Many will be surprised to read of the ‘death of British Conservatism’; notwithstanding its problems, the Conservative party has won the last three elections and remains in government. The motivation for this post is to highlight a trend which concerns me greatly: the retreat of traditional conservatism and rise of right-populist ‘Conservatism’, particularly in the sphere of foreign policy. This can be seen most clearly in the case of Brexit and, particularly in coming months, is a serious threat to national wellbeing.
For hundreds of years, the Conservative Party has been suspicious of abrupt change; the idea that it is important to conserve the best elements of the past is expressed in the writings of Conservative philosophers, most notably Edmund Burke, and is even reflected in the party’s name. These principles are expressed in Conservative foreign policy positions, which typically eschew dramatic change and advocate caution. The doctrine of the balance of power, which advocates intervention in European affairs in order to prevent the emergence of a continental hegemon, is a classic example.
It is difficult to see any relation between Brexit and this tradition. Rather than treading cautiously and working with existing institutions, Brexit involves a rupture with tradition and embrace of the unknown; many Brexiteers talk up this element of Brexit. Given that it also implies retreat from continental affairs, Brexit is also at odds with doctrines such as the balance of power. If Brexiteers wish to advocate these things then this is their right, yet it should be acknowledged that they lie in tension with traditional Conservatism. In my opinion, the ideas of Jacob Rees-Mogg et al are right-populist ones masquerading in Conservative clothes.
I can understand why the populist turn in Labour has come about, namely the declining position of the young/public sector professionals, yet related developments in the Conservatives are harder to read. I would certainly associate this trend with waning elite influence on the Conservative Party. Pace darker corners of the internet, elites prefer stability; it consolidates their position and is also good for business. The trend for Conservative populism seems to be associated with an increasing tendency for the party to attract lower-class supporters. The likes of Rees-Mogg may be from richer backgrounds themselves, but this brand of ‘Conservatism’ appeals to poorer voters. In the US, the Donald Trump phenomenon follows a similar template.
Whatever the basis of this trend, it is a deeply concerning one. Though the Brexiteers/European Research Group may not yet control the parliamentary party, this wing monopolizes the grassroots; local reaction to the Chequers plan shows this to be the case. In coming months, I fear that the jingoism of these people may drive Britain off the hard Brexit cliff-edge.