An Elegy for Reform: The Need for Social Toryism
I am now approaching my second year as a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party, a party which I joined in the hope of playing a role within one of the oldest political traditions that the United Kingdom still retains. As time goes on however, I consistently receive mixed messages about the future of the party which I do (I will admit) love.
The Conservative Party, with every passing year, month, perhaps even day, appears to be losing the ideology on which the fabric of its success has been built. Jacob Rees-Mogg has described the Tory Party as “One of the most successful political forces the world has ever known”, and with Theresa May and the Conservatives remaining at a 74% likelihood of winning a safe majority should an election be held today, this may not initially seem to be an ill assessment.
However, attitudes change rapidly, and support for political parties, including long-established ones, does not last forever. The Liberal Party’s rapid fall from national government into obscurity at the turn of the 20th century provides ample evidence for this. The Conservatives are beginning to buy into a dangerous political culture, and without proper safeguards and reforms, they will face the consequences of it soon enough.
For a long time, the Conservative Party considered itself the home of ‘one-nation’ politics. This is a label that has been claimed by both the Conservative and Labour parties in the modern age, and has today earned itself something of a bad name amongst those on the right, being associated with support for (more moderate versions of) left-wing ideas such as multiculturalism, a large welfare state and pro-Europeanism. In this regard, one-nation conservatism has been warped and misinterpreted in many ways, and as a result it has fallen out of favour in key areas. However, what has replaced it, I believe, is far more damaging, and with appropriate interpretation and reform, a return to one-nation ideals may just, in my opinion at least, make the Conservative Party the party which it deserves to, and frankly ought to be.
Today, we live in a society which is becoming increasingly atomised, that is to say, frighteningly individualistic. Margaret Thatcher’s free market and libertarian economic reforms of the 1980s were a necessary response to a critical national situation (though I do not deny she had many flaws – that is for another time), but have led to the victory of the liberal economic argument: the culture of the individual, the businessman, the successful entrepreneur. It sounds great, and in a society where we should (rightly) value private property, freedom of enterprise, freedom of expression and similar liberties, there seems nothing inherently wrong with having a private business-driven economic model.
However, as with almost every socio-economic model, there is a dark side, and this one’s I fear is far darker and damaging than anyone could have predicted just over thirty years ago. The bleeding of the principles of individualism into everyday life and wider society has led to bitter consequences, namely, what I call ‘me culture’. This ‘me culture’ places the individual’s personal beliefs, aspirations, feelings and all aspects of personal life far above the needs of any other, leading to a total breakdown in the valuation of community, cooperation and strength in unity that used to so define the British way of life.
Today, we operate within a vague skeleton of community, and the left so readily jumps on opportunities to wave this skeleton aloft behind the rallying cries of “LoveNotHate!” and “WeStandUnited” hashtags. The fact remains however, that this means nothing whatsoever, and in fact contributes to ‘me culture’ much more than anything else. By writing a tweet expressing “solidarity” with a certain ethnic group, or changing a profile picture to show concern for some global event, the individual feels validated, like he is doing something to help, when in fact all that is achieved is a sickening lack of anything substantial, the only beneficiary being the ego of the social media user.
Sympathy for victims of crises is expressed through monetary donations, as if the only thing important in life is money, and the donator can somehow feel as though he is alleviating someone’s pain by effectively paying off the sufferer’s grief. There are many other aspects to this culture, but we can see already through these examples that we are left with a society which views events and beliefs through a very narrow tunnel, one which perfectly encapsulates the social rot which has eaten away at what bound people together, the collective ‘we’ which defines a nation. Now it seems all that matters in life is emotion and money. People and community do not come into the question.
When Benjamin Disraeli and his associates began to form the ideology of one nation conservatism whilst students in the 1820s and 30s, they had in mind something different, but something which remains fundamentally intellectually conservative. It is an inescapable fact that in the 19th century, the Conservative Party was shaped to be intellectually left-wing. Disraeli’s one nation conservatism was designed to appeal to the working class: it appreciated social structure, that inequality, especially economic inequality, was an inescapable and necessary part of a free society; but it also realised that without the workers, their employers could not exist. Its social organisation could be described as paternalistic, defending the importance of institutions such as the monarchy, aristocracy and Church of England, but it hit one very important social concept on the head: the recognition and respect for organic society, where work and social organisation is divided according to merit and skill, but communities are small and the individuals within them know and support one another, relying on each other to maintain their way of life.
This highly traditional view of living, based on strong families who knew each other, were friends and worked for each other’s benefit as much as their own, was a vision which shaped Britain into the respected power that it once was. Today, we have lost sight of this vision to such an extent that the institutions which held that society together are dying: marriage is becoming less popular, the function of the Church as a rallying point for communities is all but dead, and most people don’t know anyone in their local area, or even on their street beyond their immediate neighbours.
What I see is a need for a political return to Disraeli’s social Toryism. So long as the Conservative Party continues to turn a blind eye to the increasingly compounded and narrow lives of the country’s citizens in favour of a dangerous fetish for unbridled economic liberalism, we risk losing all connexion with what makes us a country at all. If the Conservatives were to combine their respect for enterprise, property and economic freedom with traditional values, social conservatism and a strong focus on community, we might begin to more easily build a country which holds onto a sense of nationhood once again.
The United Kingdom is a unique nation, with many aspects to its history which we ought to be proud of. I do not deny there have been shameful moments, but if we forget what was once great, can we say we are a country at all? Theresa May’s vague abstract comments about social justice do not make her a one nation conservative. A one nation politician has respect for the working class, national sovereignty and integrity, as well as values such as the rule of law and the right to a healthy, free life. This piece is entitled An Elegy for Reform, and the sad truth is that the Conservative Party is dangerously close to requiring an elegy, for the root of its intellectual conservatism is very close to drawing its last breath. Its only hope is a decisive movement to re-assert its values and bring social Toryism back to the fore of political debate.
On a final note, I will admit that one nation conservatism is in some respects influenced by the ideas of Romanticism that the 19th century clung to, and I am somewhat biased being heavily influenced by Romanticism in my own worldview. However, in a party such as the Conservatives, we must balance a love of pragmatism with an ability to still dream. Without a vision, and a rigid adherence to ‘that which is completely doable’, we risk losing any idea of how we would like society to be formed, structured and how individuals within it interact with one another. Institutions will crumble and ideas born out of the minds of our ancestors’ great visionaries will be lost to the shadows of history. Without vision, conservatism itself will become nothing more than the label to a party which appears to stand for nothing meaningful whatsoever, and if that is allowed to happen, we may just risk losing everything which defines us as a nation.