“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.”
Pink Floyd, 1973
The Conservative Party is the most successful political party in modern history. They are considered by many, and nearly all within it, to be the natural party of government in Britain. If you were to guess the party of government at a random point in the past century then it would likely be the Conservative Party. It dominates.
Today, the party has been in power for more than nine years. So as we enter a general election and the final year of the party’s most recent decade in charge we must ask ourselves a question: Was that it?
There is something about the Conservative Party that other parties lack. The smell of competence clings to it. No matter the events that may occur, voters consistently feel the Conservatives would do a competent job of managing the country, protecting me and my family, ensuring adequate stocks of toilet paper, the dead to be buried and for the trains to run on time. This is the idea of competence and, when reviewing a government’s behaviour it sits alongside another idea — morality.
Morality and competence. These two labels are how many will think about government. For example, some might say that Margaret Thatcher was ‘immoral’ to transform the economy the way she did because of the accompanying pain. But few would argue she was incompetent doing it. Ed Miliband had a few moral policies people might have agreed with. But he lost because he was considered something approaching incompetent.
For a long time, the Conservatives were seen as competent enough to win four general elections in a row from 1979 to 1992. But morality soon caught up with them. During 13 years of opposition, the party, by its own admission, had an image problem:
“There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us — The Nasty Party.”
Theresa May MP, October 2002
They were perceived to be immoral. Competent? Probably. Moral? Probably not. And that was why they lost three general elections in a row from 1997 to 2005.
David Cameron’s tried to change this. He changed the logo and didn’t wear a tie. He went sledging in the Arctic and suggested he wanted to hug a hoodie. But the party he led in government for six years and which Theresa May and Boris Johnson took over, lost both its morality and competence. Now, it is the nasty party and an incompetent party. Here is why.
There has been a terrible sense of drift and decay since 2010. There have been no purpose in government, no vision and no direction. Cameron tried to conjure up something with ‘The Big Society’ but that was exposed as a slogan for the unpopular idea of getting individuals to do stuff for free that government used to do through taxation.
The economy was the number one priority in 2010. The country was in danger of sliding into recession. This single danger was avoided. But the economy wasn’t transformed and it wasn’t improved. There was no innovation, it didn’t become more productive and despite near-zero interest rates, there was no serious or long-term investment or strategy.
Instead, there was a single, deep and violent cut made down the economy and across society that strangled the lives of the vulnerable and stirred great anger in high streets, libraries, Sure Start centres, schools, hospitals, online and on the wet cardboard where spiralling numbers of homeless people live.
This economic policy of the Conservative Party, known as ‘Austerity’ is shorthand for a state organised and top-down action of accelerating decay in a country that rots more now than at any point for forty years. 75% of British people live in places that are poorer than the European average.
What can the Conservative Party say they have achieved during nine years in government? Often the headline is the upgrade of civil partnerships to gay marriage. But this law was passed only with the support of the rest of Parliament, and a majority of Conservative MPs voted against it. The passing of the gay marriage law was a Cameron passion project that actually revealed how un-modern the rest of his party was. The other headline policy was taking the lowest earners out of income tax. This was a Liberal Democrat policy.
In nine years, the Conservative Party seemed most comfortable when participating in national pageantry such as Royal Weddings, various anniversaries of the Monarchy, creating a new 50p coin for 31st October Brexit which must now be destroyed, and suggesting that a serious response to Brexit would be to build a massive yacht so we can sail to China, ask to trade independently with them whilst somehow not reminding everyone of the Opium Wars. A 19th century, analogue and born to rule mindset defines most of the party’s thinking with the most exciting ideas simply a belch of the old, like grammar schools or fox hunting.
For a party that shouts about its traditional Christian values, nothing was stopping Cameron accepting a number of child — or God forbid — adult refugees similar to other major European countries. But instead, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in late 2016, when refugees needed it most and leadership was paramount, the UK had given asylum to just 2,898 individuals, which was slightly higher than the average home attendance at Stevenage Football Club. Then after much kicking and screaming, Cameron announced the UK would take “up to 20,000 over five years.” Even a glance at the New Testament would suggest helping your neighbour would mean doing more — and not moaning about it in the first place. But there was no decision-making framework inside the current version of conservatism that suggested it was right or even competent to be more compassionate.
As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously and competently said: “You turn, if you want to, the lady’s not for turning.” When she did turn, over the Poll Tax riots, the party replaced her with someone they thought was more competent. The current Conservatives are the opposite. It was for this generation of Conservatives that the word ‘omnishambles’ was popularised after successive U-turns on its budget in 2012. When they finally achieved a majority in 2015, and the shackles of the coalition were thrown off, Cameron made the U-Turn his signature move making 24 policy reversals in 12 months. The Conservatives couldn’t make decisions because they had no ideas. They were incompetent.
The story of incompetence and immorality in the current Conservative Party is longer than anyone would have liked:
- NHS — Reform by Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt to introduce an internal free market and Clinical Commissioning Groups. In 2017 the Chief Executive of the British Red Cross described the NHS as facing a ‘humanitarian crisis’ — Incompetent & Immoral.
- Education — 80% of schools are financially worse off in 2019 than in 2015. Headteachers act as business development managers searching for private sector funding or sponsorship to fill gaps. Parents are asked to donate money for basics. Several schools have been forced to close early on Fridays because they lack the resources to open 5 days per week — Incompetent and Immoral.
- Explosion in Homelessness — at least 1 in 200 people in Britain is homeless — Incompetent & Immoral.
