Brexit is not enough (OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

October 5, 2022   5 mins

In line with her determination to offer the public a new vision, Liz Truss seems intent on styling herself as a conviction politician. But this posture is not without irony: Truss’s convictions have notoriously fluctuated, forcing her to emphasise the intensity of her conversions.

Each conversion has been accompanied by a heartfelt dedication to the integrity of the new cause. Having campaigned for Remain in 2016, Truss later affirmed the ardour of her devotion to the Brexit agenda. She now shares with prominent members of her Cabinet a zealous belief in the benefits of economic independence. But plain Brexit is clearly not enough. By now, only the most radical forms of separation count.

The problem here is not a show of allegiance to principle, but the stubborn adherence to principle come what may. This trait is not a feature of the Prime Minister’s personality alone. It also characterises the behaviour of Kwasi Kwarteng, her current Chancellor, as well as the mindset of senior members of the front bench — including ministers like Suella Braverman, Brandon Lewis and Jacob Rees-Mogg. As the conduct of these stalwarts of the Brexit debate makes clear, intransigence has become a mark of virtue.

In this climate, unflinching rectitude is perceived as an asset in British politics. But this stance has not been cultivated out of deference to the national good. Rather, it is a product of the Government’s antipathy towards its opponents. Along with the culture of ideological purity, a spirit of factionalism has taken hold. This state of affairs is hardly without historical precedent. It is often the case that self-belief is driven by contempt for real or imagined adversaries. According to a familiar trajectory, conflict breeds righteousness, righteousness fosters confidence, and confidence increases animosity. Take the worsening relations during the English Civil War, for instance, when what began as an attempt to impose limitations on the crown soon descended into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

Looking back on the disturbances of the 17th century, the great Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume argued that the bitter contests of the period had sacrificed both “the repose and safety of the people”. From the reign of Charles I to the restoration of Charles II, politics had repeatedly been unhinged. Correspondingly, public opinion grew progressively deranged. However, Hume’s purpose was not to question the legitimacy of a particular party, but to observe the deterioration that came with seismic shocks to the body politic.

First, in the 1630s, the monarchy had sought to overawe parliament and tamper with the religious establishment. Then, in the 1640s, the House of Commons battled with the ailing fortunes of Charles I, and religious fundamentalism thrived. With the execution of the king in 1649, a republic was proclaimed as a solution to the prevailing mayhem, but tranquillity was scarcely restored. While crisis enveloped proceedings at Westminster, volatility beset affairs in Scotland and Ireland. Each new emergency sparked yet another. Over time, parliament was purged, an “assembly of saints” appointed, and a protectorate instituted to manage the state and the Empire.

As events progressed, successive governments declared the purity of their virtue. At the same time, incumbents strained to outbid the principles of their predecessors. As the search for accommodation was abandoned, compromise became a sign of weakness. The Restoration of 1660 failed to resolve outstanding quarrels. Even the Revolution of 1688 proved controversial for a generation. Viewing these changes in the round, it was again Hume who challenged the wisdom of sudden experimentation in the unpredictable medium of politics. Under conditions of upheaval, he contended, even an honest bid for improvement risked proving counterproductive: with routine shattered, extremes prospered. At that point, there was no route back to a moderate course of action.

There is nothing peculiar about British politics that disposes radical shifts in policy to lead to disruptive outcomes. The same inclination toward divisive partisanship overwhelmed the course of the French Revolution. Between 1789 and 1793, angry factions rapidly succeeded one another — the Monarchiens, the Feuillants, the Girondins, and the Jacobins. As divisions deepened, caution was discarded, institutional restraints were dismantled, and fundamentalist programmes succeeded one another.

Of course, historical analogies are of limited utility. To begin with, British politics is not facing imminent implosion. Nonetheless, there are medium-term threats to the equilibrium of the state. Most obviously, the Union is under increasing strain in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet, despite the existential danger, successive governments since 2016 have been haplessly careering towards a dissolution of the United Kingdom.

The explanation for this anomalous course is not difficult to find: a radical brand of conservatism is now prepared to gamble with the future. This reckless spirit has been sustained by a libertarian vision of Brexit. For the champions of this outlook, Britain’s departure from the European Union was never an end in itself. The goal has been securing the “opportunities” of Brexit. With that end in view, circumspection and moderation have been systematically discounted. In relentless pursuit of a low-tax, low-regulation economy, the costs of this journey have rarely been computed. This has long been a feature of self-appointed national liberation movements. Freedom from an unloved structure of authority is sought at any price.

For instance, while Irish opinion has stood flabbergasted at the recent course of British affairs, the truth is that Ireland itself followed a similar path. The British Union from which it struggled to escape was hardly the apotheosis of tyranny, although subjection to unaccountable power obviously rankled. At the beginning of the 20th century, a measure of autonomy, packaged as “Home Rule”, seemed attractive to most citizens. But soon partisans of a more robust version of independence appeared. First, dominion status was pursued; then a free state; and, finally, a republic. In the meantime, British and Irish relations deteriorated. Partition was introduced, and a trade war ensued. The Irish economy did not recover until the Sixties.

None of this is intended to suggest that complete autonomy is not worth the effort. Interestingly, after joining the European Economic Community in 1973, Southern Ireland to some extent revised its earlier judgment. Fresh “opportunities” were anticipated under a new dispensation. But the important point is that constitutional upheaval inevitably comes at a cost. Opposing constituencies will differently evaluate what they are prepared to pay. But, either way, it is a basic duty of clear-sighted accounting to weigh up the calculus of benefits.

The fiasco surrounding Kwarteng’s recent “mini-budget” is just the latest in a line of collisions between expectation and reality. In its rush to make the world as it would like it to be, the government disregarded the facts on the ground. This arrogance is a consequence of a doggedly partisan spirit. The mentality is hitched to a neo-Thatcherite ambition to secure the imagined dividends of Britannia Unchained. But the approach has its roots in the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

First, beginning in 2016, “experts” were disparaged. While it is true that the record of economic expertise is wanting, ignorance is hardly an adequate substitute. Since then, inconvenient orthodoxies have been dismissed by the Conservative Party. An array of institutions have been disdained. The Civil Service has been scorned, and the Treasury derided. Leading public servants have been whimsically dismissed. Parliament was summarily and unlawfully prorogued, and suspicion has been cast on various aspects of the judicial system.

At the same time, the BBC has been under attack, and the competence of the Bank of England questioned. Dissenting opinion in the governing party has been audaciously purged, with the threat of a repeat performance having been trailed at least one more time. Diplomacy has also suffered. An international agreement has been set aside under cover of the most spurious pretexts. Under Boris Johnson, the government was prepared to deny accepted facts. Since his departure, Liz Truss has felt at liberty to select her own preferred truths.

It is a venerable myth in public discourse that Conservatism aims to conserve. But the current government is exploding that myth with unprecedented alacrity. In this it is a fitting successor to its immediate forebear. It handles itself with the same unapologetic swagger. It is similarly determined to advance its doctrines without regard to consequences. Today’s Conservative Party is the child of a crisis which it helped to foment. There is little sign that it has any desire to return to a path of consensus. It is often the case with political upheavals that leaders corrupt their supporters. But in the current straits the government has run ahead of the public — and there is little evidence that it has any idea of how to change its course.

Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought and Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Thought of Edmund Burke.