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How aristocratic excess infected the Tories Their most self-defeating legacy may yet be to come

Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murthy attend British Asian Trust reception (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murthy attend British Asian Trust reception (Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)


July 8, 2024   6 mins

It might seem extraordinary that a party that won an 80-seat majority with the highest percentage of the vote since Margaret Thatcher’s first victory could sink to its worst ever performance less than five years later. But from taking office in 2010, the Conservatives waded through quicksand in a political world to which neither they nor, strikingly, their opponents could adjust. While the opposition’s failures saved them in 2015 and 2019, they now stand humiliated.

It is easy to put the tumult down to the spectacular failings of individuals in the party and around it. Without Johnson’s pagan personality, the risks of imposing pandemic lockdowns while life in No.10 continued in its usual manner would not have proved so hazardous. Only a wild-card character such as Dominic Cummings could have managed a campaign to leave the European Union that had at its centre a promise to restore democracy, and then try to launch a coup days after. Rishi Sunak might be a poor politician, but his reputation would have been less shredded if he had appointed advisors who understood there were no ifs and buts about his simple duty on D-Day.

The party’s failings were also structural, though, originating in the hard political world of the 21st century. From the start, the personal weaknesses of individuals were exposed by the inability of those at the top to grasp how realities far beyond the party’s manoeuvring for advantage at Westminster could overwhelm them.

To succeed, the Conservatives have always needed a cross-class coalition held together by an aura of being more competent at governing than first the Liberals and then Labour, and also being more committed to the Union. Even in the Thirties, when the Labour Party split, and during the Cold War years, when Labour twice ceded competence on defence with promises of unilateral nuclear disarmament, the Conservatives could never be the party only of capital and those who thrived under the economic status quo. During the interwar years and the Fifties they expanded their electoral coalition in part by getting more houses built.

But traditional centre-right parties will always struggle to construct such coalitions when growth prospects are poor and financial conditions inhibit younger generations  from acquiring property at the same rate as their parents and grand-parents. The unpopularity of large-scale immigration with the kinds of working- and lower-middle class voters who have historically eschewed the Left can only magnify the problem.

In this respect, the Conservatives have long required either relatively benign economic times in which to govern as in the Fifties, or the opportunity to make relatively easy to implement reforms as in the Eighties. But they came back to power in 2010 in an era marked by economic stagnation and political problems too big to confront.

By the middle of the first decade of this century, what the ancient Greek historian Polybius thought of as “aristocratic excess” was rife across Western democracies. Being both democratic (in giving all citizens a vote) and aristocratic (in concentrating power in the hands of a few), representative democracy risks both democratic and aristocratic excess. But since it has historically co-existed with a form of economic organisation in capitalism that creates large-scale inequalities, and was from the, 20th century challenged by the rise of technocratic national and international institutions, it has long been vulnerable to the problem of aristocratic excess.

During the Nineties and early 2000s, the dangers arising from this lay largely buried under the democratic triumphalism let loose by the collapse of the Soviet Union. But a reliance on finance-driven economic growth, and the EU’s moves to close down national democratic political contests over some economic issues, including pan-European migration, moved the problem of aristocratic excess centre-stage. In Europe, the French and Dutch “no” votes in 2005 to the EU Constitutional Treaty shattered any presumption that European electorates were at ease with the drift of power away from elected representatives. Then, the 2007-8 Crash drew visceral lines between those who benefitted from 21st-century global capitalism, and those who paid the price. It also accelerated the already declining rate of home ownership.

“There is a scenario in which the Conservatives’ most self-defeating legacy is still to come.”

From the moment he became party leader in December 2005, David Cameron appeared ill at ease with a political world in which the problem of aristocratic excess had to be contained. Indeed, his strong preference was to wish away any need for the Conservatives to reconstruct a cross-class coalition by rendering the social conservatism and Euroscepticism of working-class Conservative voters, rather than deindustrialisation, the toxic legacy of the Thatcher period. Certainly, the 2010 Conservative manifesto paid lip service to the idea that there should be no return to finance-led growth in the post-Crash world. But in practice, Cameron largely assumed the party could govern as if the relationship between the governing and the governed had not changed since Blair’s heyday. When he proposed changes to the planning laws, it was to make extensions easier not the construction of new homes. If there were a strategy to kick-start the economy, it was only his Chancellor George Osborne’s bid to secure Chinese investment to fix Britain’s infrastructural decay and make the City of London a financier for China’s Belt and Road project just a few years before Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 incentivised all western states to rediscover industrial policy.

