The History of the Decline and Fall of Conservatism

18 August 2021

by Dr. James Alexander

The Covid crisis is of great political significance. It may in fact mark the end of the Conservative Party.

The history of conservatism is usually told in terms of politicians – from Peel, Disraeli and Salisbury through Churchill to Thatcher, Major, Cameron, May and Johnson; or in terms of shifts in economic policy: from protection to free trade in the mid-19th century, from free trade to tariff reform in the early 20th century, from Keynesian consensus to monetarism in the late 20th century; or in terms of thinkers like Burke, Oakeshott, Scruton etc. But I want to propose something a bit different, not only for the sake of history itself, but in order to understand the contemporary crisis of the Conservative Party.

The history of conservatism, when seen from sufficient distance, falls into four, perhaps now five, stages. Conservatism was named in the 1830s for the politics of Peel. But it was not a happy politics. It was a reactionary, even late, politics, a politics of a belated and reluctant concession to the events of 1828 to 1832 in which the old order of church and state and of mixed government (King, Lords and Commons) was replaced by the English version of a revolutionary, enlightened order in which the sorts of ideas which had been espoused by oddities like Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Paine and Bentham would now be taken seriously. The origin of a named Conservative Party was the acceptance by certain figures of a revolution which they could never have accepted before it happened. This was also the origin of that famous pragmatism of the Conservative Party. It had to sell its soul in order to exist: no wonder it has continued to sell its soul since.

The first stage, therefore, of the history of conservatism is its prehistory. This is the world before 1832, when English politics was dominated by the binary of Whig and Tory. This was the era of king and church and country. The meaning of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ varied across time – as even Bolingbroke noticed in the 1730s – but by and large a Whig was a descendant of Cromwell, a believer in constitution, progress and freedom, while a Tory was a descendant of Charles I, a believer in divine right, stability and order. This politics of ‘right and repulsive’ opposed to ‘wrong and romantic’ survived the revolution of 1832, but was restructured in far more explicitly ideological terms as the politics of ‘Liberal’ versus ‘Conservative’. For a great Victorian historian like J.R. Seeley what this meant was that, in effect, everyone before 1832 had been ‘conservative’, even if they had not used the name. After 1832 there was now a new political world of conscientious opposition in which conservatism could only take one side, the reluctant or resistant side.

The second stage is the era between 1832 and 1924 when, by and large, every Liberal government had a Conservative opposition and vice versa: this was established very clearly after the adjustments to politics in the 1850s made necessary by the decisions and death of Peel. Both sides accepted the original revolution, but the Liberals stood for the extension and advance of this revolutionary order (and in a more ambitious way than ever envisioned by their ancestors, the Whigs), and the Conservatives stood for the restriction and perhaps at least ideally reversal of that order. That was in theory: practice was different; and figures like Disraeli flourished by exploiting what were even then the accepted terms of combat, by outflanking Gladstone on the left in 1867. What was really going on during the 19th century was the advance march of a militant Liberalism, set on establishing a truly liberal order in Britain. Arguably, this was achieved by the end of the century: and so, though of course for contingent historical reasons, it is apt that the historic Liberal party faded out in the 1920s at the very height of its success. Liberalism was fully established: so the Liberal party died. Now the Conservatives had a new task, which was to defend the historic Liberalism of the 19th century against a new opposition.

The third stage, running from 1924 to 1997, was the era when the Conservatives were not opposed by Liberals but by another party, Labour, which was just as liberal as the Conservative party, but liberal in a different sense. Original liberalism was, in a word, about self-help; whereas the newer liberalism was the extension of the supposed benefits of liberalism to those who could not help themselves, but needed the help of the state. One of the most important intellectual events of the 19th century was the emergence of this new type of liberalism in the writings of J.S. Mill, T.H. Green and others. Unlike the old liberalism which had feared the state, the new liberalism advocated state intervention: supposing that the state would not obstruct individual flourishing but encourage it. This liberalism was, of course, allied to the rising socialism of the late 19th century, and played into the thinking of the Labour party. So what we had after 1924 was a new politics in which the Labour Party stood for an egalitarian liberalism while the Conservative Party stood for an inegalitarian liberalism. The Conservatives could still pretend to be on the side of king and country, like the old-fashioned Tories, but now the debate had shifted, and become general: it was now a debate about the extent of state involvement in ordering economic, educational, industrial, medical matters, and thus in extending the rule of the ideal of equality. As before, one side was in general on the side of advance, the other on the side of restraint. Thatcher, seen in this light, is not the unusual figure she used to seem: she merely reminded Conservatives who were drifting (after the chaos of the encounter of pomp and pyschedelia in the 1960s) that their true function in the 1970s was to defend the old 19th-century liberal ideals in 20th-century conditions.

The fourth stage – and it should be obvious now that the history of Conservatism is nothing but a history of reactions – begins in 1997 with the advent of the adjusted Labour politics of Blair. What New Labour espoused was no longer the extensive social and economic egalitarian aspiration of old Labour, but an adjusted cultural and international and therefore far more openly hypocritical politics which focused on perpetuating inequalities while offering benefits to the people who did not benefit from those inequalities. This confused the Conservatives again. What the Labour Party was adopting was the politics we have come to see more and more clearly since the 1990s: the politics associated with political correctness, identity politics and eventually complete wokery. This is liberal, but it is the liberalism of the recipient. It is a big-spending, big-borrowing politics: a slave-moralised politics, the politics of ‘our NHS’. So the Conservative Party continued to have a role, which was to defend the liberalism of the bestower: that is to say, the liberalism of the person who would want to defend a liberal order against those who were happy to receive something from it but would not make any attempt to defend it – or pay for it. So after 1997, as Cameron seems to have glimpsed, the Conservative Party was not the defender of one type of liberalism against another, but the only defender of liberalism – against those who were notionally but not actually willing to defend liberalism anymore (or who could only defend it in terms of its results). To its enemies, Conservative politics was condemned as ‘austerity’. It was a genuine politics, though, as some commentators saw, only very dubiously conservative. But then Cameron fell from his horse in 2016, much as Peel had fallen from his in 1850.

The fifth stage is the crisis which has resulted not so much from Brexit as from Covid. Brexit was a revolt of a new Country party against the Court party of almost all assembled authorities, including both Labour and Conservative authorities. After some dithering, Johnson chose to side with Country. Hence 2016. But Covid has broken all of the traditions of opposition I have sketched thus far. For it is the Conservative Party – no matter how reluctantly – which stands at the head of a unified Court party which has done more than anyone since Walpole has done to ignore the Country, and not only ignore it, but oppress it. Johnson has presided over the establishment of an entirely technocratic politics of problem-and-solution which is, alas, not a politics at all, but the substitution of technique for politics. In this situation, the Government appears to be as committed as the opposition is to a unified politics of Universal Lockdown and Universal Vaccination and Universal Carbon Elimination in which no one is defending any aspect of the old order (including the church or universities) or even liberalism itself. The Conservatives have no longer got anything to defend. They have capitulated to their enemies and done it with a grotesque hyper-Disraelian-Bismarckian-Maoist-Malthusian flourish by way of forcing us to take the knee, take the mask and take the jab. They are not Tory, not liberal, certainly not even ‘austere’. They have found a magic money tree. They are presumably waiting for the seas to turn into lemonade. They are locking us into a magnificently communist-corporate hybrid order which will make the public-private partnerships of Blair and Brown look extremely pallid. If this continues then the only conservative thing about the Conservatives will be their inclination to hold on to their name.

Dr. James Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.