Who would have thought that the modern Conservative Party would have become so radical and ideological? The referendum decision to leave the European Union has sent shock-waves through our national psyche and is proving difficult to understand because it is the result of some problematic political cross-dressing.
It seems that the advocates of Creative Destruction that is gleefully being embraced and pursued by potential leaders in the Tory Party has caught many by surprise, and leaving many unable to respond or to come up with a suitable counter-argument.
The question I have, however, is doesn’t this go against the foundations of conservatism? I thought that the Conservative Party had a historic role in the British constitution to preserve and endure, whereas the path that is being advocated by the anti-EU head-bangers in the Brexit camp is the opposite of that, and suggest that the Conservative Party has fully abandoned its historic role in British life.
My simplistic understanding of the conservative tradition suggests that conservative principle number one, is to sustain and conserve for future generations. Decisions that we take should be rooted in a pragmatic forms of practicality, focussed on the need to get out of situations if they are not in our interests in the future.
We’ve just spent the last forty years building a sustainable future inside the European Union, only for the second principle of conservativism to be annihilated. A stable society is built on stable institutions, i.e. the Crown, the Courts, the BBC and NHS. Conservatives are concerned that the institutions that we hold dear will endure past the mid-term priorities and perspectives of the people involved.
Stable institutions give us a predictable framework around which we can plan our future decisions. In this sense conservatives are boring, and they certainly don’t promote extreme measures based on ego or an ideological whim for fear of the unknown consequences.
In this regard, however, conservatives are pragmatic and run with what is known to work. Conservatives don’t like to experiment for the sake of experimentation. Change is an evolutionary process that is agreed and built on consensus, rather than being hurled at people who don’t know what they are getting.
Conservatives therefore have a disdain for popular expressions of the public mood, so they don’t use referendums very often. Instead conservatives work within the framework of representative and liberal democracy that protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority through deliberation, expertise and wisdom. Parliament is supposed to debate and discuss issues of national importance and come to a consensual view that suits all parties.
Outside of the political realm conservatives put the family at the core of their ideas. The stable family unit around which the rest of society is based is the central premise of the conservative mind-set, associated with values of self-reliance and merit in which people are able to climb the ladder of life with the minimum of interference from the state or from government.
Likewise, conservatives are stewards of the environment and the natural world. They seek to sustain the world around us so that it is pleasant, free from pollution and works best to provide us with resources for other forms of social life and industry. Conservatives argue for balance between those things that sustain and nourish us and those things that we can exploit for more materialistic ends.
Conservatives, therefore, are patriots and nationalists, with a strong sense of duty to one’s country, King and Queen. It is this nationalism and patriotism that gives conservatives the space to put strong local identities high on the agenda of our national lives.
The idea of the nation is built on the idea of the strong community with an engaged sense of civic participation. Civic leaders are drawn from the worlds of commerce and social association which is empowered by the stake that people feel in their local community and the benefits in status that are derived from playing an active part in community life.
According to conservatives participating in local politics and decision making is something to be proud about and it relates to your social standing. Conservatives therefor prioritise local decisions and local issues above other needs.
The market isn’t the only factor that conservatives take into account when they are enacting decisions on behalf of their communities. The social impact and the potential detrimental effects of any race for commercial exploitation. This might imply a rigid structure that is slow to change, but it is one that is based on longer-term ideas of the social good and not just an ability to get rich quick.
But there is an ideological mix-up. The Tory Party is now overwhelmed by free-market, neo-liberal ideologues. A process that started over forty-years ago with Margaret Thatcher is now bulldozing all before it.
This ideological fervour is based on the dominant belief that the free-market will provide solutions to social problems. It is the belief that so-called free-markets go hand-in-hand with the power of Creative Destruction, ripping up the rules, changing the game, and if some things get broken in the process, so what!
For more than forty years it’s been said that there is no moral or ethical dimension to the free-market, only economic instrumentalism and utility. That there are no moral equivalences between different services and goods offered in the marketplace. That everything can be reduced to a consumer exchange and the supply and demand of desires and wants.
This neo-liberal mind-set says that there is no need to offer a guiding hand or to mitigate the excesses of the market, as markets are inherently good at what they do, and will auto-correct when things go wrong.
However, when I take a look around me all I see is that the free-market has only delivered a zombie economy based around endless brands, chains and franchises. Don’t bother travelling around the United Kingdom, every town is the same, every place has a Starbucks, a Costa Coffee, Boots, WH Smiths, all in endless and soulless duplication.
If a local community wants to deny planning permission for Tesco to open another supermarket in their area, then there is very little that they can do about it. Local decisions are usually over-written by centralised managers in London who only care about the numbers and not the impact.
