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Transformations of Conservatism

In May, Lord Heseltine, a longterm senior member of the Conservative Party was suspended from the Party, because he supported the Liberal Democrats in the European Elections.


Photo: Pixabay

Steve Latham


He did this because he opposes the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union. But his comments at that time, expressed deeper concerns about the direction of his Party.

For the Brexit debate encapsulates a further level in the transformation of Conservativism since their heyday in the mid-Twentieth Century.

Heseltine pointed out that they have ceased to actually be ‘conservative’, that is to ‘conserve’ what is good from the past. Historically, the Conservative Party has opposed all ideological political projects, in favour of intuitive, pragmatic, adaptation to piecemeal change.

What was important was to maintain stability, by resisting all rationalistic, utopian, attempts to remake society, which would thereby upset the peaceful life of the realm.

This was in the name of an organic vision, a vision rather than an articulated philosophy, of a nostalgic past.

This image was of an organic society, where everyone knew their place, and the traditional hierarchies were perpetuated.

But it was also an arrangement where aristocrats were aware of their obligations, under noblesse oblige, to the less fortunate.

According to this principle of maintaining social cohesion, the Tories were able to incorporate the new capitalist class into the elite.

Hypocritical though it may have been, this organic Conservativism enabled the upper classes to to welcome the welfare state and universal education, if only to prevent the risk of revolution.

But Thatcher’s government killed off this settlement. Inspired by neo-liberal ideology, and spurred by economic crisis, she overturned the compromise between these two traditions.

Margaret Tatcher. Photo by Levan Ramishvili. Flickr. Public domain.

And by this means, the Conservative Party ceased being truly ‘conservative’, but became in thrall to a radical right-wing libertarian ideology.

At this time, Heseltine opposed Thatcher, as he presented the older patrician, Tory, wing of the Party. In this he failed, as he did in his later attempt to take over after her fall from power.

Subsequently, however, Thatcherite neo-liberalism, was in effect continued under Blair’s New Labour, as he opted to retain her ‘reforms’.

Representing the triumph of laissez faire economics, this was further continued under David Cameron’s attempt to modernise the Conservatives. His legalisation of gay marriage, for example, was merely the extension of free market, consumerist choice from the economic to the social sphere, against traditional cultural conservatism.

Since then, in the Brexit debate, we have witnessed another transmogrification of Conservativism, even further away from their One Nation tradition.

Photo: Pixabay

Because not only has the Conservative Party ceased to be ‘conservative’, it is also no longer ‘neo-liberal’, departing now from any pro-capitalist posture at all.

For example, Boris Johnson’s “F**k business” remark may have expressed his frustration at the opposition of major business leaders to Brexit.

But it also encapsulated the recrudescence of a dormant third faction in Conservatism last seen in the 1930s.

The Party now embodies the worst atavistic instincts of a primitive, pre-modern, prejudiced, little Englandism – of the Far-Right.

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