The Conservative Party and their Identity Problem

Once upon a time, the British political movement with the simplest ideology was the Conservative Party.  Whether you liked them or not, you broadly knew where you stood with them.  Since the Tory Party of the 1670s was officially renamed in 1834 by its then leader Sir Robert Peel, its underlying fundamental message had been Don’t Rock The Boat.  Put more broadly, the Party traditionally stood for protecting existing institutions, such as the Church (of England, of course), the family, private property, and private business, upholding the rule of law, preserving the British Union, and effecting change only when the case for it is unanswerable.  The new name was adopted by Peel as a riposte to what he and his followers considered to be the wrecking, or “Destructive” tendencies of their opponents, the Whigs, who just two years before had managed to get the Great Reform Act through Parliament after a five-year struggle that had seen two other governments fall (even though, if any change had surely had the most unanswerable case in the UK at the time, it was that of parliamentary reform).  

If anyone at the time of Peel’s first term as Prime Minister (1834-5) was unsure as to what Conservatism was supposed to mean, he offered a few clues in what would become the country’s first-ever political manifesto.  In the Tamworth Manifesto of December 1834 (named in honour of Peel’s own constituency in the English Midlands), Peel promised ‘a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances‘ as well as…

 

[T]he maintenance of peace – the scrupulous and honourable fulfilment, without reference to their original policy, of all existing engagements with Foreign Powers – the support of public credit – the enforcement of strict economy – the just and impartial consideration of what is due to all interests – agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial.

 

Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), the UK’s first Conservative PM

 

Even as his second government (1841-6) imploded, in the light of his dramatic U-turn in repealing the Corn Laws, Peel himself never considered his actions as un-Conservative.  As far as he was concerned, if the facts changed (and food prices this decade were needlessly high at a time of economic downturn in Britain and famine in Ireland) then the Conservative government’s course would have to change.  Whatever view you might take of Peel’s tactics (to say nothing of his legendarily clumsy tact and tone on a personal level), his volte-face was supported by a decent chunk of his parliamentary party, whose numbers included the future prime ministers George Hamilton-Gordon (the Earl of Aberdeen) and W E Gladstone – though it would take another generation for Gladstone to consider himself a Liberal.

Whatever their personal views on Peel the man and leader, the Party’s next leaders, Edward Stanley (the Earl of Derby) and Benjamin Disraeli, more or less continued Peel’s essential approach to Conservative government.  Although the Party did not win another general election until 1874, they and their successors would take his programme on and henceforth dominate British political life, being in power for nearly two-thirds of the next century-and-a-half, either alone or as the dominant party in a coalition.  Their gradualist and pragmatic approach to the need for change also resulted in some worthwhile reforms, too, such as the 1875 Public Health Act, Widows’ Pensions, universal suffrage (1928), various Clean Air Acts, the abolition of workhouses, the banning of caning in state schools, and seat-belt legislation.

All of which begs the question: if Peel or Disraeli were around today, would they feel at home in (much less, recognize) today’s Conservative Party?  The supposed Party of Law and Order appears not to care that it has frequently breached the Ministerial Code while in government.  The Party of the Anglican Church is picking fights with it.  The Party of Business is led by a man who reportedly said (in much fruitier language) that he doesn’t much care about Business.  The Party of Gradualist, Pragmatic Change has full-tilt embraced a Hard Brexit that would have shocked even Margaret Thatcher.  Finally, this Hard Brexit deal means that the Party of the Union has accepted what is, to all intents and purposes, an Irish Sea Border, despite the persistent media gaslighting by the government and its lackeys (in particular, its James Corden-lookalike of a negotiator in the form of Lord Frost).

