| 8 mins read
I have borrowed the idea of ‘unpolitics’ from the work of my colleague and populism expert, Paul Taggart. Populism combines fetishisation of ‘the people’ and demonisation of ‘elites’ with hostility to representative politics. Unpolitics reminds us that these are connected: it’s not just that these particular elites are corrupt, but that politics itself is corrupting. While unpolitical actors are not apolitical, they substitute political arguments (about values, principles, interests) for religious, martial, and conspiracist tropes. This seems a useful way of understanding what Taggart calls populism’s ‘fundamental ambivalence about politics itself’.
Yet, ambivalence towards politics is not limited to populist actors; indeed, ‘unpolitics’ might be considered intrinsic to British political culture – not least within Conservatism.
Conservatism and unpolitics
It might seem preposterous to assert that the Conservative Party is unpolitical. It is the longest-standing and most electorally successful parliamentary party, deeply embedded in the structures of representative liberal democracy. And yet, not only do its origins lie in the desire to defend against politics, but (until the 1970s) it tended to do so in ways that avoided political modes of argument –values, principles, or interests -- and rested instead on spiritual assurances. The claim to be ‘above’ politics, or to be representing the ‘public’ or ‘national’ interest over party or ideology is often heard on all sides across the political spectrum. But the unpolitical nature of Conservatism runs much deeper.
Conservative thinkers have repeated time and again that Conservative politics are not really politics at all, but simply a way of being. In canonical Conservative texts, political activity was depicted as benign, necessary, but also a distraction from the things that truly matter. Quintin Hogg’s assertion that ‘Conservatives do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life … The simplest among them prefer fox-hunting—the wisest religion’ was more than a pithy aphorism. It reflects a central element of Conservative self-perception. While we do not have to take it at face value, we should take it seriously as an article of belief.
In place of politics, Conservatives often turned to the kinds of religious, martial, and conspiracist tropes Taggart describes. Throughout the inter-war period and into the post-war years, these were explicitly invoked to defend against political consciousness – which was depicted as a bodily and spiritual danger to young people, liable to introduce ‘acutely uncomfortable doubts and questionings’. Another way to put this is that the very nature of politics—competition over ideas, values, interests—threatened to make visible the contingency of hierarchical power structures which would otherwise seem natural and eternal.
I am not trying to suggest that Conservatism was not political. Of course it was. Neither am I claiming that it was populist. Its elitism and commitment to state power precluded that. Instead, I am arguing that unpolitics is not necessarily at odds with the political establishment, and indeed, that the one reinforces the other. We have long known that Conservative values are able to seem unpolitical precisely because they are dominant. The lens of unpolitics raises the possibility that this relationship also works in reverse: these values were able to become dominant because they were transmitted in unpolitical ways—as something felt rather than thought.
Ordinariness as non-political
Where populist unpolitics challenges existing authority, Conservative unpolitics reinforced it. This worked so long as deference and hierarchy could seem natural and unpolitical, but came under challenge in the post-war years when ‘ordinary’ people’s lived experience gained its own political legitimacy. I would suggest, though, that this might be understood as a new form of unpolitics, which was similarly based on experience and feeling, and explicitly pitched against ‘political’ commitments.
It is notable that over the later twentieth-century, citizens engaged in demonstrably ‘political’ activities – from NGOs to industrial action – often positioned themselves as explicitly non-political. In doing so, they further reinforced the idea that politics, understood as the representation of interests, was inherently corrupting. This is not populist. It does not draw on tropes of religion, war, or conspiracy, or see these as more appealing modes of conflict resolution. But I want to stick with the concept of ‘unpolitics’ because it helps us to grasp the ambivalence these citizens expressed about themselves as political actors. It also prompts us to think about how ‘the people’ or ‘ordinary people’, have been conceived in ways that are not only not political but are explicitly opposed to political norms, practices, and forms of legitimacy.
Populism and unsettlement
Neither the Conservative unpolitics nor the ‘ordinary’ unpolitics I have already described were populist. They did not challenge the structures of representative politics, or aim to overthrow the ‘elites’. Yet, I want to finish by considering a form of unpolitics that grew out of both these existing strands, and which does have far more populist tendencies.
One of the defining characteristic of populism, as Taggart describes it, is that it ‘seeks unsettlement’. He looks to the ‘silent majority’ politics of the 1970s and 1980s as an example of this unsettlement, as unpolitical people were activated by a sense of crisis to mobilise against the establishment. But from an historical perspective, the ‘silent majority’ is more usually understood as a reaction against unsettlement. The ‘crisis’ was the sense that the norms of politics were changing – new values, identities, and modes of expression were coming to the fore. It was in reacting against this change that the ‘silent majority’ created new and even more unsettling political forms. We see a similar dynamic in the current so-called ‘culture war’ – and particularly the hostility expressed by Conservative politicians, and the right-wing press (among others), to the idea that symbols of imperial power might be challenged. The common accusation that this is ‘politicising’ something previously uncontentious is telling, as indeed, is the language of ‘war’.
Thinking back to the discussion of pre-1970s Conservatism with which we started, we might trace a shift from deferential conservative unpolitics supporting the status quo, to individualist (quasi-populist) conservative unpolitics in an age when no authority, except our own feelings, is to be trusted.
Reading the story of modern Britain through the lens of unpolitics highlights the deeply ambivalent position that the category of ‘politics’ has occupied within British political culture. Recognising this offers a new way of conceptualising familiar puzzles: like the relative ease with which Conservatives have claimed to inhabit a non-ideological ‘common sense’. This has important implications for understanding the intersecting histories of apathy and anti-politics, of the racialisation and politicisation of ‘ordinariness’ or ‘common sense’, and of the shifting emotional contours of individualism in modern Britain.