Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

The Dark Heart of Today’s Conservative Party

Colin Crouch



| 36 mins read

Many Conservatives deny the importance of climate change—or at least sabotage most measures seriously to confront it—while committing themselves to abolishing inheritance taxes, so that they can maintain their estates intact for the future. A future that they are content to see rendered uninhabitable. What is the point of ensuring the wealth of heirs while not caring about the state of the world in which they will have to live? Climate change is not something from which gated communities or even luxury yachts will protect. But, Conservatives’ position is not contradictory, just paradoxical. In explaining the paradox, one encounters one of two core components of the dark heart of contemporary Conservatism: it places finance and profit maximisation as the sole aim of human life—indeed, more important than life itself. Refusing to accept the sacrifices that combatting climate change requires will enhance short-term financial gain; resisting inheritance tax will also enhance short-term financial gain. The behaviour is totally consistent.

The other core component refers to what are usually called ‘culture wars’, though we shall suggest below that this is a misleading euphemism. Conservatism, like all our inherited political ideologies, is losing its social roots as the class and religious structures that constructed twentieth century democratic politics wither under the impact of social change. Searching for new, or revivified, roots, Tories are led to poke their noses into some sinister places. While different in their sources, these two components of early twenty-first century Conservatism are united by a spirit of narrow meanness and callousness.

Some of the characteristics of which I am complaining have long been part of the Conservative Party. It has always preferred tax cuts to social policy and public assets; it has long draped itself with the Union flag. But the postwar Conservative Party also followed in its Labour predecessor’s footsteps by contributing positively to the construction of the welfare state and to decolonisation. It was ahead of the Labour Party, though not the Liberals, in seeing that Britain’s future lay in Europe. Many of its attitudes in the 1950s and 1960s seem from today’s perspectives to have been racist, misogynist or homophobic, but it was not of out of step with most other people on these issues, and it did ostracise blatant racists like Enoch Powell, while a Conservative government facilitated the first measures of homosexual law reform. While Conservatism has always been associated with capital and finance, the Britain over which its postwar governments presided was considerably less unequal than today’s.

One of many examples that could be chosen to illustrate the processes of change concerns universities. When the Macmillan government decided to expand their number, it established a Royal Commission, the Robbins Commission, that engaged in an extensive public debate, resulting in a widespread consensus across the political spectrum and a determination that the new universities would be as well equipped as the established ones. The government retained the University Grants Committee as a buffer between itself and the universities, ensuring no political interference in higher education. When the Thatcher government decided on further expansion, it simply redesignated polytechnics and some other institutions as universities. There was no national debate, and no concern over a rough equality of resources. At the same time, ministers began to make clear their dislike of certain disciplines. (When Sir Keith Joseph was Secretary of State for Education, he ordered the renaming of the Social Science Research Council as the Economic and Social Research Council, the name it retains today, because he believed that the other social sciences were not scientific.) Rishi Sunak’s government’s only interest in university education seems to be that there should be less of it, and to wage culture wars against many of its activities.

A major shift had come, of course, with Margaret Thatcher. Her governments were hostile to the welfare state and turned their backs on liberal reforms in non-economic fields. The period of David Cameron and George Osborne saw an intensification of the drive for more inequality, but a turn to social liberalisation. The brief Johnson period brought confusion: an apparent concern for the country’s geographical inequalities alongside continuing inegalitarian policies; an inheritance of much social liberalism alongside an exploitation of xenophobia. To understand what has been going on, we need to look beneath individual policies and promises of policies to consider the major forces that today carry the party along. It is here, in the two components of contemporary Tory darkness, that we find the key to understanding what has been happening to what is widely regarded as being the world’s oldest political party.

The priority of finance and its implications

To begin with the priority of finance over life: this takes us back to the move from profit maximisation being the main thing in the economy to it being the only thing, which has been one of the main ‘achievements’ of the turn in political and economic life ushered in by the Reagan and Thatcher neoliberal revolution. Its mentality then spread beyond the purely economic to embrace most of political and ethical life too. As such, it has affected most political parties and ideologies, but Conservatism beyond all others. The British Conservative Party has long been associated with banking and the City of London, whose short-term, purely financial pursuits have often been at the expense of investment in the rest of the economy. But, today that sector accounts for a particularly large part of the economy, and globally, the financial system has adopted approaches which lead it not only to ignore, but actively to undermine, other values. The beginning of the problem was an ostensibly technical change that led accountants to value companies, not according to assessments of their substantive business in their core sectors, but to examine only their share prices—an approach known as ‘mark to market’. Management’s focus must be entirely on this datum, or they will be vulnerable to takeover. This produced the now familiar phenomenon of firms having high stock exchange valuations before they have had much—or indeed any—product to sell; the markets take a gamble on their future success. This led in turn to the practice of ‘fake it until you make it’, boasting about what the firm might be able to achieve long before it can have any real confidence that it will do it.