- Welfare reform — including Benefit Cap, Bedroom tax, Universal Credit and wholesale cuts to local services. In May 2019 a United Nations report said, “It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth-century workhouse made infamous by Charles Dickens…Much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos…[UK standards of wellbeing have lowered] “in a remarkably short period of time” — Immoral.
- Law and Order — Former top police chiefs Lord Condon, Lord Stevens, Lord Blair, Sir Paul Stephenson and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe summarised in July 2019 that “police resources [have been] drained to dangerously low levels” and have contributed to a “feeling of lawlessness.” — Incompetent & Immoral.
- HS2 — An idea started by Labour but has been managed into debt, overspend, and generational delay over the past nine years leading to a likely partial cancellation, perhaps announced quietly on Christmas Eve — Incompetent.
- Infrastructure — Cancellation of the electrification of existing railway lines. Only 40% of UK train lines are electrified, one of the lowest figures in Western Europe — Incompetent.
- Constitutional Crisis — Organisation of three referendums on constitutional matters without a requirement for 2/3 majority or underlying legislative prospectus. The third — Brexit — saw Joe Cox MP murdered in the streets during campaigning and most recently senior judges affirmed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson lied to the Queen — Incompetent and Immoral.
- Creation of Hostile Environment — for legal migrants to the UK in the hope they would voluntarily leave the country. Including for the Windrush Generation who were invited to the UK as British Citizens. This was the signature policy of Home Secretary Theresa May which forced the resignation of her successor Amber Rudd — Incompetent and Immoral.
- Failure of 2010 and 2015 generation MPs to moderate and refresh the party — Young and women MPs are disproportionately leaving the party. Combined with the purging of moderate voices such as Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve — Incompetent.
- The promotion the Chris Grayling as Justice Minister — The first Justice Minister in history with no legal experience or qualifications — Incompetent.
- Failure to be the party of business — It has been comfortable in giving business huge uncertainty about trading conditions, negotiating worse access to the EU once a deal is done and feeding the feral concept of ‘no-deal’. When asked about this issue Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said, “Fuck Business” — Incompetent and Immoral.
- Brexit negotiations — knowing she did not have a proper majority in the House of Commons to pass her deal, Theresa May only sought cross-party negotiations on her withdrawal agreement at the 11th hour. It failed — Incompetent.
- Failure to get Brexit done — despite organising the referendum, having three years after the result, choosing the date of Article 50 notification, enshrining in law three separate dates when the UK would have left and the negotiation of two separate deals with the EU — Incompetent.
- Scandal-hit politicians — like Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling have been repeatedly rewarded and failed upwards — Incompetent and Immoral.
- Further abuse of the Honours system — symbolised by David Cameron’s hairdresser being given an MBE. Theresa May pledged she wouldn’t do the same until she did, this time to her housekeeper — Immoral.
- The Union — “Not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party,” said Theresa May during her first speech as Prime Minister. Nine years of Conservative and Unionist party rule has seen the weakening of the Union especially in Northern Ireland and Scotland — Incompetent.
- Racism — Using the ideas of Lynton Crosby to manoeuvre Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, the environmentally-minded Zac Goldsmith away from policy and towards racist smears of Sadiq Khan. The chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum Mohammed Amin wrote: “I was disgusted (I considered milder words, but decided to be frank) with the tone of his campaign and his repeated and risible attempts to smear Sadiq Khan” — Immoral
The list could go on.
In the end, we can reflect that nine years of Conservative government has seen neither the forceful competence of Thatcher in the 1980s, the radical domestic reform of the 19th Century, or the consensus minded Conservatism of the mid-20th Century. The party has nothing to say and is happy with being in power for its own sake. It is intellectually and morally bankrupt.
Maybe UKIP and The Brexit Party will go away. Maybe they will stick around. But these two parties have succeeded in filling the Conservative vacuum with its own ideas. Faced with these pressures, Prime Ministers David Cameron and Theresa May surrendered the most traditional and conservative of principles — pragmatism and non-dogma. For the first time since Corn Law repeal in 1846, the party built an altar. And on this altar, it would sacrifice everything else to a minor god called Brexit.
The Next Conservative Party
There is no firm ideology to be conservative. There are feelings and traditions, like ‘small government,’ ‘freedom of the individual’ and ‘free enterprise’. Sometimes you might struggle to translate it into practice, but you know it when you see it. What has changed is the idea of Brexit has destroyed pragmatism and the feelings and traditions the party cherished. It has become what it used to ridicule — student socialists tearing their hair out over who has the most correct view. The Brexit crisis has come at the worst time with the party already asleep at the wheel. By destroying the last links between the Conservatives and ‘getting things done,’ Brexit has accelerated the long goodbye to a party that has given up on both morality and competence.
This is not Conservatism. It is not even Thatcherism. It is the fundamentalist and extreme zeal shown, most dangerously, by late converts to the revolution that now compete with each other to be the midwife of the one pure idea — Brexit. Feeding off the ideas of UKIP and The Brexit Party, the Conservatives are shrivelling into the same tiny band of zealots that drive all revolutions towards the one right and glorious endpoint in history.
And now, after more than nine years in power can we say the UK is a better, more efficient, more equitable, richer, healthier, safer, stronger, happier or more well-run country? Can we say that it is a place that benefited from the behaviour of the Conservative Party? At this Christmas election, they may well return to government. If so, we can all hope their idea-less and arrogant blundering mixed with their new and compulsory long march to Brexit somehow does not.