Boris Johnson is not a true conservative in the style of either One Nation Tory Benjamin Disraeli or Margaret Thatcher – Alastair Stewart
He is resolute that the party's politicians are evil and its members are sycophantic hagiographers. Boris Johnson and co could cure every disease going, and they'd still be vilified.
What's frustrating is he won't acknowledge the number of Conservatives who do not recognise their party. That is to say, many who feel the Conservatives are not conservative.
This isn't a new problem, but it is an acute one these days. Like Theresa May and David Cameron, Boris Johnson repeatedly claimed he would form a "One-Nation" conservative government.
One Nation conservatism might be called (to borrow from Ted Heath) the acceptable face of the Conservative Party. It belongs to the small (c) tradition – conservatives hold that you cannot know everything and institutions, organisations and professional fields are better left to those who specialise in them than politicians. They accept there should be a social safety net but are sceptical of mindless social tinkering and targets – policies must be defensible using public reason.
Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was the first to transform the philosophy into an election-winning credo. In his view, the role of politics was to transcend class stratifications (while accepting they could never be eradicated). One Nation conservatism emphasises paternalistic obligations to bring about prosperity, the cohesion of the country and a sense of shared nationhood for everyone.
It is hard to see the last ten years as an epoch of true conservatism. Gambling on referenda (even discarding the economic and political chaos that followed) is not good governance. The condescending tone toward the democratic mandate of the SNP does no foster a collective sense of Britishness. Talk of "Global Britain" while cutting international aid is not moralpolitik.
Disraeli was a skilful politician. Cynics who say his philosophy was to advance his own interests and find new relevance for the Tories would be correct. Disraeli was responding to the Industrial Revolution and the political crises of the 1840s. The upheaval of industrialisation opened a gulf between the "Two Nations" of the rich and the poor. He needed to find a relevance for the Conservatives in contrast to the Free Trade campaign and the rise of an urban elite liberal in its political sympathies.
Any real One Nation conservative, and any genuine Thatcherite interested in long-term stability, would be horrified by the militant zeal of the ‘Brexit or die’ mentality. They would be appalled by the government's hostile environment toward EU citizens; the implacability toward the SNP's mandate; the cut to international aid; the cut to Universal Credit; the casual cruelty toward migrant crossings; the inhumane asides about Covid-19 deaths; and the opt-outs of human rights protections. They would also be appalled by the endless accusations of corruption and sense that this is a government of favours.
Johnson is no Thatcherite, either. That's a lazy, binary equation. The former premier framed her style, substance, and argument as antithetical to her party's 'wets'. She wanted to supplant the One Nation, post-war consensus with Thatcherism, monetarism and the New Right. But that does not mean that today the opposite of Tory wet is a Thatcherite. One Nation conservatism and Thatcherism are decidedly less ideological, nationalistic and jingoistic than current government policy.
Disraeli did not actually say the phrase for which he is remembered. Instead, it was taken from his concern about the two, split industrial worlds in his roman à thèse, Sybil (1845). It was Stanley Baldwin in 1924 who said that the Unionist Party, as it was then called, should “stand for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke two generations ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people”.
To candidly reflect on Boris Johnson's conservative and One Nation credentials, we should ask two questions: who do his policies genuinely benefit? Do his politics lend themselves towards a unifying consensus uniting the different interests, nations and strata of society?
No peacetime prime ministers have ever volunteered the British people for domestic and international disruption on the same scale as Johnson. Cameron, and even May, were fire starters and torchbearers, but there is ugly, nasty nationalism to Johnson.
Johnson's 'ism' in history will not be conservatism but parochialism. We might define his administration as a government or leader unrelentingly committed to their aims and flat-out denying opposing views and the dangers involved. Said government or leader excuses failure and dismisses contradictions as being unpatriotic and ignorant. It is a raging, gawdy populism that can be forgiven by some because of its ridiculousness and foppish leader.
As an addendum, we might add that the scandals are less the issue than the cognitive dissonance that goes with it. Gaslighting is another word. George Orwell's Ministry of Truth in '1984' physically alters and deletes history; this twists minds. Did Boris Johnson not stand next to a big red bus during the Brexit referendum promising £350 million more a week for the NHS if we voted Leave?
'One-nation conservatism', 'Tory democracy', 'paternalism' and 'progressive conservatism' are some of many names for politics that place a premium on the duty of citizens, particularly the wealthiest and most powerful, to helping those less fortunate.
The philosopher Michael Oakeshott said that “to be conservative… is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”.
Even the most ardent Conservative has to admit the Prime Minister is no conservative. Certainly, his policies and politics do not reflect this. He chases pipe dreams and wages war on facts. That is not a One Nation conservative.
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