Unlike Labour, the Tories are seen as the bastion of patriotism, however their patriotism in reality is skin deep. When one looks at their actual support of the UK: its institutions, its societal structure and its people, they are found sorely lacking, and Theresa May’s latest attempt at remedying this has little substance behind it.
Traditional conservatism sought to preserve certain national institutions and resist abrupt change. For instance, one nation Toryism ‘celebrates the natural ties between different societal strata and prizes social cohesion’. However, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot that is conservative about the modern Tory party, despite their lip service to ‘one nation’(1). Our national institutions get ‘reformed’ (code for ‘privatised’ and/or ‘cut’)(2) and economic liberalisation(3) is strongly encouraged. The Tories now have more in common with the 19th century Liberals than with the one nation Tories of that time. As for social conservatism, that has all but been sacrificed in the latest push for power. What is left is an empty shell of the traditional conservative symbols, a media-created illusion of ‘competence’, endless opportunism and a tendency to play on people’s fears. As a result, the rhetoric of opposing ‘untrammelled markets’ and ‘Westminster elite’ to be found in the manifesto rings hollow.
The real raison d’etre of the Tories has of course not changed. The Tory party is the party that defends privilege, and achieves this by offering just enough to just enough other people to stay in power(4). They are backed up in this endeavour by the privileged class: through the media and through the establishment of multiple ‘impartial’ think tanks that promote the ideology of economic liberalism, falling over each other to persuade us that small government is the cure for all ills.
In the past, supporting privilege did correspond to supporting an elite that was British through and through. The wealth it was able to command at least stayed in the country and was spent in the country. But now this is not the case: the modern ‘privileged’ are no longer the landed aristocracy but an international jet-set, taking advantage of tax havens and moving capital across the world. Crucially, they are mostly not British, and even contain people who are, for lack of a better word, criminals or agents for certain unsavoury foreign dictatorships(5). A Tory great Samuel Johnson once said ‘A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.’ It is difficult to see how this is still the case when so much of what the Tory Party does is geared towards the good of the people and organisations who are often not British and even if British citizens are in reality members of a globalised elite.
It is clear how this constitutes a loss of sovereignty for the UK. In order for our democracy to be effective, one needs a government that can stand up to corporate lobbying, to the media barons, to outside financial interests. But far from opposing them, the Tories think that those interests know best, that government should be kept small in order to appease them, that the democratic will of the people should be influenced via the media as well as to be a secondary consideration to the interests of the big corporations. The government, the UK Parliament is in itself a British institution that is being undermined, together with Britain’s age-old democratic system.
This is accompanied by the continuing sell-off of British public services and infrastructure to foreign companies. The cut-price sale of the Royal Mail, an iconic British institution, was the latest in a long series of blows. Our electricity, water, rail, property are now owned by a bewildering variety of foreign individuals, companies, pension funds and states. Nominally they are supposed to be regulated, however these things are highly political, and problems are generally not good news for a government ideologically committed to privatisation(6).
Or what about those British institutions tasked with ensuring our security, traditionally the darlings of the Right? Whilst the police, the army and the UK Border agency have not been privatised, they have all suffered cuts to staff. The Tory rhetoric about keeping us safe sounds even more hollow.
What of another British institution — the community? Globalisation tends to sweep away culture, social order, religion, tends to fundamentally change the structure of society. Economic liberalisation facilitates and speeds up this process. We have seen it in Britain through the devastation of the former working class communities, with the jobs gone and many of the people likewise gone for better pastures in the metropolitan hubs. When the rules of the markets dictate how well a community does, it rarely prospers. And how can it, if its very existence is contingent on the jobs, and those jobs might not be there anymore? A successful community needs economic stability, something that is absent almost by definition in a deregulated system. In an unstable community, with high levels of unemployment, few opportunities and a high turnover of people, societal problems creep in, and values become eroded. As social problems worsen, anger turns on to immigrants. And even in those of the communities that prosper, relations between people tend to start being defined by gain. The institutions so treasured by the high Tory — from the family through community all the way to the government — are affected.
But it is precisely the strong societal and cultural norms that make the free market system function the best(7). They act as limits, unseen umpires that ensure fair competition. In the same vein, making it too easy for the ‘winners’ — those entities who get to the top in the free market system — to wield political power and to rig the free market system in their favour destroys the very principles upon which the free market system depends. So, economic liberalisation undermines the very boundaries that allow capitalism to function best. Whilst capitalism is a wonderful system, it, like a nuclear chain reaction, it needs to be kept under control by the society. The High Tory sees that control through the lens of established institutions, the Socialist through democratic state control, but to me these are both part of the same coin.
