Whither the Tories? The party is in a dire state, and amongst the Right-leaning commentariat there has been much hand-wringing discussion recently on what can be done to revivify an organisation on its deathbed, with membership collapsing from more than 3million in its heyday to a rumoured figure of around 70,000 today.
Actually it is a shallow and meaningless question: far better to ask ‘Can conservatism win with the Tories?’ The answer is emphatically no, because the party’s culture is just plain wrong. Its version of conservatism is narrow, top-down, myopic and self-serving, amounting really to no more than conserving its own social position. As such it is antithetical to true conservatism, which is bottom-up, organic, holistic and long-sighted, seeking, in Edmund Burke’s famous phrase, to preserve the contract between the living, the dead and the not yet born.
Conservatism has done so spectacularly badly in recent decades because it is faced with the worst of all worlds: there is no real transmission mechanism of its ideas into the corridors of power – however there has been the appearance of one. The subsequent failure to champion a holistic conservatism politically thus handed the initiative to the Left, particularly in the cultural sphere, with calamitous long-term consequences.
Take the issue of architecture and the built environment. To the conservative, the preservation of the beauty and familiarity of old buildings and street patterns is an important part of conserving the social fabric: architecture, as the saying goes, is the art we all must live with and therefore vital to the moulding of public culture. The Left readily agreed, seeing the architectural modernist movement as a way of reordering society towards socialism. ‘We must create a mass production state of mind,’ said its founder, the evil genius Le Corbusier, in 1927. The Tories, always interested in office rather than power, were characteristically apathetic, regarding it as entirely trivial in electoral terms. Thus modernism was allowed to gain cultural momentum in the post-war years, and a tipping point was reached where the movement was seen as embodying the future. At this point the Tories, terrified of seeming out of date, enthusiastically embraced it. (Indeed the worst architectural vandalism of all – the destruction of Euston’s Doric Arch – was committed under the Prime Ministership of the classically educated Tory Harold Macmillan, who personally resisted pleas to save it.)
The end result of Tory cultural capitulation was not only the scarring of Britain’s towns and cities, making them some of the ugliest in Europe, but the demoralising of whole communities, and the rise of a militant nimbyism from those determined that their own localities would not be subject to the same fate. That in turn has led to a dramatic slowing in new housing construction, contributing to the sense of generational unfairness that now powers the rise of Corbynism. Far, far, far too late in the day – and only when their own electoral prospects have become severely threatened – have the Tories now come to realise the importance of architectural beauty.
The template for this sorry tale is applicable to issue after issue: failure to defend one part of the societal organism from attack at the peripheries inevitably meant ever more virulent infection spreading to the core as a multiplier effect took hold. Tory indifference to the big picture, to building and communicating a compelling conservative narrative, has been the primary factor in conservatism’s seemingly endless retreat.
Let us, therefore, hope that that membership of that ghastly party continues to decline to zero – it would be the best news conservatism has had in 300 years. Only then can we build a new conservatism in the context of a democracy fit for the internet age.