Lay it to rest. (Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

March 22, 2024   6 mins

For the 20th-century Greek philosopher Panagiotis Kondylis, conservatism was a purely historical phenomenon. A Marxist from a distinguished military family, he was lauded as “one of the great conservative thinkers of our age” by the paleo-conservative, Paul Gottfried. Kondylis came to the conclusion that conservatism is not, as its adherents claim, an eternal intellectual or moral tendency, but a specific phase like the Reformation or the Enlightenment, representing the unsuccessful defence of the power of the landed aristocracy against the rising challenge of bourgeois industrialists. 

As such, Kondylis wrote, it was already dead: for “outside this social and intellectual historical framework, conservatism can only be referred to metaphorically or with polemical or apologetic intent”, or indeed as “the epitaph of a process that has already (essentially) run its course”. With the 19th-century victory of bourgeois liberalism — and its replacement, in turn, by “mass democracy”, of which both fascism and Soviet Communism were extremist sub-categories — conservatism was left a meaningless husk, a rhetorical flourish to distinguish one form of liberalism from its electoral rivals through the mere narcissism of small differences. 

Kondylis died in 1998, and therefore only partly witnessed the total intellectual collapse of Britain’s Conservative Party as a vehicle for Right-wing politics. Yet had he survived to observe the last flailing days of Europe’s oldest political party, still squatting in office to no discernible purpose, even he would surely have been shocked at the vacuousness and self-defeating liberalism of the faction which in Britain bears conservatism’s name. We can only hope that the party’s coming crushing electoral defeat will herald not only its ejection from power but its total dissolution: for even at the modest task which Kondylis assigns conservatism, the temporary preservation of yesterday’s liberalism, the Tories are abject failures.

Last week’s redefinition of political extremism by Michael Gove, the party’s sole intellectual and most competent administrator, is a case in point. While the 2011 definition brought in by Cameron’s government was unnecessary and objectionable in itself, its notional appeal to “fundamental British values” could at least have served conservative ends if applied by a competent Right-wing government. Yet Gove’s redefinition strips out even that one marginal good, declaring that extremism is “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance”.

Leaving aside the question of political violence, which the law already adequately proscribes, it is not difficult to foresee how the technocratic liberal managerialism of the coming Starmer administration will interpret its vague definition of “intolerance”, defined as “creating a permissive environment” to “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. Like the 2011 Prevent definition, its 2024 replacement is a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived Islamist threat that, through moral cowardice at defining its opponent clearly, will instead disproportionately fall upon the political Right. That the liberal Left’s initial reactions to Gove’s tinkering centred on whether the party’s donors could be defined as extremists, or whether Gove’s chosen reading material defined him as one himself, highlights the inevitable direction of travel. 

In an attempt to make short-lived political capital at the disquiet over recent pro-Palestine protests, Gove has created a powerful weapon against the Right. Just as Blair’s Human Rights Act enshrined progressivism into the state’s essence, the new definition will shrink conservatism’s space for querying or opposing the most sweeping progressive innovations. It is of a piece with the Online Safety Act, a hurried piece of legislation brought in as a response to a Conservative MP’s murder by a jihadist, which instead functions as a muzzle on “harmful” Right-wing discourse. None of the alleged “culture war” dividing lines on which the Conservatives have rhetorically sought to distinguish themselves from Labour — on mass immigration, the ECHR, gender politics or progressive activist judges and civil servants — will survive the expansive interpretations of “the fundamental rights and freedoms of others” that will surely follow. If the Conservative Party is to be judged on its actions, and not on its rhetoric, it is not a vehicle for the implementation of Right-wing politics but for its suppression. In its last days in the Westminster bunker, the Conservative Party has chosen suicide as its final act.

My concerns here are motivated by self-interest: like the majority of the country, I do not believe that Parliament is a well-functioning system responsive to the electorate’s desires. Through my “intent to undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy” with something functional I am, by Gove’s definition, a political extremist. The same could no doubt be said of Scottish, Welsh and Irish separatists (though Labour will hardly apply this new definition to them), advocates of proportional representation, Swiss-style direct democracy, or of any future Right-wing reformist analogue to Blair’s constitutional experimentation. 

It is no wonder that, after a generation of Conservative Party rule, 46% of British adults now support “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliamentary elections”, a figure which rises to 65% of those aged 18-35. By Gove’s definition, the majority of the electorate will soon be composed of extremists: this widening gulf between the governing and the governed is not a recipe for political stability.

