For a short introduction to the strangeness of Toryism in 2019, start with a blog post published earlier this year by a former government adviser. The ex-adviser makes a punchy argument about Britain’s approach to science and technology, but the most arresting things he has to say are about the Conservative Party. “The Tories,” he writes, “are reduced to slogans about ‘freedom’, ‘deregulation’ and so on which provide no answers to our productivity problem.”
The party is not only addicted to libertarian mantras, he suggests, it also spends its time “protecting corporate looting by large banks and companies and protecting rent-seekers.” The writer even accuses the Chancellor of the Exchequer of “obeying his orders from Goldman Sachs.” Of course, many others have accused the Tories of being in the pocket of big business and London financiers. But the ex-adviser who wrote the blog post, Dominic Cummings, has since returned to government as Boris Johnson’s right-hand man. A fierce critic of the Conservative Party (Cummings has also claimed that “Tory MPs largely do not care about . . . poorer people”) is now arguably the most influential Conservative in the country.
It gets even stranger when you consider the gulf on these matters between Johnson and Cummings. Whereas the adviser thunders against the influence of Goldman Sachs, the prime minister is proud to say that no politician has “stuck up for the bankers as much as I did.” Whereas Cummings talks of “corporate looting,” Johnson launched his election campaign by defending billionaires and “the profit motive” from Labour’s attacks. Whereas the one mocks “freedom” and “deregulation” as empty words, the other belongs to a faction of the Tories that holds them sacred. A photograph of the inside of Johnson’s car revealed a copy of Britannia Unchained, the bible of the deregulators and freedom fighters who believe that Toryism exists to let the market rip.
Johnson’s ideological allies, from what might be called the Thatcherite wing of the party, have led the campaign for Brexit. Thatcher’s former Chancellor Nigel Lawson celebrated leaving the E.U. as a chance “to finish the job that Mrs. Thatcher started.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, a representative younger Brexiteer, complained in 2012 that the E.U. had imposed “uncompetitive practices,” and hoped that Brexit would mean “opting out of employment regulation” and scrapping financial rules so that Britain could “compete with the best in the world.” (The losers, at home and abroad, of this thrilling worldwide competition tend to go unmentioned.)
But Cummings himself is a leading Brexiteer: He masterminded the Vote Leave campaign. And the differences between Johnson and Cummings are only the start of the internal divisions within Brexiteer Toryism. Of those who voted for the party last week, granting it a decisive majority, not many are ardent free-marketeers, or share Cummings’s preoccupations with science policy and civil service reform. Many of these voters are simply opposed to mass immigration. Others are economic nationalists. Still others just want to throw a spanner into the works, which don’t seem to be working for anyone except the elite. Or they preferred the apparent straightforwardness of Johnson’s message (“Get Brexit Done”) to Jeremy Corbyn’s slipping and sliding from one position to another. Or they were fed up with being preached at by sanctimonious Remainers and self-satisfied Eurocrats. A few—fewer than social conservatives might hope—thought that voting Tory would express a kind of resistance to the social liberalism that has casually redefined marriage and now aspires to do the same to gender.
All political movements have internal tensions, but the new Tory coalition seems unusually incoherent. What may bring it together is a shared feeling that London plays too big a role in modern Britain. Johnson’s Conservatives will of course be socially liberal, but with less of the chilling dogmatism of the metropolitan elite. They will, at least rhetorically, be immigration skeptics. And they will try to return economic activity to the regions—especially in the north—through major infrastructure schemes and state support for new industrial projects.
But the London problem is only part of a broader crisis. Britain is a country dominated by the state and the market. From an early age, schoolchildren are pushed to the edge of sanity by endless tests and exams, molding them into good little workers who can keep up the GDP figures. If they succeed and find a decently-paid job, they can expect increasing pressure to work harder and longer. If they don’t succeed, they face the cruel indignities of the low-wage economy and the benefits system. Meanwhile, the institutions that used to be a refuge from the state and the market—the family, the church, the trade union, the neighborhood, community hubs such as pubs and libraries—are silently eroded. No wonder that three-quarters of Britons have felt “overwhelmed” by stress.
The test for Johnson’s Toryism will be whether it gives people and communities back their independence and their dignity. There are any number of ways to do this. The government could revive Theresa May’s abandoned proposal to make larger firms put an employee on the company board. It would be a simple way of saying: If you work somewhere, you should have a voice there. Independence and dignity. The Tories could abolish the two-child policy, which uses the tax system to punish couples who have three or more kids, and thus brings the state, glowering and finger-wagging, into the heart of the family. They could help towns to support local businesses, perhaps along the lines of the Preston model. (Johnson may conceivably be thinking in this direction already.)
Right-of-center parties across the world have a choice. Do they, as Poland’s PiS has at least attempted to do, strengthen families and communities? Or do they rely on whipping up public anger against enemies without and within? Probably in the end Britain will get something vaguely in between, and so confirm C. S. Lewis’s almost-true generalization that in this country, nothing very good or very bad will ever happen.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.
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