I agreed with most of Ed West’s brilliant defence of the 21 rebel Tories. Indeed, I have an interest to declare: I used to work for one of them, Greg Clark. Greg, as well as deserving his reputation as the “nicest man in Westminster”, is also one of the most intelligent and principled. He wouldn’t have voted the way he did if he didn’t believe it to be in the best interests of the country.
Nevertheless, there’s a narrative settling around the 21 that I have to take issue with. It’s the idea that the Conservative Party is divided between swivel-eyed libertarian revolutionaries on the one hand, and a beleaguered remnant of pragmatic, traditional Tories on the other – and that furthermore it’s the latter that keep the flame of true conservatism alive.
As a conservative, I’m not with the libertarians – and especially not the Ayn Rand reading, quasi-Thatcherite, 1980s re-enactment society that is most of the current Cabinet. But I’m not with the Tories either. The so-called One Nation wing of the Conservative Party is nothing of the sort. What Toryism really represents is a particular set of class interests, above all the landed interest. It stands for the right to extract economic rents from monopoly control of land, property and other bottlenecks in the economy.
Of course, it’s all dressed up in the tasteful colours of Olde England. Think of the ‘gentleman farmer’ in his tweeds, soaking his land in chemicals while sucking-up farm subsidies from the EU.
We can trace his ancestors back in time: proclaiming their conservatism, but acting (when there was money in it) as agents of radical change. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they enclosed the land, drove commoners out of the countryside and into the cities. Then they imposed tariffs on basic foodstuffs to extract further profit from the sweat of factory workers.
In the 20th century, the ‘natural party of government’, presided over the bureaucratic centralisation of politics – disempowering entire cities, counties and nations in the process. Nothing conservative about that. The same goes for the architectural ruination of the country after the Second World War, and the Beeching Axe, and the destruction of the grammar schools (the private schools left untouched, of course), and the destabilisation of the working class family, and the creation of a dependency culture.
Admittedly, this wasn’t all the fault of the patrician Tories. The forces of bureaucratic socialism and corporate capitalism also ran riot over these decades – but, at best, the patricians could provide no more than a compromise between the two, not an alternative.
True conservatives would have made room again for the little platoons of society, but all that distinguished the Tories from the Thatcherites was where they set the precise balance between the market and the state.
In the 21st century, there was a rethink. The Tory Left – in its Cameroon and Mayite incarnations – rediscovered concepts like community and localism. But almost as soon as they articulated new visions like “the Big Society” and an “economy that works for everyone” they abandoned them.
Socialism failed a long time ago. Liberalism is in the process of failing. Among the democratic philosophies, that just leaves conservatism. Quite what shape it takes in our fractured political landscape remains to be seen – but it certainly won’t be Tory.