Monday, 29 August 2016

Why are the Conservatives electorally invincible?

British Prime Minister Theresa May: the latest Conservative politician to position herself in the "centre ground"
(Photo credit: Policy Exchange via Flickr/Creative Commons)
Cast your mind back a year: the Conservative Party had won a majority in parliament for the first time since 1992 and they were gearing up for a jubilant conference. This new majority government would, the electorate was assured, reach for the centre-ground of British politics. They would "steal Labour's clothes" on policies like the national living wage. They would pepper their firmness with fairness. The Shadow Chancellor George Osborne was being hailed as a political genius even by his left-wing critics. He had dispensed with stodgy, old fashioned commitment to facts, ascending instead to a stratospherical realm of pure spectacle. Osborne went beyond even Blairite spinners of yore, as Blairites had always implicitly conceded that reality was thing that had to be spun. For Osborne the chief raw material was not cold fact but whatever messaging popped into his head and seemed tof it the moment. The Tory Party, and moreover the vast majority of the British press, seemed more or less content with the happy accident of a Tory majority. What few minor hiccups lay ahead could be gently massaged as they bubbled up.

And then 2016 happened. It turned out that many Tory manifesto pledges had been written with no intention of them ever being enacted. The scale of the promised cuts to government expenditure along with simultaneous tax cuts was impracticable. Labour opposition and the first stirrings of internal Tory descent put paid to Osborne's tax credit cuts. With no feasible avenue left for his planned spending cuts, Osborne's spring budget collapsed in days. Eurosceptic Ian Duncan Smith resigned from the frontbench. The Prime Minister was implicated in a tax evasion scandal. And then the Brexit vote - one manifesto pledge the government could not dodge - ended the careers not just of the Prime Minister and his Shadow Chancellor but practically the entire liberal core of the leadership.

An unprecedented disaster for a majority government unlike anything experienced since the Tories' last tenure in full control during 1992's Black Wednesday. And yet the government has survived, albeit in slightly mutated form. The cabinet had shifted to the right. It is a little more authoritarian than before but not much. It is certainly more eurosceptic. Its anti-immigrant bullying is likely to be more pronounced. Perhaps it will take a slightly more interventionist approach to the economy. But all of these add just a shade or two of true blue to the Cameron-Osborne universe. Theresa May's arrival as prime minister - via a blatant party stitch-up - has been greeted with a cathartic swell in popularity. The Conservative Party's long-nurtured appearance of competence, self-assurance, and steely commitment to weathering the storms of crisis have seen them reach undreamt of polling heights. They have benefited amazingly from a crisis they made.

What explains this startling success? The Conservative Party's historical role as protector of the Union (and in times past of the Empire) gives it considerable clout in British society. The Conservatives are the favoured party of the British state and are existentially bound up with its survival. Yet because of the association of this most durable of parliamentary forces with the task of maintaining the British state, left-wing critics are sometimes tempted to treat the Conservatives as "anti-theoretical" or "anti-intellectual." The apparent pragmatism of Tory policy in achieving its stated goals masks deeper political and moral values and often implicit ontological assumptions. Amongst these is the belief that the endurance of a particular state of affairs - say, the institutions of this or that state - can be viewed as a good in and of itself. The roots of this view can be traced to a profound moral and political pessimism which has often dominated English philosophy: if human nature is frail and reason an unreliable guide in a dangerous world, those customs and habits of collective life which endure the passage of time can serve as an always-imperfect shield. The Tory philosopher David Hume called custom "the great guide of human life." Tradition, custom, and the slow build up of institutions were the English sceptic's response to French rationalism, with its violent political factionalism. Democracy was, for Hume, an "enthusiastic" extravagance. The worldview of modern Toryism was forged in a period of arch-reaction, when convulsions across Europe led to the need for a highly statised, pragmatic power politics able to defend people from the violent outcomes of their own high ideals.

