Joyce McMillan: Are the Tories imploding over Brexit?

Back in a different world, in April last year, I wrote a column about the difficult questions posed for then-prime minister David Cameron, and his chancellor George Osborne, by the decision of Tata Steel to sell off its entire UK operation.
George Osborne visits Tata Steel  which put UK operations up for sale. Picture; GettyGeorge Osborne visits Tata Steel  which put UK operations up for sale. Picture; Getty
George Osborne visits Tata Steel which put UK operations up for sale. Picture; Getty

To the right of them, they faced the free market ideologues of post-Thatcher Toryism, who view state intervention to save threatened industries with scorn. Even further to the right, with Boris Johnson in the lead, they faced the voice of 21st century Conservative nationalism, bent on blaming the Chinese and the European Union for all of Britain’s steel-making woes, and protecting British industry from their wicked foreign schemes.

And at the end of the piece, I reflected that it was beginning to look as if the kind of establishment Conservatism represented by Cameron and Osborne might soon be ground very small indeed by the big wheels of history, and replaced by a brand of Toryism that I thought might be “rowdier and more ruthless in its rhetoric, better able to channel the anger of ordinary voters, and willing to ramp up the patriotic and nationalist rhetoric to what may be a tipping-point”.

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I had no way of knowing, of course, that that tipping-point would come so soon (on the morning after the Brexit referendum), or that the wafer-thin Leave majority achieved that night would be read by so many senior Tories as giving some kind of moral authority both to the party’s extreme retro-nationalists – the ones who sang the Dambusters’ March as they voted for Article 50, and who now talk of digging for victory – and to those others in the Tory Party (let’s call them the wide-boy financier tendency) who now share the perspective of a global casino capitalism that revels in any massive disruptive change, so long as market bets can be laid each way on its outcomes.

It’s not for nothing, of course, that the Conservative Party is often described as the “great survivor” of British politics. Officially founded in 1834, but with roots in the old Tory movement that go back another 150 years, the party has always been the standard-bearer of the British right, usually in its more moderate forms. It has been through many incarnations as it pursues that centre-right place on the British political spectrum through changing times.

In the post-war years, it adopted a kind of welfare statism that was almost Corbynite by 21st century standards, with 1950s prime minister Harold McMillan boasting of his huge council house building programme. In the 1970s and 80s, under Margaret Thatcher, it switched to a more radical neoliberal stance, inviting both British citizens and international capital to buy up what a mildly appalled McMillan, in a late interview, called “the family silver” of Britain’s public assets.

Always, though, the party has seemed to combine the twin attributes of being friendly to the business community and attached to the traditional conservative values of family and country – always, that is, until this strange and tumultuous moment, when those sections of the business community still involved in providing goods and services seem to be looking on appalled at the mounting evidence both of the huge economic damage Brexit will inflict, and of the government’s apparent political inability to cut a sensible deal with Brussels. This week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development offered its frank opinion that by far the best bet for the British economy is to stop and reverse the Brexit process, which has already slashed the value of the pound and is now raising urgent questions about the likely terms of trade after March 2019.

Yet at the same time, the pro-Brexit elements in the Conservative Party seem ever more aggressively bullish, constantly pressing a “no deal” agenda in which Britain not only makes a complete exit from the EU single market and customs union (itself considered an extreme position until a few months ago) but also walks away from the EU with no deal at all, the better to sail its imperial gunboat through the open waters of global trade – although I am not aware of any serious body in the field of economics or trade which argues that this is really a good idea.

And among all the many possible consequences of this impasse, it seems to me that one could be the final collapse of the old alliance between patriots, financiers and practical people of business that has held the Conservative Party together for at least 180 years, and by some measures for more than three centuries. The kind of backward-looking fantasy nationalism now being offered by ardent Tory Brexiteers is clearly damaging to the real interests of Britain’s economy and people, not only in the short term, but for a generation to come.

It has also been rejected at the ballot box by the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland, creating massive new tensions within the Union which will, in turn, pose profound questions for Scotland’s Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, about whether this is a political direction she can seriously follow. Nor does she seem likely to receive much help in making that decision from her new cadre of Scottish Tory MPs, whose collective silence on the key issue of the hour is deafening.

Back in the 1980s, Thatcher – the Churchill-loving grocer’s daughter with a passion for deregulation – made a brilliant job of holding the Tory movement together, disguising its contradictions, or pulling back, in highly pragmatic style, when they threatened to become too obvious. Now, though, we have only poor, embattled Theresa May, stuck with the near-impossible Brexit job of holding these imploding tendencies together.

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And although it would be a brave pundit who would ever predict the final demise of the Tories, I think the moment is approaching when the bulk of the party will have to decide between the pragmatic economic path and the emotive, disruptive retro-nationalist one; and face the risk of schism that will come with that momentous decision.