What has gone wrong with conservatism in Britain? Many are asking the question, not least “big C” Conservatives themselves. Five prime ministers in eight years. Inner-party feuding. War from the prime minister’s office against the permanent civil service. Abrupt policy reversals, starved public services, fiscal disarray. The Conservative party’s liberals cowed or fled. An unchecked drift of the party remainder to the illiberal hard right. Asked to say what conservatism is and what Conservatives stand for, silence, banality, or incoherence.
A grim and unusual predicament, you’d think, for an electorally successful party. But is chaos grim or unusual for Britain’s Tories? If “chaos” here is understood as unremitting inner-party feuding and lack of either overarching ideas or any strong sense of direction, the current chaos among Britain’s conservatives is, by historical standards, normal. Asking what’s gone wrong is misleading. The question assumes that British conservatism has changed, when it hasn’t. Close to 200 years of party history suggests Conservatives were always this way. Theirs is a party record of rare calm and frequent turmoil.
Having asked the wrong question, the next mistake is to answer it with a needless diagnosis. Conservatives (big “C”) are in trouble, you may be told, because they have abandoned their true faith, conservatism (small ‘c’). That is wrong because Conservatives never had an agreed upon faith. There was nothing to abandon. Many reflective Conservatives, brooding on the paucity of conservative thought, have concluded that in the end doctrine and big ideas weren’t needed. As the late Tory grandee, Ian Gilmour, had it, “The wise conservative travels light.” In like vein, as if acknowledging his own rarity as an outstanding philosopher on an intellectually underpowered British right, Roger Scruton once wrote that “argument is not the favorite pursuit of conservatives.”
If Tory inner-party conflict is habitual and if the party’s current disorders cannot be put down to apostasy from an imagined true faith, a third explanation is needed. One is plain and ready to hand, awkward as it may be for believers in English exceptionalism. The explanation is that conservatism in Britain has turned from compromise with liberalism and given in to its hard right. This historic shift is of interest—and to liberals, of concern—not just locally, for national politics in Britain, but as a core example of a shift to the hard right within conservatism across the liberal-democratic world more generally. Far from insulated or exceptional, Britain’s right is typical or exemplary.
As in the rest of Europe, the modern right in Britain comprises two conflicting elements: centrist or consensual, crusading or confrontational, more liberal and less liberal. Those labels are all slippery and contestable, but if, as we must, we are to grasp what it is we are talking about, semantic nicety has first to be paused for gross observation of what is happening before our eyes. Across Europe and the United States, a contest is underway on the right between a liberal and an illiberal conservatism. In France and Germany, that contest is still open. Embattled as it is with an illiberal hard right, liberal conservatism still (just) holds the field. In the United States, liberal conservatism is in rout. In Britain, an illiberal hard right has won. The party’s centrists are silenced or have left.
As in the rest of Europe, the modern right in Britain comprises two conflicting elements: centrist or consensual, crusading or confrontational, more liberal and less liberal.
For those, including Conservatives, alarmed by these trends, it will be only mild relief that the hard right has conflicting tribes of its own that fight almost as much with each other as with liberal conservatism. The three main tribes are: anti-state, libertarian globalists; pro-state, nation-first welfarists; and traditionalist campaigners on morals or religion. Holding those conflicting tribes together is a shared conviction that they face a common enemy in the “liberal elite,” a powerfully imagined if largely invented presence that is at once domineering and discredited.
To take each of those four points about British conservatism now in turn: habitual conflict, lack of a faith, hard-right ascendancy, and hard-right incoherence. It takes the gentlest nudge from Marx to see that conservatism’s two historic masters—flourishing capitalism and stable social order—have always wanted to push in different directions. Capitalism harnesses technical progress and generates wealth. In so doing, it forever turns society upside down. Wise Conservatives acknowledge that, at least to themselves, while speaking simultaneously for more wealth and sustained order. They are circus-riders cantering the ring with one foot on a pony called “Capital” and the other on a pony called “Tradition.”
The Conservatives are circus-riders cantering the ring with one foot on a pony called “Capital” and the other on a pony called “Tradition.”
