Making social science accessible

25 Jan 2019

Politics and Society

The Conservative Party is no longer Conservative. It has abandoned historic core principles of British conservatism which once forged the United Kingdom’s relationship with European integration.

Conservatives are supposed to conserve. By definition, they are supporters of tradition and loyal to institutions. If changes need to made, conservatism has argued they should be made gradually, so that society evolves gradually. British conservatism, and the Conservative Party itself, were forged in opposition to the radical political and societal changes proposed by political and economic liberalism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Importantly, both intellectual movements championed the defence of private property, not the virtues of free market capitalism.

All that has changed. Brexit has demonstrated the extent to which the Conservative Party has transformed itself to become a champion of economic liberalism. Indeed, with its marketing mantra of ‘Global Britain’, the May government now aspires to become not a beacon of conservatism, but the global champion of free trade and free markets.

Brexit has also revealed the Conservative Party’s willingness to unleash a further prolonged period of radical political and societal change upon the British people, based upon the six core principles of the Conservative developmental market: entrepreneur-led innovation, competition, profit, liberalization, deregulation and privatization.

These are the very opposite of the principles conservatism and Conservatives are supposed to uphold.

Once upon a time, the Conservative Party’s relationship with European integration was defined by two very different principles to those now driving Brexit. First, pragmatism: an explicit rejection of political dogma, a belief in politics as a practical art of the possible, policy making on the basis of ‘what works matters’, and as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Second, technocracy: a belief in entrusting governance and key policy-making decisions to an expert technical elite, be it a government department, Royal Commission or official inquiry.

From October 1961, that Conservative technocratic pragmatism had inspired Harold Macmillan’s government to appoint a quintessential technocratic modernizer, Edward Heath MP, to lead the United Kingdom’s application for membership of the European Community.

Membership of, and access to, the Common Market was seen as a pragmatic means by which the United Kingdom could reverse its relative economic decline by importing and implementing the continental European technocratic blueprint for industrial modernization which had enabled French and German prosperity.

In two and a half years of House of Commons’ debate about Brexit, culminating in the debate on the European Withdrawal Agreement, not one Conservative MP, even from the Remain camp, has followed in the tradition of Macmillan and Heath to make that same argument.

The dying members of technocratic pragmatism are now confined to the House of Lords, and the speeches and occasional pamphlets of an 85-year old Lord Heseltine.

Michael Heseltine has continued to advocate United Kingdom membership of the European Union as a means to further the quest for a British developmental state; that is, one prepared to strategically pick winner sectors, technologies and companies in concert with European partners to surmount global competition.

Among Conservative MPs, there is little evidence of support for Heseltine’s developmental state agenda.

It was, after all, Heseltine’s dramatic resignation from the Thatcher government on the 9 January 1986, following the Cabinet divisions over whether Westland, the UK’s sole helicopter manufacturer, should be taken over by a European or an American consortium, which marked the onset of the bitter Conservative divisions over Europe.

By contrast, the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs remain committed to completing the remaining ‘stepping stones’,  first identified for Margaret Thatcher almost 42 years earlier, towards the ‘sea-change in Britain’s political economy’, based upon ‘an explicit rejection of socialism and the Labour-trades unions axis; and the demand for something morally and economically better’.

The blue lines of political and tactical division within the Conservative Party have surrounded whether or not the remaining stepping stones are best crossed within or outside the European Union. These blue lines have rarely concerned the ultimate direction of political and ideological travel.

The initial Conservative stepping stones towards that sea-change in political economy had been crossed with the market liberalizations, deregulation and privatizations of the 1980s and 1990s. These had included the measures instigated in the 1985 European White Paper, and the 1986 Single European Act by the Thatcher government to complete the single market.

The most recent stepping stones towards the completion of the developmental market have been the pursuit of austerity since May 2010 by the Cameron and May governments, and Brexit itself.

Once the greatest threat to the developmental market had been posed by Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, when in September 1988 he had offered the previously Eurosceptic Trades Union Congress and Labour Party a route to reverse the trend towards economic liberalism by embracing the social dimension of European integration.

Delors’ vision for the future of Europe had been rebuffed by Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Bruges’ speech, but even she had argued ‘Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community’.

Shortly before she became Prime Minister, Theresa May endorsed Margaret Thatcher’s conclusion of the importance of staying within the European Union when setting out her own vision for the United Kingdom’s relationship with a changing Europe less than a month before the referendum of 23 June 2016.

Historically, the Conservative Party has based its electoral success upon pragmatism and distrust of ideas, and a willingness to put country and party ahead of individual self-interest.

Brexit however has demonstrated a determination within the Conservative Party to contest and win the battle of ideas in British politics, and to ensure the United Kingdom’s relationship with a changing Europe continues to be dominated by the market-centric principles of economic liberalism rather than the pragmatic principles of One Nation conservatism.

But the resulting willingness of the Conservative Party to accord primacy to free markets and individual self-interest may have led to the abandonment of the very principles of pragmatism, compromise and moderation which are now most urgently needed to bring about Brexit.

By Dr Simon Lee, senior lecturer in Politics at the University of Hull.


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