Image: Adam Howling

The vandals are marching on our institutions. How much more can they withstand?

The Conservatives are supposed to defend our great British institutions, but the party’s recent leadership has been more set on destroying them. Why?
November 3, 2022

“They who destroy everything certainly will remove some grievance”, Edmund Burke wrote of the French Revolution: and that has been true of the Year Zero element of the Conservative party. The country isn’t working, so smash things. When that fails, smash some more.

The dawn of Liz Truss’s premiership broke over the half-ruins of institutions in our public life that once seemed solid. She was the consequence, not the cause, of course: Brexit and Boris Johnson destabilised British politics, and social media is destabilising politics the world over. All these things created the political culture she channelled to take power. But Truss threatened to continue the vandalism with revolutionary zeal. The early implosion of her premiership is a vital moment to escape it.

What are these endangered, valuable institutions? They are both fragile and solid, given their strength by trust and habit. They are part of the system of government, but not run by the government. They are hard to define; awkward to control; often stable because they are a step removed from direct democratic rule, but vulnerable too because of that. They are both large and national, varied and very local. They are not always loved; sometimes pompous and wrong, but necessary; difficult to build and easy to undermine.

Some—like the Bank of England—are very old. Others—like the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)—are modern wheezes that have become successful. Indeed, institutions come in such a variety of types and sizes that it is pointless to define them, except to say that they all carry some sense of collective purpose and an element of autonomy. They stitch society together. When they are damaged, we should worry.

They have been threatened this year—and not just because, issue by issue, the government happened to disagree with the stance some of them are taking, which would be normal and reasonable. This battle is deeper: a fury directed not against policies, but the broad idea that organisations might owe their loyalties to something other than the revolutionary fashions of the moment.

It is also strange. Even Truss came to see why institutions such as the Bank matter, much though she must have hated it. So why have the leaders of a nominally conservative party directed their energies against bastions of the constitutional conservative tradition, of stability and continuity? A leftist war against old independent bodies might be wrongheaded, but it would not be illogical; for the right to lead the fight is much more striking. The destructive impulse came to consume the modern Tory party so entirely that Rishi Sunak may struggle to escape it.

Did it begin with Brexit? It unleashed an unsatisfiable vengeance: spurning one big institution turned out not to be enough. The Johnson government went on to suspend parliament rather than see its programme blocked, accused the courts of launching “a constitutional coup” when they said no and spent the remainder of its time in office sneering at “lefty human rights lawyers” and threatening to overhaul judicial review. Johnson’s culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, railed against the BBC and tried to sell Channel 4. His chief aide promised a “hard rain” on the civil service.

And so it has continued. Each attack brings the confidence to go deeper. Truss could have chosen to pause the assaults—just as she seemed, in her early days, to be resetting the tone of relations with EU member states. The moment of harmony following the death of the Queen could have allowed it. Instead she pitted herself against an invented “anti-growth coalition”, as much a dogwhistle against institutions and rules as an attack on her political opponents. She lost that fight in just days.

The Tory playbook became familiar. If universities look too woke, then threaten them. If rules on environmental protection hold back development, then push aside the bodies that created and defend them (even if, like Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, they are meant to be protected in law). If the National Trust looks progressive, then denounce it. If the civil service looks likely to frustrate your plans, then sack the head of the Treasury: Tom Scholar was relieved of his duties as permanent secretary within hours of the Truss administration taking office. He might—awkwardly—have asked to see costings and warned about the markets. Truss then, desperately, had to find a replacement who was as credible and could do just that.

Bish, bash, bosh: take that. Even the monarchy: King Charles was told he cannot speak at the COP27 climate change summit. This is destructivism under the false flag of populism, false because the one thing it is not is popular. It creates nothing and solves nothing. It has nothing to do with the deep traditions of conservatism. So what should be the response, from those distressed by the consequences for lasting, useful institutions—including, perhaps, a new prime minister who has promised calm?

Image: Adam Howling Image: Adam Howling

Image: Adam Howling

There’s a reasoned response, but we’ve seen that it doesn’t work. You can explain that if you think freedom matters, you must also trust in the power of institutions to guard it. No citizen can be safe from the arbitrary violence of the state without structures and traditions to stand in the way. No individual can confront the power of the markets and capital without intermediaries to ensure fairness. Even governments rely on independent arbiters—witness the revenge unleashed when Kwarteng sidelined the OBR.

As John Major, the sort of natural Tory who likes institutions, warned: “If the power of the state grows, and the protections of the law diminish, then the liberties of the individual fall.”

You could argue that Britain ended up with a liberal society because over the centuries it created, without any fixed plan or control from above, a flow of adaptable and useful rules, behaviours and organisations, rooted in the social and commercial interaction of the people who live here. Lots of other countries did this less well than us, and have been less successful because of it. It was part of the magic of what it was to be British. But maybe not anymore.