The endurance of high Toryism has some relation to the great internal strength of British state institutions and the tightly knit bloc of hegemonic interests which oversaw its modernisation. The British state has endured largely undisturbed since the English Revolution. And the Tory Party has always been there for those seeking to deepen or entrench their representation within it. The Tories have never been simply the "managerial committee for the affairs of the Bourgeoisie," but indeed have viewed their role as preserver and sometimes as developer of its national institutions. This commitment to the state - to the Union of the British Isles - is not pragmatic at all but rather intensely moral. It is premised on philosophical assumptions about human nature and the nature of social life. It therefore plays a role in constructing the terrain of Tory politics and constraining its capability for action. Thus, Disraeli's great move to enfranchise a narrow section of the (male) working class in the Second Reform Act of 1867 can be seen as a simple act of pragmatism. After all if the Tories didn't do it, Gladstone's Liberals would. But it can also be seen in the broader pattern of the Tories permitting the arrival of a certain rising class strata into state representation. It is an integral part of arch-Toryism to see itself as smoothly directing social change to the state's long-term advantage. Disraeli may have lost the 1868 election but he secured a not-insignificant fraction of working-class support for Toryism for a long time to come.

The inheritors of this legacy are, however, nowhere to be found among the Party's recent leading lights. The Tories have become victims of their own success. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher led a rapid and highly effective counter-revolution against British state "corporatism" - one stubbornly resisted by old school Tory elites. The latter resisted for what turned out to be good historical reasons: the complete transformation of British state functions actually eroded the old Tory levers of power and influence over society. After the departure of Thatcher herself the Conservative Party entered over a decade of crisis, one which resulted in the marginalisation of the old Tory elite and the emergence of a comfortably neoliberal, socially open-minded, free market, small-state, low tax grouping as the new rulers of the party. But the Cameroons, as they were dubbed, operated a weightless hegemony over a party whose internal traditions had been worn threadbare by the neoliberal onslaught on the British state. For a party so thoroughly imbricated in the traditional functioning of the British state, the upheaval of neoliberalism was bound to be problematic.

Here's where the story returns to George Osborne. If postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, neoliberalism is its political and managerial ideology. George Osborne was supposed to be the political master of both. But in the end the very victories of neoliberalism, those which had brought the likes of Osborne and his predecessor Tony Blair to power, had simultaneously undermined the internal consistency, the raison d'etre, the morale and the actual capacities of the British state. The unintended result of the victory of neoliberalism over the British state and the national economy can be read off in a long list: the financialisation of all the major actors in the economy; the internationalisation of production; the growing dependence on credit to finance consumption; the eternal growth of trade and current account deficits; the race to the bottom on wages and welfare; the decline in productivity and the rise of shit, low-paid jobs; the stagnation or decline in public spending on crucial public goods and state-backed investment; the collapse in unionisation; the collapse of political participation; the retreat of political parties from communities and active social life; the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands in the south of England; the fraying of the tethers of social solidarity between British regions and countries. This decay of institutions resulted in a series of slow crises and sudden catastrophes for British elites and for the Union itself: the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, the erosion of the two-party system, the collapse of public trust in the state, the near-miss of the Scottish referendum, the bull's eye of Brexit.

Why are the Tories electorally invincible? Among the many factors why, the key is the survival instinct of the social groups who are emotionally, ideologically, and materially integrated into the British state. The Tory Party today is fixed rigidly to this ever decreasing patch of earth, fending off multiple threats to a decreasing pool of wealthy and moderately well off voters. It is not Tory health that has made them victorious but - paradoxically - the long-term ill-health of the system they are pledged and trusted to defend. Those in the media currently celebrating the revival in Tory electoral fortunes need only look at the long-term trends or remind themselves of the events of the last year. Many of those who work in the media along with much of the higher-paid salariat are genetically predisposed to the political centre. But just as they got the last year so wrong, they are wrong again now. Because what they forget is that reality can always come back to bite you, no matter how sensible, centrist and serious your government appears. Another implosion is surely on the way.

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