The Lion and the Unicorn: Conservatism and the English genius

The title is, as some of you will know, a parody of Orwell’s 1941 essay in which he heavily criticised fellow socialists but celebrated the country they all lived in. This piece seeks to echo the same self-reflection through the indictment of the modern Conservative party, especially in light of the election.

It was an election where the Conservative Party won but Theresa May lost, where the Labour Party lost but Jeremy Corbyn won. Expectations were so inflated for May and so depressed for Corbyn that the former could never have been as good as she was built up to be and the latter as bad as he was ridiculed for being. We were warned of Mrs May’s stiff personality in her pitch for the leadership of the Conservative Party last year, yet she unfailingly drew attention to the spiritless personality battle she waged during the campaign. As a lifelong rabble-rouser but perfectly pleasant chap, Mr Corbyn was well placed to absorb what one Tory MP called “US attack-dog style politics”.

The British people generally warm to the underdog, perhaps because we, as a nation, punch above our weight – a David and Goliath story excites the best in us. Add to that Labour’s Christmas wish list of a manifesto, and the shriek of “fully costed” rivalled in hollowness and mind-numbing repetition only by Mrs May’s “strong and stable”, and you begin to see why so many voters defied the early polls.

To dip briefly into some closer analysis of the numbers, both parties gained quite an extraordinary share of the vote with the Conservatives taking their largest share since 1983, 42%, and Labour improving their share by the largest margin between two elections since 1945 (10%, giving them an overall 40%). Some of the factors determining the swing constituencies were the youth vote which increased by 20% from 2015; over 1/3 of UKIP supporters did not vote Conservative as predicted, and whilst the Leave vote meant a swing towards the Tories, it did not translate into seats, unlike the Remain vote swing towards Labour and Lib Dem which did translate into seats.

Personally, this election produced two overwhelmingly positive outcomes. The first, unionism looks stronger than it has done in the last few years as the SNP won one seat but lost twenty. Their ex-leader, Alex Salmond, and leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, lost their seats whilst several others hung on by the slimmest of majorities like their European spokesman, Stephen Gethins, who won by two votes. Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives rustled up a 13% increase in their vote share, even more remarkable than Labour’s 12% rise in Wales, and whilst both the DUP and Sinn Fein gained seats, the DUP can expect to have greater influence in Westminster with their Unionist allies in government. A second Scottish independence referendum in the immediate future is out of the question and hopefully closer political ties will reflect greater social ties with Northern Ireland, ushering in a more united United Kingdom.

The second positive I can find is the collapse of the minor parties and emboldening of the traditional, adversarial, two party parliamentary system elected through first past the post. Together, the Conservatives and Labour won 597 seats, the highest since 1997, with the Greens, Lib Dems, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru all losing votes. The Greens lost 466 deposits, UKIP dropped from 13% to 2% of the vote share and the Lib Dems are clinging on by their appeal to ardent Europhiles.

Our two party parliamentary system organically formed around the Exclusion Crisis of the seventeenth century but long before the Whigs and Tories materialised the opposing choir stalls of Westminster had always lent themselves to the adversarial system that has been sustained down the centuries with only brief periods of a rising third party. The two parties have generally been separated by those with an instinct to preserve and those with an instinct to reform and “between them has always been a great mass, which has not steadfastly adhered to either.” In Macaulay’s mind, as in mine, strong government and strong opposition relies on this informal parliamentary constitution and long may it continue.

When I tell people I did not vote in the election I am greeted either with silent rebuke or puzzled questioning, but always furrowed brows which furrow further when I reveal I didn’t vote because the Conservatives are not conservative. But, they cry, what about austerity…lower taxes…the nasty party…the free market…university fees…their name…as if any of these things were tenets of conservatism; they are as conservative as Labour’s manifesto was “fully costed”.

Up until the 1970s when the trans-Atlantic right adopted Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom as its bible, the British Conservative Party was a party of institutions. It stood for the monarchy, the Church of England, the Union, the Empire, our ancient universities, our culture, heritage and traditions. It was the national party of England and the natural governing party of the United Kingdom. It was the party of the constitution, of law and order, and, if it did have an ideology, anti-socialism. It was the philosophy of Burke and Coleridge, of Pitt and Peel, of the unbought grace of life and the spirit of an exalted freedom. These are things I could proudly walk alongside and profoundly agree, yet they are the same things with which the present Conservative Party is bereft.

To take up one issue pressed upon our minds from recent events, policing, the Conservative position seems to be entirely driven by a desire to reduce costs and readjust the police force to cybercrime. Little to no thought is publically aired towards the original intention of Sir Robert Peel’s “Bobbies”. Peel proclaimed “the police are the public and the public are the police”; officers should come from the communities they served, giving them the advantage of knowing most of the people they would deal with. They’d patrol their patch not only to deter crime as the public face of law and order, but to provide a level of security to the local community. In modern, highly urbanised areas this is perhaps more of an idealised end than a realistic means, particularly following the mad project of mass immigration which will have changed communities at such a pace no bobby-on-the-beat could possibly keep up, but abandoning the project altogether seems equally mad. Perhaps if we spent less on the comprehensive yet futile arming of our officers with all sorts of weapons they don’t need, we could afford the old, community police force.

More broadly, the campaign showed just how pitiful the Conservative Party has become. It lacks a solid grounding from which to draw a coherent riposte to the most basic challenge of socialism. Faith, flag and family are a whisper of their former influence on the Party despite being quite popular outside our capital. The leadership was lifeless, the manifesto as endearing as a warm lager at the height of summer and the vision anything but positive. The Conservatives may have won the election but they failed to engage the natural conservatism of the British people. This instinct to preserve has slipped into indifference and the remission of real conservatism at the top can only widen the Party’s flank to full-blooded socialism which, given the opportunity, will win the next election.


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