Local democracy has been devalued in the United Kingdom for decades. The assault started with Thatcher who disbanded the metropolitan authorities who wanted to invest locally and manage change more socially democratically that the free market ideologies would allow.
This has resulted in the dominance of instrumental thinking in political and civic life, as the mono-logic of economic utility pushes all public and civic life to the so-called free market place. This is a logic that treats everything like cornflakes. Designed, manufactured and distributed from a centralised management, but containing no nourishment or health benefits despite the claims.
The neo-liberal ideologue can’t recognise that measures of sustainability and environmental protection are prudent, so they find ways to derided and belittle the process of ecological stewardship. They become climate change deniers because nothing can interfere with the free-market, not even the mounting evidence of environmental catastrophe.
So expertise is undermined. Universities are reduced to being factories for employability. The idea of the university as a space for independent and divergent thinking is subsumed under the logic that says that students are consumers and that they must be facilitated in their employability needs, rather than being independent thinkers with a liberal conscience.
Our politics has become a giant marketing exercise. The buzz-phrase is the ‘conversation’ which reduces everything to surveys and opinion polls. The fact that politics is the manifestation of competing interests is hidden and made opaque. Who did the Brexit campaign actually represent beyond themselves?
So, the question I’ve been thinking about is why I am a conservative? What makes me want to see a resurgence in conservative thinking that will challenge the destruction of the free-marketers?
I want to see strong, local communities in which local people determine their own priorities on tax, planning, education, health and welfare. This will only come about if local people have a democratic stake, so we need Proportional Representation for all of our elections. With a decentralised model of education we can look to the best practice that allows our young people to become creative, independent and resilient, ending the factory and hot-house model that is failing to engage enough people in life-long learning.
In a globalised world we can only build local identities by promoting local products and producers, by promoting local arts, media and participation in a strong and vibrant cultural life. Too much of our social interactions are founded on shopping and not on shared creative endeavours.
There is a clear role for Trade Unions as long as they are looking to provide stability when planning for change. Ironically the Thatcherite zeal for union-bashing is partly responsible for high-levels of immigration in service sector work. If people are paid poverty wages then jobs don’t look attractive and employers will seek cheaper labour elsewhere.
I want to make it easier for people to access a local market by promoting civic market places that are paid for by taxing parking on supermarkets. How do new traders enter the marketplace when the competitive environment is skewed towards the national and international conglomerates all fighting for a slide of the pie but with no care for the local community?
This means devolving responsibility for competition in our communities to the local level and allowing local communities to accept or reject the presence of corporate brands in their area. Local people should decide if they want to leave space for local people like themselves to trade and build businesses in their areas. Anyhow, we have far too many shops in the United Kingdom. It’s time we started to restrict out of town developments, and endless shopping centre car parks.
I also want to see a shift away from the car economy, so that urban areas can become the focus of family life. British streets have been chocked and blocked by cars. They have become dangerous and anti-social. Children are absent from our streets and communities, and live like prisoners. No wonder so many of them are unhappy.
It is essential, therefore, that we build integrated transport networks based around trams in our cities. Trams are socially democratic, giving all classes of people confidence to use an integrated system. They are clean and they are predictable. The privatisation of the buses is an experiment in free-market ideology that has cursed our cities.
Another priority has to be that we stop building endless homes and businesses in rural areas. Instead we need to protect and invest in agricultural and recreational traditions, and open the country to a different set of priorities that aren’t based on endless urban-sprawl.
When communities face change, though, they need to be given support and help so that they can adjust to the changes that technology, rather than blaming people. Don’t turn your back on people in need and put in place robust safety nets so people aren’t destitute and can plan their lives around stability. The shame of the Bedroom Tax is deeply felt by many.
I don’t understand why successive governments have had such a problem with local democracy. Local services that are accountable through the local ballet-box are better than some technocratic and centralised ministry can offer. Devolve health, education, welfare and competition management to local authorities while also pulling back defence expenditure.
I’m afraid it’s time to give-up Trident because we can’t afford it, which means giving up our seat on the UN Security Council. Our aim should be to leave a smaller footprint that is better suited to our resources, thereby cutting our cloth to fit our reduced circumstances.
Al this said, once I’ve got over the shock of Brexit and the opportunities start to become clear, I’ve no doubt that the future is going to be internationalist, collaborative, co-operative, welcoming and principled. So who knows, we might come out of this muddle with a form of EU+. Something that is built on strong local communities, in which people are empowered and feel that they can reject the technocratic management and monoculture forces of the global finance industry.
I suspect that both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party will be dead and buried in five years’ time. The question is, what kind of political leadership will take their place and how will people square the conservative with the social democratic?