Modern Tories see the British people not as a proud nation but as a set of economic units. Moreover, the value attached to said units is not dependent on the wealth they create, or might have created in the past, but on the money they either possess or earn. If that money is not sufficient, or if (gasp) people are out of work and on benefits, they are deemed to be ‘scroungers’.
There is the visceral hate of anyone who happens to fall on hard times. Cuts to the disability allowance, cuts to bereavement allowance, cuts for families with children all show contempt for whole sections of British society. This is accompanied by rhetoric that trashes the character of their fellow citizens and accuses them of gaming the system. Being able to catch the wrongdoers is seen as the aim: the genuine cases seen as collateral damage. When a case of somebody falling foul of the new rules despite working hard all their life comes to light, it is treated as an exception. No doubt some of those people are indeed abusing the system, however the least one could expect a patriotic British person to do is to give their compatriots the benefit of the doubt.
Low waged workers fare better, as long as they fulfill two conditions. They may not wish to improve their condition by any sort of collective action, nor through the ballot box. And yet they have to constantly strive to improve their situation (who then gets to do the still vital low-paid jobs is unclear). This means having to move as far as they have to to get a job, and work whatever hours are necessary. The damage to communities and ‘hard working families’ from this is not considered.
All these contributed to the demonisation of the working class that ended in the fall of Cameron and Brexit, engaged in by both the Tories and New Labour. A strategy of divide and conquer, with the tabloids taking the lead, attempted to shift the blame for all problems onto a section of the said working class. This is the exact opposite of what a patriot should be doing: divide and conquer is something generally associated with enemies and traitors, those wishing to destroy the institutions of a society, but in this country it has been practiced openly by those in power since times immemorial(8). It is aided and abetted by the media, with high-profile cases such as that of Karen Matthews used to tarnish whole communities of people, to characterise any deprived area, any council estate. (The immigrants of course are the other well-known scapegoats.) Tories such as Cameron could then use this to call for the system be made tougher. Working class was something to escape to the nirvana of the middle-class, and this escape would be facilitated by cutting any ‘government irresponsibility’ (meaning state provision) to the bare minimum, ‘to stop the dependency of the irresponsible on the state’. Of course, Cameron, like May now, went on to talk about ‘strong families’ and ‘stronger communities’(9), but he never mentioned just what happens to those in times of economic downturn when the state abdicates its role.
Under May, there is a charm offensive towards the working class in the wake of the referendum, and the ‘one nation’ rhetoric once again in the ascendancy. But let’s not forget, it was thus with Cameron also, before, having been elected, resorting to type. In 2009, after the financial crisis, David Cameron produced his famous slogan ‘we are in this together’. Only, it soon transpired that ‘we’ meant the ordinary workers, and in particular those on low pay, and very much not the people responsible for the crisis itself. The ‘irresponsible’ could not be those at the top, who took massive risks with our financial system and who continued with their excesses like nothing happened. They were apparently those at the bottom, at least those who wouldn’t accept the pay freezes and the cuts, who dared to demand fair wages, who objected to the ill-treatment of their fellow countrymen.
Despite many pleadings to the contrary in their manifesto, the Tories are not showing they have changed their spots. There is little to improve societal cohesion beyond talk, little to improve social mobility and help the aspiring beyond token gestures, and as for stopping the ongoing sale of our great institutions abroad, that is not even addressed. It seems that the modern Tory patriotism fails the very tests set by their own predecessors — let alone the most basic of the expectations of the 21st century.
(1) And despite the clear appeal fo the naturally conservative sections of British society.
(2) Of course, New Labour, the fellow fans of the ‘free market’, ably assisted them in this task.
(3) Friedrich Hayek took particular care to explain in the ‘Road to Serfdom’ why he was not a conservative.
(4) Jones writes of this in ‘Chavs’. ‘What you have to realise about the Conservative party’… ‘is that it is a coalition of priveleged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privelege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.’ He should have really replaced ‘giving’ with ‘offering’.
(5) The Russian nouveaux riches being just one such example.
(6) Far from keeping a watchful eye over them, the Tory (and, in fairness New Labour) politicians are ripe pickings for jobs in the very companies seeking to privatise our public services further. This gives them an additional incentive to present the already privatised services as a success, giving the operators an easier ride.
(7) This is talked of in greater length here the last two paragraphs.
(8) This tactic was then copied for the British colonial policy.
(9) ‘So no, we are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility.’ David Cameron’s speech at the Tory party conference in 2009.