So much has changed in Britain since the Tories took power 10 years ago. Less noticed is that the Conservative party itself has changed: from one that prioritises keeping the public safe to one happy to put us at risk.
From their cuts in police numbers to their cosy relations with Russian donors, from their apparent readiness to let Brexit threaten food and medical supplies to their lack of urgency about the climate crisis, the Conservatives have seemed increasingly cavalier about social stability, public health and national security for years. Now their approach to Covid-19 has confirmed that impression to a frightening degree.
Announcing the government’s latest relaxation of its belatedly imposed, optimistically short lockdown last week, Boris Johnson advised the public to “use their common sense in the full knowledge of the risks”. In other words, staying safe during the pandemic is essentially up to you.
Yet only five years ago, the Conservatives declared in their general election manifesto: “The first duty of government is to keep you safe.” It was the latest in decades of grand promises that declared only the Tories would properly protect Britain’s borders, stand up to hostile countries, and maintain law and order. Even disruptive Tory governments, such as Margaret Thatcher’s, presented themselves as antidotes to a greater disorder. She won power in 1979 with a manifesto that pledged to protect “family life” and “the rule of law”, in a society supposedly “on the brink of disintegration” after Labour rule. At more recent elections, the Tories have warned repeatedly that even Labour participation in a coalition government would bring “chaos”.
This previous Tory preoccupation with public safety did exclude a lot of people, it is true. For many immigrants, poor people and other victims of their economic experiments, the Conservatives provided less security, not more. But the party often managed to convince an electorally decisive number of voters that it would give them a quiet life. As the revered Tory philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it in a 1956 essay On Being Conservative: “The man of conservative temperament … is not in love with what is dangerous.” Were he still alive, Oakeshott’s reaction to a Tory government dominated by Dominic Cummings would be interesting.
On the wilder fringes of global conservatism, some rightwingers have always been attracted to the concept of a “nightwatchman state”: a government that does little except protect property and keep law and order. It may be an alarming idea if you’ve ever benefited from a welfare state. But even a nightwatchman state probably wouldn’t have let people with Covid-19 fly into Britain, as Johnson did throughout spring.
The government’s recklessness reflects his character: throughout his life, the consequences of his actions for other people have rarely been a big concern. It also reflects the worldview of the Conservative membership, who voted overwhelmingly for Johnson to become their leader and prime minister last July, despite his disastrous record as foreign secretary and erratic one as mayor of London. The previous month, pollsters YouGov found that almost two-thirds of Tory members – nearly the same proportion that chose Johnson – were prepared to see Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the UK, and see “significant damage” done to the economy, in order to achieve Brexit.
Since Thatcher’s election, a succession of governments have increasingly concentrated Britain’s wealth among the retired and in the Conservative heartland of the home counties. Many Tory members, like many other Brexit voters, are comfortably off pensioners. They can perhaps afford to take more risks – personally, and with the country’s future – than the rest of us.
Some of the disregard for public safety may also be a US import. Johnson, Cummings and their key minister, Michael Gove, are all keen students of the US, where conservatives have long attacked government attempts to make everyday life more secure as infantilising the public and a distortion of the natural social and economic order. Through their disdain for Covid-19 lockdowns, Donald Trump and many Republican-run states are currently testing this conservative argument – possibly to destruction – in an election year.
In Britain, any electoral reckoning over the government’s addiction to risk is probably much further off. While ratings for its overall handling of the pandemic have deteriorated badly since the spring, a majority of voters initially support the major loosening of lockdown planned for 4 July. After a long national confinement, a prime minister who says, “People need to go out and enjoy themselves”, as Johnson did last week, is in quite an appealing and politically strong position – at least until the downsides of that enjoyment become obvious. It’s tricky to oppose such liberation without sounding like a killjoy. This probably explains why Keir Starmer’s first reaction was to “welcome” the lockdown easing, despite its dangers. This could be a stance he comes to regret.
Yet it’s striking that, on other occasions, the new Labour leader and his shadow ministers have frequently spoken up about public safety: not just in relation to Covid-19, but also with regard to crime and terrorism. Making Britain safer has been one of few identifiable themes, so far, of Starmer’s rather terse leadership. Since he’s a former director of public prosecutions, that’s perhaps to be expected. But the language he’s chosen has felt significant. “The number one priority must be to keep people safe,” he wrote in the Wolverhampton Express & Star earlier this month, seeking to raise his profile in a city where all the constituencies are Tory or Labour marginals. His words were a repeat, more approachably expressed, of the promise in the 2015 Tory manifesto: “The first duty of government is to keep you safe.” He’s trying to win over worried Tories.
During the 21st century, to a startling degree, the Conservatives have become ever more reliant on older voters: since the 2001 election, their lead over Labour among the over-65s has grown from 1% to 47%. Given the awful toll on elderly people from Covid-19, it’s conceivable that, at some point quite soon, this part of the electorate will begin switching from the Tories to Labour – as they did when Labour was led by another former lawyer who promised to make Britain safe again: Tony Blair.
When the Tories eventually lose power, some future leader, more sober than Johnson, may wonder how their party came to be so keen on reopening pubs during a pandemic. Keeping the public safe is hard work for any government, and is often unrewarded – the absence of danger isn’t noticed. But not keeping the public safe may not be forgiven for decades. The Conservatives are about to start finding out if that’s the case.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist