Today's Tory party is no longer truly conservative, as it trashes the UK's institutions and spouts foul rhetoric about refugees – Stewart McDonald
Edmund Burke was the grandfather of conservative philosophy, sure in his promotion of the natural rights of the individual, the concept of moral virtues and the belief, as formulated by Gustav Mahler, that “tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire”. Forty years after Margaret Thatcher first came to power, what fire worth preserving burns in Britain today? The Conservative party, during their time in government, have slowly tugged at the threads – the NHS, a free press, the rule of law – that not only made this country a good place to live, but which represented Burke’s contract between past and future generations.
Today, the conditions which provide a social base for conservativism have been driven out of existence by the party, which increasingly resembles more a death cult than a political organisation. Without them, citizens are reduced to a struggle to improve our own conditions in the here and now before we can even begin to think about future generations.
This problem is not unique to the United Kingdom. Modern developed economies, wrote the French economist Thomas Piketty, are increasingly defined by yawning inequality, rentier capitalism and markets distorted by corruption (or cronyism, if you’re British). They are societies, he argues, where “the past is devouring the future”.
I have touched on this previously, but it cannot be said enough: there is something deeply broken in a capitalist economy where young people cannot actually accrue capital, because they spend their productive years transferring half their income to pensioners with a portfolio of mortgage-free homes bought for one-twentieth of their current value.
This predilection for rentier capitalism, however, is not new to the Conservative party. A prescient observer of 19th-century English politics – one K Marx – wryly noted in 1852 that “the Tories in England had long imagined that they were enthusiastic about the monarchy, the church and beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent”.
And what do the modern Tories say about these English institutions? The Church of England – once known as the Tory party at prayer – is now pilloried as an institution led by “unelected bishops” who should stop “preaching” about refugees, according to Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Jonathan Gullis. The BBC? A “mortal enemy” of the Conservatives, according to Dominic Cummings, while the NHS, wrote Liz Truss and her chums in a 2010 pamphlet, should be replaced by a health service where “two-thirds of hospitals are run privately or not-for-profit”.
The same party has smeared the Bank of England as a member of the anti-growth coalition and the UK’s world-leading universities as institutions stuffed to the rafters with snowflakes and the tofu-eating wokerati. Boris Johnson accused the courts of launching “a constitutional coup” when they dared to remind the Prime Minister of the limits of his power.
In Westminster itself, Johnson illegally prorogued the UK Parliament and showed himself more willing to reduce the Houses of Parliament to rubble if it would save his career. Perhaps worse than that, too many of his colleagues showed that they were only too happy to help. And now, with Gary Lineker painted as the latest “enemy of the people”, one has to wonder at the psychic damage wrought on members of the governing party who see enemies, saboteurs and fifth columnists lurking around every gloomy corner.
How radicalised must a Home Secretary become – or party staff working on her behalf think she has become – to denounce hard-working officials as an “activist blob… of civil servants”? What kind of Prime Minster boasts that the United Kingdom will soon be able to deport victims of slavery? They have drunk so deeply from their own poisoned well that, in their desperation to cling to power, the modern Conservative party has abandoned any pretence of being conservative. Other transformations, however, are more worrying.
Rishi Sunak was a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University, as comfortable in Silicon Valley as in his hometown of Southampton. His father was a GP and his sister has spent her career in international development delivering humanitarian assistance to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. But he – like all those who cheered on Johnson – knows that the Conservatives’ days in power are numbered because their greed, short-sightedness and selfishness have created a country where more citizens demand change than conservation.
And so, in a desperate bid to cling on to power, Sunak is increasingly turning to harder and crueller rhetoric around some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. I cannot bring myself to believe that Sunak himself is a true believer in his increasingly foul policy announcements. Instead, I worry that, like the sorcerer who loses control of the dark powers he has called up from the netherworld, Sunak has not fully reckoned with the path his government’s anti-refugee rhetoric sets this country on.
Sunak, in his weakness and cowardice, will continue to ratchet up the cruelty towards refugees because he has nothing else to offer. His announcement was horrific but – until decent conservatives start to rebuke what is being done in their name – it will not be the last.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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