The task looks fraught but rather than sigh with relief at the foolish daring of opponents fated to fail, anti-conservatives might recall how well—in electoral terms—British Conservatives have turned the trick. They have led or shared government for 67 of the past 100 years—hardly evidence that inner conflict has to be self-destructive. A wise opponent of conservatism ought to consider a disturbing alternative: that, given luck and the right circumstances, inner tensions may also energize, strengthen and refresh.
A good historical case can be made that, when successful, 20th-century liberal democracy owed success in significant part to a complaisant, self-assured right—to liberal conservatives, that is, ready to work with left-wing liberals and progressives so long as two things that conservatives most cared about—property and social order—remained in dependably safe hands.
To talk in broad, schematic terms, liberal democracy itself was born in a late-19th– early 20th-century historic compromise: between, on one side, a liberalism of personal rights and free markets that was neither conceptually nor politically democratic, and, on the other, with movements of democratic empowerment for everyone, at the polls, in the workplace and eventually in social and cultural life. Liberalism can be inclusive, a promise to everyone of civic respect and protection from undue power. Or that same promise can be exclusive, that is, for men, for wealth, for the educated, for the middle classes, for whites. For much of liberalism’s 200-year life, it was exclusive and non-democratic. It became democratic, a promise for everyone, only in the 20th century, and then partially, slowly and reversibly. The watershed was 1945, when a chastened conservatives contributed to liberalism’s democratization. In a second historic compromise, a liberal conservatism was born, willing if hardly eager to work with New Dealism in the US and social democracy in Europe.
The argument is open as to how long that second compromise lasted. It can be argued that, in the Anglosphere at any rate, compromise with post-1945 liberal democracy from the right was already over with the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1970s-80s. A contrary case can be made that liberal conservatism survived two more decades before breaking on the geopolitical, fiscal and socio-structural challenges of a new century.
Whether you date the hard right’s rise from the 1970s-80s or from the past two decades, its combination of domination and incoherence needs explaining. The split character is easy enough to see. The hard right yokes undemocratic globalists and illiberal localists. The globalists are undemocratic in that the investors in Britain they court may come and go as they please, with little state interference or popular say-so. The localists are illiberal, economically, in promoting our-nation-first policies and, politically, in seeking to control immigration in ethnically discriminatory ways. As for the culturalists, despite their loud voice, it is hard to treat their battles as political at all but rather as quarrels with other professors and newspaper columnists who disagree with them or get larger billing. Their topical complaints are to that extent neither liberal nor illiberal. They become illiberal, in an old-fashioned pre-political sense, when used as an all-purpose club—as in “political correctness” or “wokerie”—to batter and silence their opponents by stereotyping rather than answer them in argument point for point.
Not least because some take the label “hard right” itself to be an instrument of political abuse used by liberals in illiberal spirit, a word is needed in its defense. The term “hard right” was long resisted as misleading and inept, even by non-conservative commentators. It is now commonplace and unremarkable, with good reason. The hard right is not new, as it was known, when a bothersome minority presence in the 1960s. Nor is it an extreme right, another overtaken label, for the hard right is now part of the electoral mainstream.
Above all, the right in question is not soft. Unlike the liberal conservatism it has for now prevailed over, the hard right is angry rather than complaisant, aggrieved rather than self-assured and readier for warfare than for compromise.
Above all, the right in question is not soft. Unlike the liberal conservatism it has for now prevailed over, the hard right is angry rather than complaisant, aggrieved rather than self-assured and readier for warfare than for compromise. The ascendancy of the hard right has owed much to playing on and playing up rankling complaints against recent political management—by right or left—from business and finance against government interference, from popular groups against rise in immigration and decline in public services, and from moral guardians or cultural critics, disturbed as ever by changing ethical sensibilities and eager for a culprit to blame. If that picture is correct, anger and grievance play a decisive part in holding the hard right together.
Useful as such political emotions may be, they come with a cost. Anger and grievance are poor states of mind in which to think out what you stand for. They make it yet harder for Conservatives to do what they have always struggled with: explaining or encapsulating themselves. That is not a literary or stylistic problem. Britain’s right has usually had the best writers and most brilliant orators. In that luxuriance of words, Conservatives have always been able to find jewels of wise counsel: from Burke, a prudent expediency of avoiding sudden change and defending useful traditions until they become useless; from Disraeli, though the phrase wasn’t his, speaking above class or region to “one nation.”