It was a similar refusal to see how far consent to the Union had broken down that allowed Cameron to let the Scottish government campaign for independence for months on end in 2014 before the panic-driven Vow to deliver more devolution, as if Westminster was indifferent to the outcome. Saved by the fact that Alex Salmond couldn’t find a solution to the Nationalists’ currency problem in a post-eurozone crisis EU, Cameron then had the good fortune to find an SNP that was popular without being materially able to deliver independence. Now, with not that many more votes than were won in 2010, the Conservatives could take out the Liberal Democrats as soft on the prospect of Labour-SNP co-operation at Westminster without having to address the medium-term existential problem facing the party.

Only over the EU did Cameron appear fully cognisant from the start of what had changed since the Nineties. Judging that sooner or later, the UK’s semi-detached position would have been put to a democratic test, Cameron made several efforts to reset EU membership before his gamble on an early referendum. But Cameron, and indeed the whole British political class, had little idea how to act in the kind of politics where strategic predicaments were being directly confronted rather than evaded. Having made his wager on his own powers of persuasion, Cameron then surrendered any notion of prudence by banning contingency arrangements for a “Leave” vote while promising he would implement a decision he had no intention of seeing through. The climax of this botched reckoning saw Osborne try to terrify the voters with the threat of a punishment budget to appease the financial markets.

Then came Theresa May, whose honeymoon period arose because she seemed able to subordinate her own personality to the new political reality. For a few fleeting weeks during the 2017 general election campaign, her promise to deliver Brexit as a Remainer appeared as if it could finally restore a broad cross-class coalition for the party. But once the spectacular failures during the second half of that campaign exposed the near complete absence of Conservative voters among not just millennials, but younger Generation-Xers, a spectre of medium-term demographic obliteration began to form.

Soon, May’s erroneous post-election assumption that, despite all evidence to the contrary, she could borrow Labour votes to get a weak Brexit through the House of Commons administered a more immediate near-death experience for the Conservatives. Johnson temporarily resurrected the party by his willingness to deliver a general election and put Brexit to a second democratic test. Yet it soon became apparent that many in the party assumed that, having pocketed the votes of the cross-class coalition of 2019 Conservative voters, they could govern as if nothing had changed.

Of course, the pandemic was an unprecedented derailment for any new government. But mostly what went politically wrong was born of a party that did not adapt to its good fortune. The “Levelling-up” agenda required an industrial strategy to have any chance of success, but the economic need for one seemed to Johnson’s Chancellors, especially Rishi Sunak, to cede too much political territory to Labour. Keeping both Red Wall and Blue Wall Conservative voters on side required reducing migration, but Johnson’s rule changes propelled it to record levels. Building new houses required planning legislation, but swathes of backbench Conservative MPs, including Theresa May, objected. When Johnson’s premiership then imploded on his character in the very year inflation returned, most Conservatives MPs were ready to grasp at any rhetorical promise of growth, however loftily conceived compared to the economic facts on the ground.

In crashing her premiership in a confrontation with the financial markets and the Bank of England, Liz Truss destroyed what little remained of the Conservatives’ claim to comparative economic competence over Labour, especially since the turmoil hit first-time house buyers. Crucially, by swiftly restoring the prospect of Labour winning a majority of English seats, she cost the Conservatives any chance of tactically falling back on the Union card. Sunak’s attempts to compensate elsewhere by shifting Rightwards on migration and Net Zero have failed because Boris Johnson had already sailed too hard in the opposite direction.

No other party has simply gifted power to the opposition simply by so repeatedly demonstrating what has become its essential narcissism. Not only has it offered no remedy for the problem of aristocratic excess, it has come to exemplify it, abandoning almost every kind of voter who gave it power and — from Partygate to Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill Capital to the election-date gambling scandal — visibly indulging in the notion that rules and restraint don’t apply to the powerful.

There is a scenario in which the Conservatives’ most self-defeating legacy is still to come. Labour appears to have learned the one thing that, for conservative reasons, must and can be done to stop the further descent of British politics into fragmentation: build houses. But when it is so hard to govern, the political furies are indiscriminate. Beyond housing, Labour is economically committed to the same blueprint of Net-Zero-led economic growth that Boris Johnson found could deliver neither levelling up nor a manufacturing renaissance.

There will be no repeat of the Liz Truss moment. But when it becomes clear that most of Britain’s problems these past 14 years were being presided over by the Conservatives, rather than caused by them, the implosion will quite probably overwhelm British democracy as we know it.


Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge and co-presenter of UnHerd’s These Times.

HelenHet20

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Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
3 days ago

Given Helen’s recent focus on energy great to see her writing about British politics. I thought the last sentence might be hyperbole until I realised how exhausted I was by the myriad plot twists in her recounting of 14 years of Tory “government”. Anythng is possible and things will arguably get worse (Neil Howe on a podcast last week saying “we’re half way through” this particular 4th turning!!). These Times well worth a listen – Helen does a great job gently reminding Tom of historical facts, and they are a good foil for each other. For my money, the 2024 election reporting award goes to Paul Johnson and the IFS, but Unherd did a good job, particularly Tom’s expose on Morgan McSweeney who I had never heard of, but who is clearly key to Labour’s political strategy. Thanks team – consider my subscription a good investment.

J Bryant
J Bryant
3 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

These Times well worth a listen.
I second that. I suspect it’s the most overlooked resource on Unherd.
My interpretation of the end of Prof. Thompson’s article is the problems, especially economic problems, facing the UK are huge and can’t be addressed by the current Labour agenda (e.g., a further commitment to net zero-led growth, which didn’t work for the Tories). The political system may not be up to the challenges ahead.
The issues facing the UK (and the US, imo) will require a generation to effectively tackle, imo, and perhaps an overhaul of the political system.

j watson
j watson
2 days ago

The undercurrent to Tory failings, and potentially Starmer/Reeves to come, is the current economic model in the UK drives gradual ever increasing inequality. It’s too focused on asset accumulation and low investment. It panics about an exodus of wealth too much when in fact the assets can’t relocate.
My hope and many others is Starmer/Reeves ‘get’ this but need to move carefully, with some stealth, to keep markets settled whilst they address these underlying fundamentals. But the worry is they think planning law changes alone will stimulate sufficient growth to then fund better public services and ameliorate the worst of British capitalism. It won’t be enough.
Perhaps though the fact the vast majority of the new Cabinet are state educated provides a source of hope. They are instinctively going to be much more in touch with how the average person feels and what they experience. The Tories, with their backgrounds, could talk about it occasionally but couldn’t really relate.

Steven Farrall
Steven Farrall
2 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Not really. Yes, the ‘model’ has failed. But not in the way you describe.
We are stuck in a punk Keynesian doom loop. Keynesianism is yet another form of socialist central planning. And it rests on bad money.
So job No. 1 is sound money (which also means sound property rights).
There is absolutely no chance that Reeves / Starmer will address this. One because being socialists they with will carry on with the current nationalised banking racket – nationalised by regulationism, the Marxist dream the full central control of all currency and credit and two, because they are socialist they are economically witless. If they did have a clue about economics they would not be socialist.

j watson
j watson
2 days ago
Reply to  Steven Farrall

Sounds like yet more Neo-Liberalism SF.
But question – only 2% of almost trillions of UK pension funds invested in UK. What would you change to tap more into that potential?

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
2 days ago
Reply to  j watson

We have Oil Companies leaving the North Sea because they are not wanted, as well as the expected even higher taxes. There’s the prohibition of fraccing Methane (gas), that would give Britain a reliable Energy resource, and tax income, while worshipping the fraccing for geothermal energy, and ignoring it’s dangers.

There’s the increasing red tape, the whole NET Zero scam that increases Energy costs and makes the supply less certain, and increases transport and manufacturing costs. The Woke Agenda is driving successful people 50+ into retirement, the very people that have experience to impart and ability of creating wealth. There are so many graduates that don’t understand why they don’t have a graduate job: sad, but inevitable, given that Blairism is still rampant across the nation.

And you ask what needs to change?

Incredible!

j watson
j watson
1 day ago

We just had a change NS in case you hadn’t noticed. And result wasn’t in direction you may have hoped.
Folks worry about cost of transition to net zero, and Starmer will likely have to moderate the pace, but the Public agree with the direction. And they certainly won’t be voting for fracking. Even Farage knew that which is why he never mentioned it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 hours ago
Reply to  j watson

I very much doubt the electorate voted for Labour because of its Net Zero zeal!.We will have very little change, just an intensification of some of the self defeating policies which have caused the mess we are in. Forcing people and companies to pay much more for their energy is foremost amount them. We aren’t going to achieve “Net Zero” in the defined timescales – the Chinese know that perfectly well and have said so.

