The Conservative party has reached a pinnacle of near-hegemony, and yet its project remains vague and undefinable. Defined first by austerity, then Brexit, then (if you squint) attempting to heal the social fissures brought about by both, it’s been in a kind of sporadic half-revolution against itself, and a tacit admission of its own failures.
It is hard to think of a party that has managed to rejuvenate itself in office so many times and so successfully in the modern era. Key to this project has been, with each successive new prime minister, an advisor who’s given some flesh and bones to their vague idea of what they want to do – Steve Hilton for David Cameron, Nick Timothy for Theresa May, Dominic Cummings for Boris Johnson. These three men and their ideas are very different, but they were all able, for a time, to cannibalise much of the thrust of the party, and all briefly managed some kind of controlling interest in what it meant to be a conservative. How was this able to come about?
The loose hive mind of the really very narrow clique towards the top of Tory-world, narrowness that can only be believed if you’ve ever seen it up close, has dodged and adapted to events very comfortably. What was needed, according to them, in 2010 was to rein in the pursestrings a bit, to try and re-establish some boundaries on the state to an extent, then to try and heal the wounds of social dislocation caused by Brexit up to a point. Soft inclinations about what would generally be the right sort of thing the country should be doing, given their impetus by an ideological vanguard. Nudge statesmanship with sharp elbows.
Conservatism is an instrument with many chords, and can abruptly shift between them nonchalantly.
Grouping Steve Hilton, Nick Timothy and Dominic Cummings together would annoy all of them in different ways. Cummings and Hilton shared a general disdain for the structures and style of the state. Timothy and Cummings shared a target audience and wished to turn Brexit supporting Labour voters blue. But the fact that their three projects have all been accommodated in the party when they are, really, so different within quite a short period of time is extraordinary.
Briefly, Hilton-ism meant freeing more people to just do whatever they want, hoping they do something responsible with it, and taking quite a small-scale approach to government, with mini-trials of policies before they’re rolled out. This was spliced up with complaining that the system generally was a machine or a ‘factory’, and wearing shorts to meetings. I don’t wish to belittle it, but of the three it’s the hardest to take seriously.
Timothy-ism, or ‘Erdington Conservatism’ as he rather pompously called it, was an attempt to revive a paternalistic but very national interest-orientated Toryism, that felt like griping at the whole country at once to screw its head on straight. More of a vision for conservatism than the whole country, what it took particular offence to were the pieties of the neoliberal ruling order – be it the cultural benefits of immigration (Theresa May really took square aim at the idea a melting pot could even exist in a way Boris never has) or humanitarian intervention, something Timothy criticised before taking up post.
Cummings-ism had the least attachment to the conservative party and the most to Britain’s position at large. The most complicated of the three, and the one that came closest to happening, it is basically the belief that Silicon Valley has unleashed a revolution in technology and organisational efficiency that will spread like contagion from one sector to the next and will generally result in a messy period for the world unless government gets ahead of the curve.
Differences in ideology are mirrored by completely different styles and personalities, and between them they make an amusing squadron to imagine in a room together. But they all had some kind of label of the maverick, they all made a point of getting on terribly with officials and they all hated what can inelegantly be called the ‘blob’ and raged against a lack of ambition and can-do attitude in government generally.
All three Tory premiers have in fact fitted a pattern – an initial burst of enthusiasm, a clear project to work towards, before discarding it as too hard and settling into a more instinctive managerialism. Cameron dropped his attempts to unpick New Labour authoritarianism, and became deficit reduction. May stopped trying to address the social fissures brought up by the Brexit vote, and instead tried to avoid getting swallowed whole by them. Johnson has stopped trying to make Britain reflect its newly exposed position with any institutional or social vitality and dynamism, and just shepherds the inter-generational trickle-up economics on which his electoral coalition depends as best he can.
So why do the Tories keep falling into the same trap, albeit in (very) different ways? The most obvious answer is the Conservatives search for their own meaning, where since the 1980s it has been boring and passe to be a conservative in the traditional sense, when they governed a lot of countries with a clear project and mission of such spike and vim.
None of these advisors cut their teeth in local government, as happens with advisors in most other countries. Their first step in politics is at the very top of the mountain, and they take an olympic approach to the whole problem – big, sweeping changes from the top, transformation with a snap of your fingers, frustration when it doesn’t happen. The complete knee-capping of local government (a process over decades but which has gone into hyperdrive pronounced post-2010) means we have lost almost all sense that change can bubble up from below. With a bold stroke from the top, the state can be transformed.
While reform from the top has been made considerably harder by the knee-capping of local government, making the implementation of government policies effectively outsourced to unreliable agencies (as this piece by Sam Freedman explains), another effect has been to make single leaps into national office and central government from no experience with working with local bureaucracies more commonplace. All varieties of dilettantism have therefore flourished.
But while these more structural factors explain why the conservative party is perhaps ripe for intellectual takeover of this kind, it does not explain these peculiar theories that have taken over. Through the rise and fall of these projects the general sense of freefall has been acute, with Britain’s tenuous claim to relevance after the collapse of its empire, as a bridge between Europe and America, having completely caved in.
Britain has lost the niche it had carved out for itself after the fall of its empire, and has not yet found a role. What is a Conservative party for when there is less and less to conserve? If each Conservative party is, to varying extents, the inheritor (or the pursuer) of national greatness, the pillars on which Britain’s stood on have been knocked away.
Which is these advisors’ real attraction to conservative leaders, and the sympathy and positive press they might receive in tory world (as, with grumbles, all of them actually did receive their fair share). Each vision from these advisors has offered a way out of the declinist mindset, the view that things are not only getting worse, but are set up to get worse still. On the flip of this, the declinist belief that redemption is always just around the corner. There’s no point telling a narrative about greatness if it can’t be restored, or at least elevated by some new method.
And yet, the declinist narrative doesn’t offer us the whole picture either, for British (at least relative) decline is by now established and accepted. There also isn’t much of national greatness in, say, Steve Hilton’s confused localist arcadia. Rather, all three visions settle in different ways to inject Britain with national meaning, confidence and purpose.
All three of these men ended up backing leaving the European Union, and all of them saw Brexit as a way of ripping up its uneasy post-imperial position in the world, as a catalyst for wider change, and generally as a method of making it look at itself in the mirror. However, though all three did offer some kind of vision for what Britain might look like after the great catalyst of the referendum, all three were ultimately (either by coercion or by choice) eventually rejected by their respective patrons. What’s left is the hollow remains of conservatism, still fishing for a meaning and a project, still with only a vague sense of what exactly it wants to do.