2017 Revisited: A look back through the eyes of TCW’s top writers.
First posted December 2017
Never, ever, ever trust the Tories. That bitter taste of disappointment gets real old real quickly, and nobody likes being taken for a fool.
But nonetheless that is what conservatives keep on doing, behaving like an abused wife returning to an unfaithful husband, thinking she can somehow reform him. Reactions by genuine conservatives to continual Tory bad faith follow a depressing circularity: invariably, disappointment is followed by an appeal to some white knight figure in the party to take the reins, Jacob Rees-Mogg being the latest to be cast in that role. However, something in the party’s culture, something so utterly rotten, means that people of genuine stature rarely reach the top.
In a sense it is all Margaret Thatcher’s fault. Her personality and adamantine will loom so large in modern British political history that even today they tend to blind commentators to the basic realities of her party’s deeper culture and history. The Tory party evolved out of the desire of the aristocratic caste in society to preserve the existing social structure, and as such it has always been an aloof, top-down organisation. That might not matter so much if the party possessed some sense of noblesse oblige, a genuine desire to represent the concerns of the masses in return for enjoying societal position.
However it has shown – repeatedly – that it wants all the noblesse without any oblige: it exists simply for those who perceive themselves to be born into the Establishment or for social climbers who wish to join them. Of course it is an awfully long way down from such Olympian heights, so collectively Tories tend to respond to external threats by allowing themselves to be bullied in return for position: Vicars of Bray, scurrying all over the political map; in office, but rarely in power.
In short, the party is a moral coward, and as such it always wise when predicting what it will do to choose the most cynical and venal course of action you can possibly think of. Even then, you will often be deeply shocked. In that spirit I wrote this piece for TCW just after the referendum was won. It looks positively naïve compared with what has actually happened. The Tories’ controlling grandees ruthlessly defenestrated the woman who appeared to be a genuine Leave candidate for the leadership, Andrea Leadsom, to avoid having to ballot the heavily Leave-voting grassroots. They then crowned someone very much made in their own image – a cowardly, visionless Remainer who could be trusted to put party before conviction or country. (Whether Mrs Leadsom, who had previously said that leaving the EU would be a disaster, and last week fully backed Mrs May’s Brexit betrayal, is any less cynical than the rest of her colleagues is extremely doubtful.)
At that point, though, events were set in an inevitable train that culminated in last week’s truly disastrous Brexit Phase I deal. Rather than simply stay in the Single Market, as I predicted, the Tories have done something both far more subtle and indescribably worse. They propose to turn Britain into a vassal state – effectively an EU colony. Regulatory alignment clearly means trapping us into the Single Market in all but name, and in such a way that we may never be able to escape it. The abominations of the so-called transition arrangements and ECJ oversight speak for themselves. Faced with choosing between principle and political expediency, those Tory ‘Brexiteers’ Davis, Gove and Johnson entirely predictably followed their party’s hallowed traditions.
The end result is too painful to contemplate – rather than striding confidently out into the world, the culture of Brexit Britain is, as this prescient Guardian article makes hideously clear, to be timid supplicants to a bullying master. Not that the Tories care: they plainly calculate that by being true to the letter of Brexit, if not its spirit, they can keep enough vested interests and demographics happy to win re-election.
And you know what? They are probably right – and they will continue to be until conservatives face up to the fact that the Tory Party has never been anything more than an utterly loathsome, shape-shifting parasite on our society, and steel themselves to take appropriate action.