If the UK wants to keep exporting its emissions and industrial capacity, more fool us. Of course energy transitions can and do occur, not just because some politician or bureaucrat following activist pressure considers electric vehicles are wonderful, while hybrid vehicles are anathema for some utterly unfathomable reason, among myriads of other examples.

Steven Farrall
Steven Farrall
2 days ago

‘Build houses’. I take you mean that house prices are high because supply is lacking? Nope. House prices are not ‘high’. On the other hand currency is very cheap. In other words house prices (really land prices) are primarily driven by the unwarranted expansion of currency and credit. So what we need first is sound money.
(If you look at the numbers, house prices are pretty well flat in money terms – money being gold. Whereas earnings have declined in money terms.)

j watson
j watson
2 days ago
Reply to  Steven Farrall

And what would happen to purchasing power if mortgage holders didn’t have to spend as much on repayments as previous generations? What may even happen to our declining birth rate?

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
2 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I don’t think you understand Steven’s point.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 day ago

Deliberately I suspect.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
2 days ago
Reply to  Steven Farrall

“Sound money” finished in 1971 when Nixon and Connally closed ” the gold window”. It will never be revived in the West but China may achieve sound money.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
2 days ago
Reply to  Steven Farrall

Spot on. QE did wonders for asset prices but not asset value. Houses priced in gold tells the story. And the liquidity spiggots are still on as you wd expect in an election year.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
2 days ago
Reply to  Steven Farrall

I do think sound money will come back at the reset. I naively thought we might reach aninternational debt jubilee. I also considered revaluation of gold which would have same effect, but obviously west loses at a stroke in that scenario. So i’m imagining it’s war. But when the dust.l settles some underpinning of the new currency will be key initially to instil trust. Just a thought …

Andrew R
Andrew R
2 days ago

An excellent analysis. Thank you

Aidan Anabetting
Aidan Anabetting
2 days ago

A refreshingly sober, unideological analysis. A break from woke / anti-woke luxury beliefs.

Steven Farrall
Steven Farrall
2 days ago

“…capitalism that creates large-scale inequalities,…”. Nope. Not true. You are thinking of crony capitalism, which is in many way what your article is about.

j watson
j watson
2 days ago
Reply to  Steven Farrall

The problem is capitalism always drifts into cronyism unless State intervenes. Capitalism will drive towards monopolies if left unchecked.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
2 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I thought there already was a monopolies commission, which I would consider to be like a referee, a specialised court to pass judgement.

And state intervention, implies participating in the business decisions, for a reward later on. This, itself, is likely to be crony capitalism, and the Courts are already there to deal with that.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 days ago
Reply to  j watson

…Cronyism comes in two flavours, competitors colluding, and companies colluding with government. The effective proscription for the first is limited intervention by the state, under competition rules which are largely self enforcing, through private rights of action. If the state mostly does the intervention in specific market events, you end up with deeply dysfunctional institutions like Ofcom, and the other ever expanding bits of the markets regulatory apparatus in the UK (and elsewhere). The result is that instead of failures falling squarely on commercial parties, politicians are put at risk, thus birthing the second, and more insidious flavour of cronyism.

Andrew R
Andrew R
1 day ago
Reply to  j watson

Technocracy will eventually become corrupt, usually at the point when their policies start to fail.

William Amos
William Amos
2 days ago

Labour appears to have learned the one thing that, for conservative reasons, must and can be done to stop the further descent of British politics into fragmentation: build houses.

I fear Ms Thompson, like almost all commentators on this subject, fails to apprehend the real scale of the task here.
To cope with underlying population growth and the actual levels of net migration over the last decade we would need to expand the housing stock by around 3.44 million homes: 2.25 million to meet underlying demand pressures (as a result of migration), and 1.19 million to cope with direct net migration.
No nation outside of a Communist command economy could build at that rate.
The housing waiting list in the London borough in which I live in now stands at almost 40,000 people and the wait for a band A property is 11 years. And yet the borough still returns solid Labour members and councillors while the youth rally for ‘open borders’ and the old Red-Green lefties complain about ‘over-development’.

RA Znayder
RA Znayder
2 days ago
Reply to  William Amos

A nation does not have to be communist to initiate large centralized projects. Modern ‘capitalist’ countries do it all the time. Especially during a war, but also during the cold war large parts of the Western economy essentially functioned like a command economy. In 2008 and 2020 we again saw policies that should have meant the end the capitalism.
The difference is that in all those instances everyone, including elites, felt threatened. Unaffordable homes and homelessness is of course not much of concern to elites. In fact, it’s almost the opposite: housing is such a big bubble that many people are going to be quite unhappy if prices fall dramatically. Squeezing supply seems almost like a necessary feature. The same goes for migration. Some rich countries have taken measures and receive virtually no migrants. All of these things can be done if there is actually the will to do it.