Legally, a company’s sole responsibility is to maximise shareholders’ returns, not to make satisfactory products or have any other possible goals. In a perfect market, a share evaluation will, in the long run, reflect the quality of a firm’s actual products. If you cannot satisfy customers, you won’t make a profit. But, many markets are far from perfect and it is possible to satisfy shareholders without troubling much about customer service. Given the mark to market procedure combined with ‘fake it until you make it’, a firm’s performance can be a series of short terms, without a long-term reckoning with consumers being reached for a very long time. This happened on a global scale when the deregulated financial markets of the 1990s embarked on asset sales based on expectations of how someone might value an asset, in what seemed likely to be an infinite regress totally divorced from any evaluation of the assets as such. Here, the long run did eventually catch up with the system, in the crash of 2008 that nearly destroyed the world economy. A wave of re-regulation followed. Soon afterwards, however, most of the practices involved had started up again, very few of the culprits suffered, and the UK government now promises a return to more deregulation as one of its Brexit achievements.

Two aspects of this behaviour have carried over into Conservative politics, a large proportion of whose practitioners come from the financial sector. The more subtle of the two is the political equivalent of ‘fake it until you make it’; ideally, a constantly reiterated short term might mean you never need to make it at all. In politics, this takes the form of frequent announcements of policies that will never actually be adopted. I shall build forty hospitals! I have an oven-ready Brexit! I have a fully worked out plan for social care! I shall improve the NHS like no other government has ever done! We are asking pension funds if they might invest in national infrastructure! An announcement is a dramatic moment that attracts massive attention; discovery that the things announced never actually happened leaks out slowly and inconspicuously as a few journalists ferret around. Fake it confidently enough and you never need to make it.

But, it is the cruder carry-over from modern financial markets that does most damage. Recent history has shown that the sharpest, most ruthless business practices, sailing closest to the wind of illegality, bring the biggest rewards. Nothing must get in the way of that bottom line of corporate profitability. In politics this translates into dropping constraints on the exercise of power. Environmental policies that will impose burdens of the electorate’s behaviour have to go, however ardently they were promised. So also must codes of conduct that inhibit politicians’ actions. Government starts to treat respect for the law as does a sharp financial speculator. Informal norms and constitutional practices that have long guided, but also restrained, political action must be cast off like any encumbrance that might inhibit a firm’s profit maximisation. Until recently, if political observers hostile to the Conservative Party were asked ‘what have the Tories done for us?’, they would be likely to have responded that Tories understood the importance of the rule of law and especially of informal constitutional practices. No longer. They now take pride in being those most willing to ride roughshod over both.

The subordination of everything to overwhelming single goals then spreads to specific policy areas. To take a leading example, education is stripped down to what it is believed will contribute most to economic growth: what can be jettisoned from the curriculum in order to concentrate on the most economically relevant disciplines? How can students be persuaded to follow those courses that will bring most financial reward? And so, music, art, European languages and much else are marginalised and teachers incentivised to neglect them, while their students must engage in ever more intense competition for the glittering prizes defined in solely monetary terms. The idea that education does not just provide marketable skills, but can equip young people with a capacity to enjoy a cultural inheritance that will enrich the rest of their lives has virtually disappeared from public perception. So too has the idea that education might be a creative enjoyable process in which young people are taught how to think independently and critically. Conservatives want a population that has learned through punitive school regimes how to obey, not to think. (The same does not apply to the private schools that Conservative leaders’ own children will attend, as they will be above the ferocious competitive struggle.)

By the same token, all activities must have analogues for market behaviour. Hence the controversial policy that Ofsted should grade schools with a single word. Goods in the shops all display a simple price, which according to excessively elementary economics is what principally guides customers in their choices.