It is easy to point to the B-word as being the root of the Conservative Party’s Flight From Conservatism.  After Theresa May’s departure in 2019, following her accident-prone (or incompetent?) attempts to negotiate a Brexit deal that would allow Britain to leave the EU while still retaining most membership benefits, Boris Johnson’s approach appears to have been: Just sign whatever they want us to sign, get us out, and blame any ensuing problems on Insert Tabloid-familiar Enemy Here.  Get Brexit Done.  Three-word Slogans Work.  The ethics of such an approach might have been somewhat problematic, but they did succeed in neutralizing the Farage Factor: in the run-up to that year’s general election in Westminster, the ex-UKIP chief ordered his then political vehicle, the Brexit Party, to stand down their candidates in Conservative-held seats.  (Exactly who promised what to whom over this move remains unclear.) The result of this Electoral Pact That Dared Not Speak Its Name was the Conservatives’ first electoral landslide in over thirty years, with many of the new intake of the Party’s MPs taking a UKIP-like approach to policy: there would no room for more traditional Conservative figures like Rory Stewart, Anna Soubry, or Sir Nicholas Soames.

But maybe Brexit is only part of the story.  Maybe the origins of the Conservative Party’s morphing into a tribute act that can’t decide whether it’s emulating UKIP or the 1970s’ National Front go deeper than that.  Maybe the warning signs had been there many years before the term Brexit was even coined.  The writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran were surely on to something when they created the character of the amoral, greedy, self-absorbed MP Alan B’Stard in their 1987 sitcom The New Statesman.  Portrayed by the late (and still much-missed) Rik Mayall, B’Stard appeared to epitomize an altogether new type of Conservative politician for the Thatcher era and beyond – someone who saw the Party not the way Peel or Disraeli (or even Churchill or Macmillan) saw it, but rather as a vehicle for something even farther to the right (It’s curious how he and Norman Tebbit shared the same middle name…).  As well as being critically acclaimed, the show won an International Emmy as well as a BAFTA TV award.  In what turned out to be his last television appearance, in a mock-up BBC interview by Brian Walden in December 1994, B’Stard outlined his philosophy: 

 

B’STARD: Ever since I became politically active, I have stood for the four principles of Freedom, Low Taxation, the Eradication of Restrictive Labour Laws, and the Radical Restructuring of the Welfare State… By Freedom, I mean complete freedom: the liberty of the citizen to do whatever he wishes within the most libertarian framework of the law.  He should be free to take drugs if he wishes, to indulge in whatever sexual acts my im- er, his imagination can devise, to drink whenever he wants to, to shop whenever he wants to.  Low Taxation follows automatically: the legalized trade in drugs and pornography will contribute enormous amounts of VAT, allowing Income Tax to be abolished on all, except the lowest paid.

WALDEN: The – the poorest would continue to pay Income Tax?

B’STARD: Someone has to!  

WALDEN: Why?

B’STARD: Well, because poor people vote Labour, and so they’ll get no favours from me!  And the poor are the biggest consumers of government spending – ah, which brings me neatly on to my third point: the elimination of restrictive employment legislation.  Quite simply: we don’t need any!  When was this country the leading industrial power in the world?  When we sent children up chimneys, women down mines, and trade unionists off to Australia!  No coincidence, I contend!… And my fourth point, which again fits perfectly into my worldview, concerns the Welfare State.  In my opinion this is the single most disastrous development of postwar social policy.  It has made people unfit, lazy, and self-indulgent – I mean, the ordinaries know that free medical care awaits them, so what incentive do they have to stay well?  As I said, on the record, in 1987: in the good old days, you were poor – you got ill – you died!  Today we face the appalling prospect of young, fit, virile men (like myself) giving up to taxation a larger and larger proportion of our wealth to support ailing, aging people like – well, like yourself, Brian!

 

It’s a fair bet that today, none of B’Stard’s current emulators (who appear to view him as a hero-figure rather than a satirical warning) would have any time for Peel or Disraeli.  For his part, Disraeli would return the scorn, as he himself warned in a speech he gave in High Wycombe in 1832:

 

I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few.

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