M To the Tea
M To the Tea
2 days ago
Reply to  William Amos

The only way to know how a country is healthy, how fast they maintain their infrastructure. When was the last time you saw a bridge being built or even a highway? and if you saw one how many years did it take?
Communism: government with military vs society (elite and poor). Do not want the society to break and take over the government. If it collapses – it collapses instantly! the risk is higher.
Democracy: Government (with military) is corporation (elites/capital) vs the majority (workers). Do not care if the majority uprises, there is aways a scapegoat group to blame to divert anger. Can maintain poor forever because collapse is only given to the scapegoat groups. Slow simmering collapse.

william langdale
william langdale
2 days ago
Reply to  M To the Tea

When did I last see things being built? 2003 under Blair and Brown,the whole country was a building site.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 days ago

The Conservatives didn’t find a bad economy they created it. Years of high taxes and heavy handed regulations have squeezed the life out of the economy. Sadly, the one prime minister who understood this, Liz Truss, was quickly despatched by the ambitions of a Rishi Sunak and his one nation allies.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 hours ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

Oh for goodness sake! Not this old chestnut!.A remaining supporter of Truss – incredible!.

She had her chance and blew it. The money markets despatched her.

Jaden Johnson
Jaden Johnson
2 days ago

This excellent piece shows all the same insight and perspective that makes Helen’s podcast with Tom McTague the only really worthwhile (geo-)political podcast worth listening to. Plaudits to Unherd for giving her a platform to share her views but this article deserves a far wider publication, similar, perhaps to the Times picking up Tom’s piece on Morgan McSweeney.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 days ago

This is all true to an extent. But the Conservatives big mistake, made by 1972 Heath and Major and Cameron and amazingly by Johnson, is not to realise that in a democracy big government sows the seeds of its own destruction. Government promises to provide or solve end at best in disappointment, at worst in utter failure. The only solution for a non socialist parry is to do as little as it can.

At times the voters will call for the government to “do something”, but the only long term answer is usually not to answer the call, and let the other side dig the hole and fall in it.

Which may be what the Conservatives might realise now. If so their future is assured. Small government, minimum intervention, low tax, help only the genuinely disadvantaged. It’s always the right answer.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
2 days ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

Conservatives (with a small ‘c’, unless starting a sentence) have a future.

The UK’s Conservative Party, I’m not so sure.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 days ago

Agree. But it is still the second largest party in government, Reform voters were almost entirely protest voters, it has the structure and machinery of a mainstream party, and it probably has the benefit of voters habits and name recognition.

It has been down before but always recovers. I’m pretty sure it will this time, though the lack of leadership talent is a problem. But all parties suffer from that – look at the idiotic Ed Davey.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
8 hours ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

….but not actually conservatism!

Peter B
Peter B
2 days ago

I’m not sure how anyone can write this without noting its obvious absurdity and not remark on the fact:
“Beyond housing, Labour is economically committed to the same blueprint of Net-Zero-led economic growth”.
I’m not aware of any occasion in history where countries taxed themselves to growth. Or where deliberately increasing costs did so.
“Thatcher’s toxic legacy …” … blah, blah, blah. Thatcher did what had to be done because generations of preceding leaders failed to do their jobs properly.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
2 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

In particular Macmillan on whom Cameron modelled himself.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
2 days ago

The fact that the Socialist Labour Party has only attracted 1 in 20 British voters to support it after 14 years of Tory misrule is a clear signal of the distrust which the British in general have for Socialist agendas. At the same time there is palpable anger over the One Nation Tories’ absolute failure to address, let alone deal with, the major issues of soaring levels of Government indebtedness and the frightening level of uncontrolled mass immigration . The electorate has become increasingly frustrated by politicians avoiding these issues. Instead they have been presented with head in the sand Wokery and an addiction to infantile Net Zero policies, the destructive effects of both of which are becoming ever more apparent. There will be a reckoning for all of this – and neither the Socialists nor the One Nation Tories will be able to deliver it. A realignment on the right of centre in British politics is now required – and when it comes it will enjoy the enthusiastic support of the great majority of British voters – as it did before in the 1980s .

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 days ago

It was not ‘aristocratic excess’. It was ‘serving the interests of your funders’. The Conservative Party has delivered to the people who really matter to it, the banks and builders.