All such calls to reason, in the face of unreason, struggle to make an impact. Why? Before we denounce the attackers, let us consider the positions of those who lead the defence. They can be too easily accused of self-interest and hostility to change. If you studied at Oxbridge and go to the Proms, you’ll naturally want to defend the old universities and the BBC. If you are a barrister, you will speak out for the justice system. None of this is necessarily wrong. But the charge of “you would say that, wouldn’t you” is as infuriating as it is hard to deny. The Remainers, now branded “Remoaners”, know that having the facts and good intentions on your side isn’t enough.

When, late in her leadership campaign, Truss said that GB News, a fledgling channel with a controversial editorial policy, was more truthful than the BBC, she knew what response she would get—and wanted it. Her weird claim that the civil service is antisemitic could be understood on the same basis. She wants to provoke and then destroy.

None of this is to say that our institutions shouldn’t change. Medieval guilds once had their uses, but not anymore; the Whig aristocracy served a purpose in the 18th century, but today we have less of a role for dukes; 19th-century cities boomed under the guidance of able municipal corporations—and perhaps we need them back.

Our institutions are not beyond reproach. The NHS, still—just—the big institution which even Tory vandals make a public show of supporting, is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, and will not be saved by the spending of limitless amounts of money. It is an institution that needs to change very deeply to survive. When organisations themselves resist reform they become part of the problem. Recently I led a review for the government into the way we run national parks, calling for more ambition in what they do and some institution-building to support this. Timidity has won the day so far and they are suffering as a result.

Not changing can be just as bad as the wrong kind of change. Equally, creation is as much a part of the story as destruction. Where are the examples of institutional progress today? What are we creating for the future? A possible answer might draw attention to a handful of new quasi-independent, tax-funded bodies. Dominic Cummings’s legacy from his time in government—still only two years ago—was supposed to be the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, a science body modelled on the successful equivalent in the US, though no one has heard anything of it recently. Maybe the plan to create an arms-length body, Great British Railways, to sort out our trains will get somewhere. Or, judging by recent reports, maybe not.

But when institutions are creations of the central state and (at least in significant part) paid for by it, their autonomy is limited; they risk becoming government brands, not self-created institutions as Burke might have imagined them.

Unlike either candidate running for Number 10 this summer, Burke understood that institutions grow from below as well as above. They are the organic consequence of our need to make things work better, not the product of a ministerial five-point plan.

In these words he captures the power of robust, independent institutions to bring people together. Their creation has a moral and social element, as well as a practically useful one.

It may be that the only institution Conservatives end up destroying is their own

“To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” wrote Burke in a passage which is as true as it is overused. It is “the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind”.

And none of this needs to be national. To see why, you could visit Leek, a proud town which bills itself as the queen of the Staffordshire Moorlands. It has fine buildings and an oatcake shop. Some of the best hills in the Peak District are nearby. But if you just pass through you will probably miss one of the things that makes the place special. Rare among towns in Britain, Leek still has its own independent building society.

It is the sort of capable institution which has in so many cases disappeared. In Leek’s case, survival was a close-run thing. In 1999, financial speculators came calling. They offered the then Leek United’s 60,000 members up to £950 each to sell. Exceptionally, Leek Building Society—it has just dropped the word “United” from its title, “removing any confusion that we’re a football team”—stood firm, and is one of just 43 mutual savings bodies still in operation. Its members voted almost three-to-one to stay under mutual ownership. After the vote, reported the society, the chief speculator “was jeered out of the hall by our members as he left”.

Does the institution make a difference? Not to everyone in the town—most could bank with some online startup, after all, and maybe borrow from it too if they met its remote criteria. But what gives texture to our places and our country is the combined might of many institutions, small and large; organisations that gather together a shared ambition to improve society in one way or another, beyond the direct control of the state or corporations. Lots of people in England are struggling: Leek at least has a lender rooted in the place it can help.

Shouldn’t creating—rather than destroying—institutions of this kind be a conservative cause in British politics? At the local and national level, isn’t the institution something our government should champion?

David Cameron, who half got there with the Big Society and his talk of social enterprise, and who backed gay marriage because he saw the power of marriage as an institution, lost his nerve. But without a society built on institutions, the only way forward is either to place total trust in market economics or to believe the state will solve all our problems. Truss peddled a warped form of both: she talked up markets and freedoms, but her scrapped policies, fired by borrowing, would have put state muscle before free institutions.

There’s long been a natural distrust of institutions among those on the left: even the founding of the NHS entailed the nationalisation of charitable hospitals, replacing countless local institutions with one behemoth. There have been exceptions, like Tony Blair’s support for autonomous academy schools. But usually, where the left sees a need for help, its answer is to offer grants from above and then—if they fail—explain that not enough had been spent.

For conservatives, the cultivation of a strong society based on effective, shared institutions ought to be the whole point of politics. But many in the party today aren’t conservatives. If Sunak doesn’t change that, it may be that the only institution they end up destroying will be their own: the party they hijacked to get power.

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