Britain’s political history is replete with unexpected ironies. It was the Tories, not the Liberals, who first extended the franchise to working-class men in the 1860s. Six decades later it was a Labour government, in power for a matter of months, who would be punished at the ballot box for the consequences of the 1929 crash. And while it is the Conservatives who have suffered most from the ‘European question’ over the last 25 years, they have also sought to leverage the issue for political gain more than anyone else.
Yet not even these compare to a movement whose putative intention was to ‘take back control’ – ensuring Britain’s parliament and courts were free of foreign perfidy – but which now, just three years later, is on a collision course with those very institutions. While Britain’s system of government may have survived revolt and rupture, withstanding the loss of colonies and surviving the country’s once mighty labour movement, what it is now unclear is whether it can endure Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Nigel Farage. In other words, can Britain’s uncodified constitution outlive what British conservatism is fast becoming?
This should be a strange question to pose. After all, conservatism is less an ideology than an aversion to it; no more a design to order society than the resistance to such thinking. “Reform that you may preserve”, as Lord Macaulay once said, has been the motto of British conservatism for nearly two centuries. Confronted with the rise of modernity, industrial capitalism and, after the French Revolution, the arrival of ‘The People’ on the stage of history, the instinct has remained the same. In its most dramatic form, when confronted with revolution, this can even don the garments of modernity itself. As Prince Tancredi tells his uncle in Il Gattopardo, “everything must change for everything to stay the same.” So speaks the enlightened bourgeois, a figure who, in the early 21st century, appears to have long expired.
The position Britain’s Tories now inhabit extends far beyond this range of possibility. In many ways it is a reflection of the party’s Thatcherite legacy, a period whose break with tradition is still being felt within and beyond its ranks. Yet Thatcher never attacked parliamentary democracy and the independence of judges, and despite her demise amid the chaos of riots, her rule was unmarked by anything like today’s electoral instability. During her 11-year premiership Margaret Thatcher lost four votes in parliament, only one more than Boris Johnson on his first day back in the Commons. On the streets she was detested, but in the corridors of power the Tories reigned supreme.
Alongside the poll tax, Thatcher’s growing Euroscepticism would be the hallmark of her final term. It is that part of her legacy which remains most visible today, an indelible influence not only on the current prime minister and his most senior advisor but, in Nigel Farage, Britain’s most effective populist politician. For a long time, until the last few months in fact, it had seemed that parliamentary sovereignty had been the political lodestar of all four – its restoration a happy consequence of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
It is precisely a depature from that principle which has led to Johnson’s tactical prorogation of Britain’s legislature. Furthermore, the government, the Brexit party and the right-wing press are now attacking Scottish judges for ruling it unlawful that the Queen was misled in suspending the country’s highest democratic chamber.
Emblematic of this shift was how business minister Kwasi Kwarteng, speaking on the Andrew Neil Show last night, openly pitted the electorate against the judiciary: “Many leave voters up and down the country are beginning to question the partiality of judges…they’re saying, ‘why are they getting involved in politics?’” Except those judges weren’t “getting involved in politics”, they were upholding the law. Two years ago it was the country’s papers condemning judges, now it is government ministers.
Such events allow us to better understand the long-held enmity of many Tories against the Human Rights Act, the European Court of Justice and the EU itself. The problem was not that it was a foreign parliament or body making laws that Britain had to abide by, but rather that they were laws they did not like. Claims of Burkean principle, and the sovereignty of parliament, were simply a veil for bigotry, xenophobia and hatred of the Other. How else can you explain why the Conservative party would take a torch to the country’s major institutions, politicising the monarch and jeopardising the integrity of the union?
So if it isn’t veneration for the Westminster system driving all this, then what is it? In a word: modernity, and an unrelenting hatred of it. This is not to say material factors played no part in the Brexit vote, they most certainly did, nor that there isn’t a legitimate strain of euroscepticism to be found on both the left and right – the former being a view I have long held.
But the unfolding of Brexit, with the mask now slipping, means we can understand the basic instincts that drive its most ardent protagonists: a disdain for social liberalism, an indifference to the young, and hostility to immigrants and non-whites. Favourable observers have claimed the leave vote as a victory for democracy – but as they applaud the closure of parliament, waived through by an unelected head of state, that is increasingly difficult to believe.
Brexit should not be understood through the prism of a ‘culture war’, which is a category created by the right to evade the terrain of class. What we are presently seeing, however, is an historic attempt to construct a hegemonic bloc around anti-liberal values, xenophobia and bigotry. If this prevails it will allow the restructuring of Britain’s economy in the favour of a small elite.
For some, the politics of reaction is an end in itself; for others, it is simply a tool.
Because while the drive for Brexit is emotional – evoking tradition, nostalgia and narratives around self-government – its policy vanguard, now very much in the orbit of Number 10, wants to use the shock of such an event, as outlined by the Yellowhammer report, to transform the country’s labour market and public services like never before. Worse still, the fraction of the elite entwined with finance and the rentier economy isn’t just funding the likes of the Institute of Economic Affairs and Taxpayers’ Alliance, but is placing bets on Britain crashing out with No Deal.
So while culture is driving the Brexit movement, it is a substrate of capital making it possible. Which is why the present moment should not be viewed as simply the re-emergence of a 20th century variant of fascism, but rather an early expression of what politics will look like in a world defined by spiralling inequality, low growth and financialisation. What’s more, the disintegration of the ‘neoliberal self’, as Paul Mason calls it, since 2008 is rapidly undermining a hard-won ‘common sense’ around socially liberal values. All of which means we are now confronted with a crisis so deep that Britain’s establishment party is discrediting the order it is meant to uphold.
This fight can’t be ducked, and turning back the clock is wishful thinking. If the left fails to not only offer a better way of running the economy, but also superior ways of living, it will lose. But it should not fear the fight: a parasitic fragment of capital, deploying reactionary culture, expects the rest of us to pick up the bill. Maybe this time we won’t.