The most ruthless business operators will further maximise profits by cutting back on all back-up operations, all preparations for a rainy day, such as staff on call in case colleagues are sick, back-up computer capacity in case of technological faults. Maybe the rainy day won’t happen, they argue; and if it does, we can blag our way through it. It usually does rain; for example, staff sickness and technology failures almost routinely cause massive summer disruption at airports. Passengers get angry and the airlines are embarrassed for a while, but their business will not suffer long-term reputational damage, as they are not operating in perfect markets and customers usually have nowhere else to go. Transferring this way of thinking to public policy: why prepare for the effects on a health service of a possible pandemic? Why store energy that is not needed on a routine basis for a crisis that might never come? Better, in the context of imposing general austerity on public services, to concentrate on frontline services, weaknesses in which will make today’s headlines, and neglect potential disasters, which, even if they do happen, will probably do so only after a future general election.

Tory governments are well prepared for this high-risk approach by that relatively low priority that they place on human life, revealed by their greater concern for abolishing inheritance taxes than for ensuring that their children have a planet worth inheriting. They will always wholeheartedly support spending on the military, but may prevaricate over spending on the health service. Cuts in public spending, especially general austerity measures, will, unless very sensitively conducted, always push the poorest people further down the ladder of survival, ultimately causing an increase in death, especially infant mortality. Too bad. Health and dietary education that will save lives if people can be persuaded to resist disastrous modern eating habits, is ridiculed as the ‘nanny state’. Tories will often speak proudly of the ‘buccaneer’ spirit; one of the gains of Brexit is supposed to be an unleashing of that spirit, that had allegedly been hemmed in by EU regulation. The original buccaneers were a particularly ruthless set of pirates—murderers, torturers, rapists, thieves who terrorised the Mediterranean. That these are a role model for today’s Tories tells us much.

That this is all a characteristic unpleasantness of what Theresa May once famously called ‘the nasty party’ is widely understood. A more surprising casualty of this overall approach is that it undermines creativity and innovation, the very things that Conservatives boast to be their very own. If we think we know in advance what skills an economy will need, we shall not provide that wide range of potential abilities that true entrepreneurs will one day bring together in surprising ways. The narrow search for maximisation excludes the possibility of surprises. Policy makers are, for example, convinced that innovation will flow from permitting the immigration of very wealthy technology entrepreneurs from the Far East. The fact that considerable entrepreneurial benefits flow from immigrants from unfashionable parts of the world bringing new foods and fashion design is disregarded, because it is not part of a preconception about the sources of innovation. It is also not about very wealthy people.

The risk-taking in which today’s financial sectors engage is a matter of seeing what one can get away with in relation to rules, shorting shares, trading in the dark pools of the financial system. All this can be very creative, but within the very narrow bounds of a financial sector that is just about itself. It does not involve a search for true creativity in the substantive economy. Providing for the latter requires permitting a wide diversity of activities from which some new things might flow; and that requires the risk of waste. There are, of course, types of financial entrepreneur—many venture capitalists and business angels—who engage in precisely that activity. But it is not their form of capitalism that informs contemporary political practice.

The search for exclusion targets

British Tories used to pride themselves on their pragmatism and willingness to adapt to changing circumstances, contrasting themselves favourably with socialists who followed a blinkered ideology. But today it is Conservatives who wear the blinkers, following the narrow ideology of the financial markets and its political analogues. Narrowness, then, has further implications. I said above that, in the general search of generally weakening parties for new identities with which they might try to associate themselves, Conservatives are looking into some dark places. Narrow-mindedness and an absence of human concern are the themes that characterise virtually all these places. The common thread that binds them together is a search for types of people who can be excluded from various good things of life, so that those who remain might have more. Rich and poor can unite in finding some groups who can be prevented from sharing in those good things, so that their own existing share, big or small, can be protected. The most obvious candidates for exclusion are immigrants, some ethnic minorities, mothers of three or more children who cannot manage without social benefits, and other small groups who can be easily identified as different from the rest of us. Another, far larger, group of candidates are all today’s young people and their eventual children, whose need for an inhabitable planet that older people will not share (as we shall be dead) competes with our current consumption.

