Seventy-odd years ago my grandparents arrived in this country from Hungary. Over the next two decades, more relatives joined them, refugees by turns from fascist genocide, Soviet totalitarianism and economic collapse. My grandparents arrived penniless, started a small family business and voted Tory. Only a Conservative government, they told me, would stand firm against the radicalism that had fuelled the European conflict. They may as well have pinned “strong and stable” to my nappy.
Look around the Tory party today, and chaos reigns; Britain feels more socially fratricidal than I have ever known it. Two successive Tory leaders have gambled their majorities, first on a Brexit referendum for which the leadership was woefully unprepared, then on a snap election for which both country and party were unprepared. (Gareth Fox, head of candidates at Conservative HQ, is said to have returned from holiday to find himself charged with filling hundreds of Tory vacancies on blank ballot papers.)
Yet even amid the rubble, Tory leadership manoeuvres still resemble the self-congratulatory landscape of a colonial great game. At the Spectator summer party on Thursday night, David Davis beamed confidently as he worked the room, while Boris Johnson seemed to revel in the absence of old school rival David Cameron. Briefings from their supporters filled the weekend papers. If the prime minister lasts another two years, it will only be because both men are happy for her to absorb the toxic karma of Brexit negotiations before they make their move.
Call me mad, but I grew up thinking the Conservative party existed to put the brakes on revolutions
Tory powerbrokers have always been ambitious, but they haven’t always been gamblers. Now, it seems, they are. A year ago, a friend and I left a referendum results party early and passed a lone Brexiteer MP, a young star occasionally tipped for the Tory leadership. Drunkenly bellowing at a friend, he roared with success. “Sterling falling? Who the fuck cares if sterling’s falling? You’ll be all right; I’ll be all right. It’s a revolution!” Call me mad, but I grew up thinking the Conservative party existed to put the brakes on revolutions.
For centuries, Tory voices have been the ones warning against the social dangers of too much change too quickly. If modern British conservatism claims a foundation text, it is Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, a 1790 cautionary dispatch against the gory example of the radical French. Burke was, of course, a Whig rather than a Tory: Dr Emily Jones’s new monograph, Edmund Burke and the Invention of Modern Conservatism, adroitly traces the ways in which later Tories rewrote Burke’s wider legacy to foreground the revolutions, claiming him as one of their own. But Burke’s writing on France is his most conservative work. You’ll find at its heart a simple Tory maxim: revolutions leave children starving and adults bleeding. My Hungarian grandparents would have nodded along sadly.
In Burke, you find even the economic mantras of 21st-century conservatism foreshadowed: that stability leads to prosperity, that inequality is a price worth paying for economic growth. Of the proto-Corbyns and their redistribution programmes, he tells us: “Believe me, those who attempt to level never equalise.” Like Thatcher or Reagan, Burke saw the preservation of liberty as a realistic government goal, equality as an impossible one. Don’t rock the boat, don’t scare the banks, and the middle classes get their quiet life.
So how did the party of Burke bring us the maelstrom of 2017? Tory governments once claimed themselves our benevolent parents. But living in modern Britain feels like being one of a family of anxious, squabbling children whose parents have abandoned us to get drunk at the casino. Since the night of the Brexit referendum, when my Tory friend celebrated, sterling has lost 12% of its value against the dollar. Tory policies once promised a haven from global unrest. Now, they seem to provoke it.
To be fair to the Brexiteers, the right in Britain has always consisted of an uneasy alliance between Tory pragmatists and change-hungry libertarians. The zeal of Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell for direct democracy is genuine. The Plan, their jointly authored 2008 manifesto, had far more to say about reforming parliamentary democracy – including establishing an elected House of Lords – than their concurrent criticisms of an anti-democratic EU.
One-nation prime ministers like Cameron found the libertarians useful for voting against taxation; inconvenient when they got too loud about heavy-handed government. The Brexit battle is the obvious recent manifestation of this internal tension which, unleashed and unchecked, has caused havoc.
Take Davis’s history, for example. In 2008, still seething after his defeat to Cameron in the 2005 leadership contest, he resigned from both cabinet and parliament to force the most pointless by-election in recent history. Ostensibly, Davis sought a personal mandate to oppose the Labour government’s attacks on civil liberties – in particular, Gordon Brown’s proposal to hold terror suspects without charge for up to 42 days. But the rest of the Tory leadership also opposed Brown’s plans, defeating them with the aid of 36 Labour rebels. The byelection cost £80,000 of public money, turnout was 34%. Davis returned to the backbenches, armed with the phone numbers of several TV producers.
The elevation of Davis to Brexit secretary, therefore, was like inviting an untrained terrier into the chicken coop. It should surprise no one that Davis had been boasting of a decisive role in persuading Theresa May to call a snap election – he has never been able to resist the lure of the swingometer. This mistake alone should disqualify him from ever becoming Tory leader.
Yet a new leader there must be, even if it takes two years. It seems Theresa May accepts she cannot lead the party into the next general election. The talk at present is of a new leader from the 2010 parliamentary intake. That in itself speaks to a weariness with the great game. The era of the Bullingdon boys – and one Maidenhead girl – has been collectively discredited.
But it will take much more than a measured, if far-off, transfer of leadership to restore the recklessly squandered Tory reputation for stability. A commitment to a transitional Brexit would help.
So too would ignoring the howls of Tory voters in the green belt and finally unveiling a long overdue house-building programme. The Tories can’t even think of offering savers a prosperous future if housing inequality means barely any voter under 40 feels they have a stake in it. Why be a capitalist if you have no capital?
Most of all, the party needs to start from scratch in making the case for conservatism. That means proving to the nation beyond doubt that it has broken its addiction to the great game, to reckless gambling. (Rules of Gamblers Anonymous: the first step is admitting you have a problem.) Given a choice between a bunch of unpredictable ideologues with a blue rosette and a bunch of unpredictable ideologues with a red rosette, voters are already showing that they’ll pick the one with a song that sounds like hope.