Remaking British Conservatism in a Postliberal Age
Imogen Sinclair examines a new conservative caucus emerging in Britain which leaves liberalism behind in defense of order.
The British Conservative party is often described as a broad church. It comprises social liberals, free marketeers, Whigs and wets, alongside true conservatives—those that represent the persisting will of the British people. Since the Conservative Party took power thirteen years ago, the liberal end of the party has called the shots, resulting in hung Parliaments and a largely forgettable legislative record.
In 2019, things could have changed. Millions of people voted Conservative for the first time. At some personal cost, former Labour voters broke with habits of generations and voted for a party with which they had no historic affinity. A pledge to finally “Get Brexit Done” after years of failing to escape the tentacles of Europe appealed to low-income families living in Northern, rural and coastal neighborhoods, who felt alienated from power. In 2019 the electorate voted for a radical regime change—to be a self-governing nation once again.
This monumental political realignment saw the emergence of a new coalition of Conservative voters. The traditional Southern, rural and middle-class Conservative voter base was augmented with Northern, urban working-class voters. This new coalition—which first showed itself in 2016 during the campaign to leave the European Union—stood opposed to the metropolitan and monied liberal elite with luxury opinions to match, sneering at the other side for being romantic about their country. This they certainly were. The new Conservative voters wanted their affections for family, commitment to community and love of nation to be honored by government.
Yet since that 2019 result, the Conservative government has been led by a moderate managerialist, a dogmatic libertarian and an unlikely (suspiciously so) populist. It’s no surprise that during this time the conservatives in the party have struggled to command the government’s agenda. In thirteen years of power, my party has managed to undermine marriage by liberalizing divorce laws, and failed to overturn rules (inventions of the Left) that prevent the deportation of illegal immigrants.
Sadly, the British people are still waiting for the common-sense conservatism they so plainly voted for in 2019.
Accordingly, there has been little clear water between the Conservative government and its opposition, the Labour party. This is an electorally risky place to be, especially when a recent poll found that 58 percent of our new coalition of voters agree with the statement: “Britain is broken—people are getting poorer, nothing seems to work properly.” It’s not clear if the Conservative party will retain the votes often described as “on loan” from other parties at the next general election. Will a change in government make much difference to our increasingly expensive, policed and generally insecure lives?
The public’s skepticism is hardly surprising given that Keir Starmer has not put forward a distinctive, alternative political offer. Instead, he has a reputation for “U-turns,” flip-flopping between Blarite financialization, centralization and globalization, and more daring, traditional socialism. Starmer used to be anti-nationalization and anti-privatization, now he is considering bringing the railways under public ownership and outsourcing NHS services.
Political cross-dressing has taken hold in the Conservative party as well as the Labour party. The fatal mistake of Liz Truss (that’s the dogmatic libertarian one) came as a shock to Conservative voters—and the markets—with many homeowners now facing record high interest rates on their mortgages. The public’s dwindling confidence that any given party will act in a particular political fashion has made voting in British elections akin to gambling.
Why has the Conservative party of thirteen years struggled to assert the kind of cultural conservatism that their new voters still long for? Patrick Deneen in his essay “JS Mill and the despotism of progress” entails a lesson. In short, the absence of conservatism (proper), gives way to progressivism.
Deneen sets the record straight on John Stuart Mill. He should not, Deneen argues, be seen as a lodestar for the supposedly mild-mannered classical liberal—that suspiciously anodyne political persona that is anything but. In fact, Mill’s appeal to an “atmosphere of freedom”—by design—aggressively undermines the “custom-bound society of Victorian England” as well as the Christian inheritance of Western civilization. Deneen says that for Mill, “liberty is a means to progress, and not a good in itself.”
The Millian agenda that classical liberals (who call themselves “conservative”) prefer to a thick vision of a conservative politics has proved effective at dismantling and degrading conservative values. Our party has suffered from precisely this problem; diffidence in the face of decline. We’ve failed to stem the tide of crashing birth rates, an epidemic of worklessness and uncontrolled immigration.
Only a very deliberate attempt to strengthen our common life will do. That’s why it’s high time for the (true) conservatives to steer the party ship.
There are reasons to be cheerful. Some younger British Conservative politicians are finding their voice. Determined not to fight liberalism with more liberalism, they call themselves the “New Conservatives” with a pledge to honor the new coalition of Conservative voters, and give them something to vote for next year, with confidence. They themselves are also new, having been elected since 2016 and thereby “new” conservative voters.
The irony, of course, is that this brand of conservatism is not very new, especially in Britain. As Yoram Hazony points out in his book Rediscovering Conservatism, our nation is the source of a now international political tradition dating back to the work of Sir John Fortescue, Richard Hooker and John Selden. What’s more, “new” conservatism of this kind also simply reflects the old, normative values consistently held by Western civilization. Alasdair MacIntyre describes the values of the “plain person” as shaped by the everyday tasks that are necessary for most people to sustain a common life—such as caring for children or elderly parents and learning new skills. Such people, naturally enough, hold to traditional values that secure—rather than threaten—their circumstances.
The New Conservatives were founded just three months ago and are led by Miriam Cates MP and Danny Kruger MP, both adept intellects as well as energetic politicians. Kruger recently published Covenant, which laments the expulsion of a moral order (“The Order”) by a fiction largely invented by nineteenth- and twentieth-century radicals (“The Idea”). He writes:
“The Order” was the arrangement of society around a common conception of the way to live, and around the practices of common worship. . . . “The Idea” is simply this: that there exist autonomous agents, called individuals, who both self-determine and self-moralise.
Kruger’s manifesto gives voice to the plain people among the British electorate who feel the magnetic pull of “The Order” despite the enveloping procession of “The Idea.” He calls for cultural assertiveness in politics; for the strengthening of the fundamental associations in the home, neighborhood and nation that make us a happy, safe and (truly) free people.
Kruger, Cates and their caucus of around thirty New Conservative MPs will make their pitch to party members at the annual Conservative party conference this month. Here will begin a campaign to win the next General Election (almost certainly due in under twelve months’ time) by restoring the realignment and cementing the new coalition while the party still has the political mandate of 2019. The party must make room. If the idle tendency towards liberalism in the party is finally corrected, then the recovery of a cultural settlement for the plain British person, his family and his community is begun.