To describe current Conservative approaches to migration, climate change and several other issues is to identify some very unpleasant characteristics. Few people outside the ranks of the extremely cynical like to see those characteristics staring back at them when they look in the mirror. We like to present ourselves, even to our own selves, as decent, warm-hearted people, especially perhaps when we are choosing to act the opposite. There was recently much surprise when no-one in a predominantly Tory-supporting audience for the BBC’s Question Time was willing to put up their hand to say they supported the government’s policy of sending unregistered refugees to Rwanda. There was similar surprise when Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, ordered the removal of murals designed to cheer up a child refugee reception centre, on the grounds that they made it too welcoming. The surprise was partly that someone could possibly act in such a way, but partly that he did not do it with a flourish of publicity. Surely, if the gesture was designed to please voters (it was hardly designed to send a deterrent message to potential asylum seekers), why not trumpet it? A similar bewilderment was often expressed during Thatcher’s governments, when opinion polls would often report that majorities of citizens cared about health, education and the problems of the poor; citizens who would then vote to make all these things worse. These apparent contradictions are again paradoxes, resolved by perceiving the sometimes massive difference between how we want to be seen (even by ourselves) and how we really want to be.

Appeals to racism, misogyny, callousness towards the unfortunate usually have to take the form of ‘dog whistles’, audible to those who want to hear, but not stated openly. Both utterers of the whistles and their eager recipients can deny that there was any sound at all. Recipients might rejoice in various acts of callousness, but they do not want to be seen to be doing so. Something inside most of us tells us that we ought to be good, even if our interests seem to be better served by being bad. Conservatives have perceived that there are gains to be made by appealing subtly to the bad, a terra incognita for most political parties in the Western world ever since the fall of fascism. They are not alone in this. They have company in Donald Trump’s Republican Party and resurgent populist parties across the world’s democracies. The targets of the animosity being invoked remain fragmented and obscure, partly because they must largely be accessed by the dog whistle. One way to achieve this is by using words like ‘blob’ and ‘woke’, vague enough to be filled with whatever content recipients of the message choose, without being spelt out. Another is, before inviting people to share a policy that in their heart of hearts they know to be callous, to reassure them that the British people are generous, warm-hearted and welcoming; indeed, world beaters at such qualities. But… enough is enough; their patience is being tried too far.

A further way round the problem is to focus on the nation, its rights and especially its grievances. Nationality is an identity that we all share; it is the focus of many sports; all politicians have to pay deference to it, since it their explicit task to work for the nation. It therefore readily becomes a political identity of some force, provided it can identify some groups who can be excluded from our country in the interests of our own greater good. Foreigners, foreign countries, international organisations (like the EU or the European Court of Human Rights) have to be regarded as enemies. There remains the problem of nationalism that all parties can potentially lay claim to represent it; there is no natural monopoly in national pride. However, by burrowing down into nationalism’s darker recesses, a party can reach the places where others would prefer not to follow. That is what Brexit and the cultivation of hostility to migrants and minorities are all about. And, more generally, all this is what is usefully covered over by the idea of culture wars. They are wars between generosity and meanness, between human kindness and a narrow concern for financial gain, between caring about the planet on which our descendants must live against shrugging our shoulders at their plight. These are not culture wars, but wars between good and evil.

Appealing to voters’ worst characteristics carries the risk that, even when disguised by dog whistles, there will revulsion on the part of that good self that resides in most people’s souls. This is where Conservatives’ current weird inversion of ideas of an ‘establishment’ and the identity of its challengers enters the fray. How can it be that a group of very wealthy, elite-educated politicians, supported by extremely rich press magnates and other wealthy persons and groups can present themselves as the outsider challengers to a so-called elite comprising a few journalists, lawyers and sports celebrities? It becomes plausible if we remember the internal struggle between the good and the bad in all of us. Our good selves were put there by parents, teachers, perhaps ministers of religion and further significant others. Being good requires unselfishness and a willingness to share—the values at the heart of the welfare state, as well as most private charities. The elite establishment against which we are invited to rebel is within ourselves, a kind of super-ego. Boris Johnson was so ideally suited to the role of encouraging us to throw off all internal moral restraint that one can understand why nostalgia for him remains so strong in many Tory breasts. Rishi Sunak is merely ethically uninterested; far less exciting.

But surely, the Johnsonian personality’s devil-may-care optimism does not sit well with my characterisation of contemporary Conservatism as narrowly mean? This is yet another paradox. The point is that Johnsonian wildness and the practice of testing the boundaries of acceptability are used to validate mean-spiritedness and a narrow conception of self-interest, not the joyfulness of generosity. And this, in turn, is all of a piece with austerity in public services and a narrowing of education and true creativity. Paradoxes are politically very useful things, the essence of having one’s cake and eating it.