But until then, to shore up its fragile legitimacy, the British political system has a greater need for extremists than British politics can supply. The recent Hope Not Hate report on political extremism highlights the problem: listed alongside its catalogue of neo-Nazis and Ulster Loyalist paramilitaries are such inoffensive conservatives as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, ascribed to a nebulous “radical Right”, along with the Telegraph and Spectator, for advocating, among other things, halving Britain’s current rate of immigration. Yet under the Conservative Party, immigration soared to unprecedented levels: halving last year’s influx would still mean an immigration rate two and a half times the rate under New Labour, which was itself seen at the time as a reckless and destabilising experiment. Even the radical progressivism of the Nineties is now beyond the pale of acceptable politics.

By any reasonable analysis this is absurd thinking, but this is the narrow and destructive path into which British political discourse is increasingly channelled. In Britain, almost uniquely in Western democracies, the space available for political reform is shrinking. The failure of the populism of the 2010s, both on the Left and Right, lay in its belief that the political system actually could be reformed. Yet rather than a threat to democracy, as technocratic centrists claimed, British political populism was undone by its touching faith in its existence. Twice in the past decade, through both the original Brexit vote and the 2019 vote to actually implement it, the British people have voted for total change: twice the British political system closed ranks to prevent reform. Brexit voters, a narrow majority of the country, were characterised as either extremists or the unwitting dupes of a Russian plot, as a wave of conspiratorial fantasising overtook the country’s political establishment. 

There is little hope to be placed in the incoming Starmer government: the problems facing Britain, both economic and political, are structural, and beyond the capacity of Labour’s underwhelming front bench to address. If we were to zoom out and view our current predicament with the grand-historical scale of a Kondylis, the contours of the situation become clear. During the Nineties, through a combination of misguided intellectual fashions and vague Boomer idealism, the belief took hold across the elites of Western societies that the unfettered movement of goods, money and people across national borders would herald a new era of cosmopolitan prosperity and social harmony. Eventually, reality intervened: as with other Western societies, only more so, Britain is now poorer, unhappier and less harmonious as a result. Yet the mental maps of Britain’s political class are still those of Nineties Britain. With no existing conservatism to temper their political innovations, liberals have brought about a world that threatens to eat them whole. 

“The mental maps of Britain’s political class are still those of Nineties Britain.”

To the horror of our political class, trapped in their Nineties reveries, George Galloway’s recent election victory reveals the actually existing Britain of the 2020s. A more or less open opportunist, who rides the dissatisfaction of Britain’s most solidly Muslim constituencies with Western foreign policy as his vehicle to power, Galloway’s understanding of Britain’s new political faultlines cannot be faulted: he is a realist, who navigates the country as it now is. If anything, Galloway’s open contempt for Westminster’s pieties more accurately reflects the opinion of the average voter than anything else in British political discourse. Yet the electoral Right flounders in a country it no longer understands. Lee Anderson’s defection to the Reform Party after accusing Sadiq Khan of being an Islamist highlights their outdated mental maps; Khan is not an Islamist, but instead a generic progressive, a cookie-cutter Twitter-brained liberal whose power rests on London’s transformed demographics, an optimistic globaliser of a kind that already looks outdated.

For if Britain’s politicians have locked themselves away in an eternal Nineties, the wider world has moved on. The world of the 2020s is an unstable, threatening place, sliding towards global war. Locked in political stasis, unable to reform itself or correct its drift, the British state will meet the coming storm in a dangerously brittle fashion. Britain’s economy is stagnant, its populace is restive and disenchanted, and its underequipped armed forces and non-existent industrial base poorly match the hawkishness of its foreign policy. 

It is an increasingly common trope to compare the ramshackle British state — “Ukania” in the Scottish nationalist Tom Nairn’s formulation — with the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in its dotage. This is a more flattering comparison than Britain deserves: in 1914, Austria-Hungary was a major power, and a military, industrial and scientific powerhouse far beyond the wildest imaginings of 2020s Britain.

It was only in retrospect that the Habsburg state’s collapse came to seem inevitable: the likelihood of 2020s Britain emerging from a new era of great power conflict as a stable, victorious unitary state is surely far lower. Like the barbarians in Cavafy’s famous poem, the shock of defeat might even bring some sort of solution. In office but out of power, with no political capacity to arrest the nation’s course, conservatives are condemned to cultivate the “stoic apatheia” that Gottfried ascribes to Kondylis: unwilling dissidents in a state built to constrain them, they must watch from the sidelines as history brings Britain’s dysfunction to a close.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.