bit on the side that should concern proper grown-ups. And such was the normalisation of this corrosive and amoral me-first philosophy that it seems Boris genuinely thought he could get away with there being one Covid isolation rule for him, and another for the rest of us, the little people. Pilot project? More Pontius Pilate, if you ask me.
I have discovered and nurtured my inner conservative since 2019. People like Roger Scruton have become central to how I look at the world. But the more conservative I become, the less I like the Government. It is true that the very different values of market-led liberal individualism have been hollowing out more traditional Toryism since at least the Thatcher revolution. But there were hopes of a fightback. The Brexit vote was a refusal to put the values of economic growth over those of democracy and sovereignty. It was a repatriation of distant unaccountable power and the first great break with the Thatcherite economic consensus. And there is still a long way to go to undo the damage it did.
I won’t return to the Left. But I won’t be voting Conservative next time either. They have forgotten the values of being conservative. And without those values, the Conservative Party is little more than a vessel for the personal ambitions of the depressingly self-entitled.