Responding to Conservative darkness

But, one might object, this account of the successful dark cunning of the Tory Party hardly squares with the daily reality of a government lost in incompetence, division and unpopularity. Certainly, no strategy is risk free. The irresponsible, rule-defying behaviour of the world’s leading banks eventually met its fate in 2008. Yes, but after a bit of tightening of regulation, much of which they were able to lobby away in subsequent years, they remounted and resumed many of their previous practices. The Conservatives might lose the next election, but will this be because of widespread revulsion against the moral paths they have been taking, or just a judgement on their practical incompetence? If it can be interpreted as the latter, they will have every incentive in future to return to dark ways, honing them further. This raises the question of how Conservatives’ opponents should respond. There are three potential solutions to the issue.

First is precisely to allow elections to become ideology-free contests between rival managerial teams. This is more or less the direction in which New Labour might have eventually been heading, and which must be very tempting for a party opposing the mess of contemporary Conservatism. It has two weaknesses. First, it implies that one party can sustain a long-term claim to superior managerial competence over others, which is not plausible. Second, this approach works only if all major parties are in the same position, having lost an old core vote and failing to find a new one. To the extent that parties retain a core, they have banked assets within the electorate before they start competing on competence. What has actually happened is that both Conservatives and Labour have retained increasingly unenthusiastic bases of support among a white collar salariat and a declining ex-industrial working class with so few prospects for itself that all its traditional party can offer it is a way out of it for the next generation. Conservatives are in a better position here, as they issue an invitation, provided taxes are low enough, to join the middle-class world of which they are the recognised custodians. If they can add to that initial advantage a monopoly over the dark places, especially an aggressive form of nationalism, their long-term prospects are not so bad if their opponents fight only on issues of managerial competence.

A logical second possibility is therefore to compete with Conservatives in flag-waving nationalism, but to combine this with strong support for the welfare state rather than neoliberal austerity. One might mischievously call this national socialism. It is in part what Boris Johnson stood for, if he can be seen as having stood for anything. There are signs that the Labour Party and some of its sister parties, particularly the Danish social democrats, are playing with this possibility. It runs two risks. First, it means following Tories in the search for the evil part of citizens’ hearts, a part which repels many other voters. Second, it means constantly playing away from home. Narrow nationalism and xenophobia are the home territory of the right. They can always move further in that direction than their opponents and, while doing so, they constantly shift the centre of political gravity towards themselves. We have already seen many steps in that direction around the world. Conservatives in Sweden, Finland, Italy and Spain have already shown a willingness to collaborate with neo-Nazi and neo-fascist parties rather than with social democrats. It could easily get much worse.

The logical third possibility is for Conservatism’s opponents to search for the good parts of voters’ hearts and appeal to those. How naïve is that? It is what Neil Kinnock tried to do against Thatcher, appealing always to a sense of compassion, and it failed. It is essentially calling on voters to go without some personal gratification in order to help collective services like health and education, or the poor, or the future of the planet. Appealing to the good in all of us is a tough call. That probably explains why Labour governments have usually settled for doing good by stealth, pursuing decent, humane policies, but not shouting about them, not trying to gather positive and deeply felt support for them. Much good work has been done in this way, but the slow, hard task of successfully appealing to voters’ better selves is thereby constantly postponed. In addition, working by stealth leads to accusations of duplicity, of doing things behind voters’ backs.

Much here depends on the times. Voters are more likely to vote for generosity and other-regardingness when they feel optimistic and good about themselves; not when they feel hemmed in by competitive pressures that lead them to welcome a search for candidates for exclusion. If Labour wins the next election, it is likely to inherit—and need somehow to appeal to—a morose population preferring, even if secretly, to be mean and callous in order to keep hold of what it has, rather than be open-hearted.

Many voters will be cynical about whatever political parties promise to do, whether because they have imbibed the contemporary Conservative morality, or because they are reacting against it. The challenge will be, this time, to stick to the managerial criticism, while strenuously avoiding following the Tories into those dark places, patiently biding time with a minimal reform programme, and probably doing good mainly by stealth. But, it must then start preparing the country positively and creatively for the social ambitions that a confident and optimistic people would one day want to embrace.

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    Colin Crouch

    Colin Crouch is a past editor, and past chair of the board, of The Political Quarterly. His most recent book is: Post-Democracy after the Crises (Polity Press, 2020).

    Articles by Colin Crouch