“Those who the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”, Euripides supposedly observed. Clearly, the Gods now wish to destroy the Conservative Party. Having initially contracted the Euroscepticism virus in the 1980s, this has since morphed into a terminal contagion, which doctors have recently identified as No Dealus Brexitus.
The unfolding symptoms have been pitiful to watch: the Conservative body increasingly disfigured, the party’s face contorted with permanent rage, and now its brain has been infected, to the extent that it is no longer capable of rational thought or reasonable behaviour, but is prone to paranoid fears of betrayal.
The Conservative Party once believed in continuity and stability, encouraged respect for established institutions, venerated knowledge and wisdom, rejected ideology in favour of the tried-and-tested, preferred facts and evidence to theory, favoured incremental change, and revered Britain’s constitutional government based on the sovereignty of Parliament, checks-and-balances, and the “union” of the United Kingdom. Not any more, though.
Some senior Conservatives (and rabidly pro-Tory newspapers) now denounce judges and senior civil servants as traitors and enemies within, and support the suspension of parliament if it continues to block Brexit. This is after decades of the Conservatives attacking the BBC, the Church of England, the medical profession, the police, teachers, and universities.
Then, in 2016, a Conservative minister (and current leadership contender) declared that we no longer need to listen to experts. For today’s Conservatives, it is enough merely to believe something in order for it to be deemed true; facts and evidence are superfluous, and if ideologically inconvenient, can be dismissed as “fake news”. If reality clashes with Conservative prejudices, then reality must be wrong.
Yet the former party of common sense, economic competence and national unity continues to disappear further down the rabbit hole. A YouGov poll this week has revealed that the Conservatives’ grassroots members are so obsessed with leaving the EU that 63 per cent of them would support Brexit even if it meant that Scotland left the United Kingdom, while 61 per cent wanted Brexit even if it caused significant damage to the UK economy.
Moreover, 59 per cent were willing to see Northern Ireland leave the UK in order to attain Brexit. Most bizarre of all, 54 per cent would be prepared to see the Conservative Party itself destroyed if that was the price to be paid for obtaining Brexit. The only scenario whereby Conservative Party members would be willing to forego Brexit is to prevent Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister.
Given how toxic the Brexitus virus has proved to be, particularly in its impairment of their cognitive capacity, it is perhaps not surprising that many Conservatives continue to fantasise that leaving the EU will enable the UK (or what’s left of it) to “take back control”, even though so much control has been surrendered due to the fact that many of “our” industries and companies are now foreign-owned.
The blame for this lies not with the EU, but with the Conservatives themselves, for during the 1980s and 1990s, they blithely sold-off many of our industries, in accordance with their free-market dogma and commitment to trade liberalisation. Brexit will not restore this voluntarily surrendered economic control.
Nor do these fevered Conservative supporters of Brexit-at-all-costs ever explain how leaving the EU will solve the plethora of other economic and social problems which have steadily grown in the UK in recent decades: chronic job insecurity and zero-hours contracts; a 160:1 pay ratio between the highest paid bosses and lowest-paid workers due to boardroom greed at the top and poverty wages at the bottom; employers’ attacks on occupational pensions; relentless redundancies due to automation and corporate cost-cutting; unaffordable housing and homelessness; the appalling treatment of elderly residents in some nursing homes; graduate debt; overstretched and underfunded public services, many of them teetering on the brink of insolvency; knife crime and gang/drug-related violence; expensive, often overcrowded and unreliable public transport. The EU has not caused these problems – their origins lie much closer to home than in Brussels.
Meanwhile, the 160,000 Conservative grassroots members are very likely to vote soon for Boris Johnson to be their party’s next leader, convinced that he is the man who will deliver them Brexit, and provide us with our very own version of Trump, albeit one who can insert a smattering of Latin into his inflammatory speeches.
They are unconcerned that various other Conservatives have raised doubts about his personal qualities and integrity, or the fact that while the Brexiters denounce “the out-of-touch elite”, Johnson himself is an Old Etonian, who then read Classics at Oxford, while also being a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club. Nor are they deterred by Johnson’s turbulent tenure at the Foreign Office, which hardly augurs well if he does become prime minister in a few weeks.
The fact that Johnson is so strongly admired by many Conservatives, and is likely soon to become leader, in spite of (or perhaps partly because of) the controversies he has been associated with over the years, in his personal and professional life, shows just how far much of the Party membership craves Brexit. Apart from keeping Corbyn out of 10 Downing Street, nothing else matters.
Looking at the Conservatives today, it is hard to believe that this is the party which once excelled at “statecraft”, and produced leaders of the calibre of Benjamin Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan. Behold how far the once mighty Conservative Party has fallen. The real tragedy, though, is that it is dragging the rest of the country down with it – all of us, down, down, deeper down the rabbit hole.
Pete Dorey is a professor of British Politics at Cardiff University and the author of British Conservatism: The Philosophy and Politics of Inequality