“Brexit is so fundamentally un-conservative, it is hard to know where to begin”by / March 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
What a happy time it is to be a conservative. We live in a swirl of change, uncertainty and outright nonsense, and yet throughout it all, the central tenets of conservatism are in the process of being proved yet again—but not necessarily in the way you might think.
First, the Labour Party, which has performed a useful and very revealing experiment on itself. The Labour leadership has wrung every last drop of conservatism out of the party, reducing itself to a hard-left liberal metropolitan core. The conservative values of country, work and self-reliance have no place in Corbyn’s Labour Party.
And yes, the Labour Party does—or at least did—contain a conservative element. As Clement Atlee put it in his 1920 The Social Worker, “In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves.” Note that the Labour Prime Minister, who fought at Gallipoli, saw society as composed of people capable of standing on their own two feet, of whom a small number “at some period” might need support. That support is now very substantial, far more so than Atlee could ever have imagined. According to the ONS, in 2015, the UK government spent £258bn on welfare—that’s 35 per cent of all government spending. Jeremy Corbyn has described the welfare system in Britain as akin to “institutionalised barbarity.”
The consequences of this removal of all conservative values from Labour has been a crash in its popularity. In a recent Newsnight discussion, the Times columnist Philip Collins told Paul Mason, the former journalist and pro-Corbyn activist, that Labour would be lucky to win 23 per cent at the next election. Mason looked stunned. According to YouGov, Labour now stands at 27 per cent in the polls—that’s 17 points behind the Conservatives. It has, in a sense, provided a political service to the UK. It has shown the value of political conservatism, but has done so in the negative—it’s shown what happens when it is not there.
The Conservative Party is also reminding the electorate of the importance of conservative principles, specifically the idea that the state shouldn’t meddle. Government intervention is almost always counterproductive, the idea goes, so keep your hands off. Conservative thought holds that the job of the state is to permit considered, incremental change in order that the stuff of society can be conserved. This way, society is made resistant to sudden dislocations, but improvements are nevertheless permitted.
The current Conservative Party has proved beyond any measure the value of this core conservative idea by merrily smashing it to pieces. They have done this through their relentless pursuit of Brexit. The results are proving disastrous.
Brexit is so fundamentally un-conservative, it is hard to know where to begin. The very idea of it pre-supposes that, in the space of two years, the government will be able to broker an all-encompassing deal with the largest economic bloc in the world—the EU—and that it can re-draw every international business and trade agreement with every other country with which it transacts. In short, Brexit is based on the premise that the government can effect sudden, almost total change to the structure of its economy and its position in the international political order. What could be more un-conservative than that?
No 10 has adopted a stance that would make Friedrich Hayek seethe. The government has cast itself as an international business broker, bent on winning the best possible “deals” for Britain. The government, far from being the tentative bringer of incremental change has become the globe-trotting CEO, striking agreements with all comers, discovering new markets and giving sweetheart bargains to the worried, especially to Nissan. It is hard to imagine a mode of government further removed from conservatism.
The consequence of all this, so conservative thinking goes, is that sudden interference from government brings unintended consequences. Much better to leave well alone and allow the flexibility of the free political and economic systems to soak up the bumps. But when governments become too interventionist, so conservative thinking goes, that’s when trouble starts.
And trouble has certainly started now for No 10. Brexit, the greatest exercise in British government intervention since the Second World War, is having the greatest unintended consequence of all—it is threatening to break up the country. Disgusted by Westminster’s pursuit of Brexit, the Scottish National Party is agitating for a second independence referendum. Scotland will have its vote and it is unclear whether the UK would survive it. This is precisely the sort of damaging unintended consequence that the political logic of conservatism is intended to prevent.
British politics stands as a stark reminder of the importance of the British conservative political instinct for both the left and the right. The left has forgotten it and now faces electoral oblivion. The right has also forgotten it, in a bout of political amnesia that could destroy the country. These constitute enormous political failures. Of the two, the second is by far the worse.