The prime minister’s speech in Scotland is a reminder that the Tories appear in the ascendant. Theresa May taunted the governing Scottish National party as an establishment out of touch with voters’ real-life concerns, pitching unity in diversity with a clever payoff line: “We are four nations, but at heart we are one people.” A rudderless Labour party trails the Conservatives by almost 20 points. Pressing ahead with Brexit, Mrs May looks unassailable. On the economy, the Conservatives are moving left. On social issues they pivot right. Mrs May would undoubtedly win a snap election, if she chose to engineer the circumstances, but calculates that would probably revitalise the opposition.
Such scenarios also flatter to deceive. Conventional wisdom is that there is a crisis on the left. There is – and it’s highly visible. There is also a crisis on the right. In Britain it is out in the open in Ukip and submerged by government in the Conservatives. The ideological divisions run deep. The former prime minister Sir John Major knows this all too well. Sir John, in a speech on Britain’s departure from the EU, noted that Mrs May “will have to face down those who favour total disengagement – and who have never accepted our role within Europe”. The hyperventilating abuse Sir John received from Brexiters appeared to make his point. It was Jacob Rees-Mogg who best spelt out how a new strand of thinking was taking root in his party. Mr Rees-Mogg, a Bertie Woosterish MP and early fan of Donald Trump, described his former leader as “yesterday’s man with yesterday’s opinions”. It is curious phrasing, since “yesterday’s opinions” were once what Conservatism was all about.
Mrs May is all too aware that the surging force in rightwing politics is a form of ethno-populism, driven by heightened concerns over immigration and terrorism. This has seen the rise of anti-immigration, anti-EU parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and Geert Wilders’ Freedom party in the Netherlands. The points of the political compass were reset by Donald Trump, who in the White House models himself on America’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson. Jacksonian America is a paranoid place: under siege, with its values undermined by an elite cabal or immigrants and its future under threat by arms of government that oppress voters rather than protect them. Even US neoconservatives, who thought they were advancing a liberal agenda through war, resile from the noxious racism. Mr Trump, Ms Le Pen and Mr Wilders are all part of a pitchfork rebellion on the right. It is a historically novel conservative movement. Margaret Thatcher would never have attacked the British intelligence services, nor would Ronald Reagan have traduced the family of a US soldier killed in action.
How this translates in British politics is that the loudest voices in the Tory party are English nationalist ones who use sovereignty as a cover for selfishness, as distinct from self-interest, in international affairs. They are authoritarian in tenor – asking firms bidding for government contracts if they back Brexit. These Tory populists are dismissive of, and hostile to, the institutions of the state that guarantee liberty – such as parliament, the courts and a free press. This section of the party, which is in power but not in office, is delusional, arguing that the hardest of Brexits will allow Britain to be a “global leader”. Whatever happened to Tories who recognised, in the words of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, that to be Conservative was to “prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible … the present laughter to utopian bliss”?
Conservatism, like social democracy, is struggling in an age of disruptive globalisation where habits of life, work and family are in flux. A party designed to protect business heralds its intellectual collapse when a controlling faction opts to wreck capitalism. George Osborne’s description of leaving the single market as the “biggest single act of protectionism in history” is a reminder of the price free traders will pay for attaching themselves to a nationalist project. Mrs May subordinated economic policy to the pursuit of a myth of cultural indigenousness. History shows that leads to a spiral of ever more aggressive nativism. Conservatism is seeing a revolutionary nationalist movement grafted on top of a liberal internationalist one. Like all revolutionary movements, when it fails to live up to its promises it will start fishing around for scapegoats to blame. No prizes for guessing who that will be. Mrs May, be warned: this won’t end well.