The ascendancy of the hard right has owed much to playing on and playing up rankling complaints against recent political management—by right or left—from business and finance against government interference, from popular groups against rise in immigration and decline in public services, and from moral guardians or cultural critics…
For much of its life in Britain, conservatism’s characteristic mode was the thoughtful essay: modest, admonitory and more suggestive than specific. It urged readers to cherish tradition, not to expect too much from politics, and to respect authority. Such general advice was scant guide to specific action in conditions that are often clouded and always shifting. Lack of more was irksome to intellectual conservatives who wanted principles and rigor. The Tory publicist W.H. Mallock complained in the 1880s, “All that bears any semblance of organized thought or system has belonged to the attacking party.” To those for whom organized thought was a positive danger to practical wisdom, lack of principle, by contrast, was a blessing. For Michael Oakeshott, “to ransack conservatism” for concepts and ideas of the kind that fed rival, progressive outlooks, was “looking in the wrong place.”
In a sense, both were right. For each were looking at one aspect of conservatism. To see this, a brief side-step is worth taking about the kind of thing conservatism is. For the “ism” here is systematically misleading. Conservatism isn’t and never was a body of ideas, let alone a philosophy of politics. The same goes for liberalism. Both are ways to go about politics in an electoral democracy. Each is a practice of public argument in competition for office. Naturally, conservatives have political ideas, if fewer than liberals. Though hard to encapsulate, they can also be said to have an outlook. They voice it in speeches and apply it in policies. After required distillation and simplification, political thinkers try to find conservative ideas philosophical shelf space. Misled by their “isms”, to take conservatism or liberalism to be outlooks, philosophies, or ideologies is a confusion of levels or muddling of categories. Ideas are abstract. Practices are historic.
So it goes for sub-practices such as the conservative hard right. It isn’t itself an outlook but has—or needs—one. What is its outlook? Searching nowadays produces little or nothing of weight or coherence. Its publicists and columnists, mostly innocent of economics or geopolitics, tend to stick to aggressive cultural moaning. That rare exception, the late Roger Scruton, left no school and—if you ignore his 1980s journalism—was too singular and detached to affect everyday politics.
To find the hard right’s true herald, we need to go back more than half a century to a scholarly, polyglot Tory MP and minister, Enoch Powell. He is most remembered nowadays for having disgraced himself with race-baiting yet his larger part in the story is different. For nobody schematized Britain’s hard right better than he did. Powell sharpened the one-nation theme into three interlocking claims. First, postimperial Britain was alone in the world. The Commonwealth was a sham. Americans were bullies, not friends. Europe was a trap. Second, the postwar liberal British state, whether governed by his own party or by its Labour opponents, was at war with British society. Third, the British national character was precious and unique.
The bleak negativity of Powell’s vision ought to have promised it, you might think, a short life. Far from it, the underlying anger and sense of grievance have energized his political heirs, giving them common cause. What prompted leaving the European Union but Powellism reborn? What feared or despised Other can the hard right now find to direct its anger and grievance against?
Gloomy rhetorical questions, yes, suggesting worse to come. But to end there would be to end without noting another, more hopeful possibility. It is too early to say but perhaps the hard right within conservatism has peaked. On the picture above, it is an incoherent project held powerfully together by resentment. If so, perhaps that strength is becoming a weakness. Anger and grievance mobilize people in politics but, unless channeled and shaped into a lasting program of government action, tend to burn themselves out. People weary of scapegoats and demand solutions. War, prices, poverty, public services, and climate now loom larger than the bogeymen of the hard right that have preoccupied so much political life in the recent past: big government, foreigners, and the cancel movement. As the hard right declines again, perhaps Britain’s Conservatives will recover their more liberal, consensual voice. It is a nice story to fall asleep to, but it would be foolish to bet the mortgage on.
Edmund Fawcett is a political journalist and author, whose books include Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, and earlier The American Tradition. Over the years he has written at a number of outlets, including the New York Times, Guardian, the New Statesman, and more. For three decades, he worked at the Economist, serving as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, as well as its European and literary editor.