Universal-suffrage democracy—civilization’s wildest experiment with human nature so far—creates many mysteries and paradoxes. Perhaps the strangest is the dogged survival in the Anglosphere countries of ostensibly conservative parties that are nothing of the sort. In all cases they retreat in the face of the advance of the left, apparently believing that their own cause is morally suspect and so not worth fighting for.
Their main function seems to be to offer the populations of advanced countries brief respites from tax increases and periods of amnesia during which they can forget just how bad left-wing governments are. After a few years in office they hand back the government apparatus to the left. What they never do, and what they regard as unthinkable, is to reverse the social, moral, and cultural changes brought about by their left-wing predecessors, though they often at least hint that they will do so.
Yet these ineffectual bodies survive, unpunished by those they repeatedly disappoint. Does this mean that conservative voters do not really want conservative governments? Or does it mean that they are gullible and forgetful to such a point that they really should not be allowed out on their own?
As a British conservative commentator interested in the future of my country, I wrestle with this problem daily. I find it impossible to believe that anyone could actually understand what the Conservative and Unionist Party is and still vote for it. It is certainly not Conservative. Nor is it Unionist, in the sense of opposing the accelerating dissolution of the formerly United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is not even clear that it is a Party, since there appears to be no organic connection between its leadership apparatus and its members.
Yet I have the impression that many on the western shore of the Atlantic have a seriously false idea of the state of Britain and the nature of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government. Kierkegaard pointed out somewhere that the most effective revolutions are those that leave the buildings standing, while destroying the invisible laws and customs that actually decide the nature of society. So it is with us. Our capital city has never looked so fine. The Houses of Parliament, scoured of Victorian soot, glow magically in the floodlights at night. The beautiful Law Courts in the Strand, their majestic entrance surmounted with a figure of Christ, are likewise wonderfully restored after more than a century of pollution and a fair amount of aerial bombardment.
Tourists may still watch the majestic and thrilling parades of the Guards and the Household Cavalry outside Buckingham Palace, London residence of the Queen. The preserved HMS Victory, survivor of Horatio Nelson’s world-changing victory at Trafalgar in 1805, is the beautiful centerpiece of a superb display of historic sea power at Portsmouth. Oxford and Cambridge, each in its lovely medieval setting, still compete with the world’s great universities, and Britain maintains a reputation for intellectual and scientific excellence.
But these are all empty mock-ups, hiding the desolate emptiness behind the floodlit, elaborately gilded frontages.
The Parliament that sits within the Palace of Westminster is a dead thing, wearily enacting regulations imposed on it by the European Commission.
From the gothic splendor of the Law Courts, judgments emerge in which the Christian origins of our law and state are specifically, categorically denied and stated unequivocally to have been superseded by a new official dogma of “Equality and Diversity.” The decisions are also subject to a higher court, maintained by the European Union for that purpose in Luxembourg.
The restraining role of tradition and heredity in our constitution has almost entirely disappeared. The Monarchy itself may not long survive the passing of Elizabeth II, during whose reign the great oak tree of loyalty and patriotism has withered and rotted. As for the parades and the sea power, our last functioning aircraft carrier and its aircraft have just gone to the scrapyard. (A bitter seaman had managed to paint the word “Sold” in derisive capitals on her superstructure.) Their angry and tear-stained ships’ companies have been dispersed, along with decades of irreplaceable experience. Our army is so short of men and money, and so stretched by the demands of the Afghanistan deployment, that it struggles to retain the essential core of experienced officers and NCOs on which its competence and efficiency are based.
Oxford and Cambridge are under heavy political and financial pressure to reduce their relatively high standards, so they can admit the ill-educated products of our egalitarian state schools, among the worst in the developed world. To do this they must insanely discriminate against those best equipped to study in them—the products of the independent schools which have escaped the frenzy for equality.
Most of these things were true at the beginning of last year, when Britain was ruled by an avowedly left-wing government that more or less openly believed in all these projects. The important thing is that they remain true, and have grown significantly more true, especially in the armed forces and the universities, under a government whose prime minister is a member of the Conservative Party.
There is, it must be acknowledged, a lot of talk about spending cuts. But several questions arise here. If the national economic crisis is as bad as we are told—and I suspect it is—the proposed reductions are a tiny proportion of the problem and cannot possibly be the cure. British public expenditures when the supposedly savage cuts are complete in 2014-15 will be 3 percent lower in real terms than they were in 2009-10, before the cuts began.
These measures are symbolic, designed to placate the bond markets—bigger than the Labour Party’s cuts, but not significantly so. Yet they are also rather strange, for a government supposedly dominated by a conservative party. The armed forces seem to have taken specially heavy punishment. This appears to be a classic example of the old civil service motto “Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste”—which means that long-planned measures, politically impossible in normal times, can be achieved as part of a plan to Save the Nation. But whose long-term desires are served by reducing the Royal Navy to a coast guard? Not those of Conservative voters, for certain.
Curiously, the United Kingdom’s supposed bankruptcy did not prevent Cameron launching a war of choice against Libya in March, though it was rapidly admitted that the government had no real idea how long the conflict might last, what its aims were, or whether it might lead in the end to the deployment of British soldiers in North Africa for the first time since the battle against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps almost 70 years ago. Like most modern British wars, this one has no obvious connection to the national interest. Our last armed conflict with direct enemies of our country was against the Irish Republican Army (a criminal gang) in Northern Ireland, but we surrendered to their demands, under strong American pressure, in 1998. I always remember this fact when British politicians of any party declare their undying hatred of terrorism.
Also suffering from the ostensible “cuts” are beloved institutions such as neighborhood public libraries, which are being doomed to closure in large numbers. Yet fat city- and county-hall bureaucracies, and their squadrons of politically correct climate-change officials and condom-outreach workers and such, remain largely untouched. This is because the UK’s central government may mandate reductions, but it is local government that decides what is reduced, and it has become adept at ensuring that the blame for these things is visited on the central government. Few people vote in local elections anyway, and even when they do their votes are frequently more or less mad—electing ninnies because they represent a nationally popular party, while chucking out experienced, competent figures because they carry the label of the nationally unpopular party.
The really interesting thing is the way that certain areas of spending are protected from retrenchment. First among these is the sacred National Health Service, our curious nationalized health system, both loathed and sentimentalized, often by the same people at the same time. We all love its idealistic 1940s coziness and the fact that it never sends us a bill. (We have already paid that through our enormous taxes.) We sometimes find it quite effective and are reassured by its existence in a way incomprehensible to middle-class Americans. But we are increasingly enraged at the way it leaves the elderly to starve and thirst to death, lying in their own filth, while nurses with college degrees but lacking the concept of duty chatter to each other a few feet away. Its standards of hygiene are often appalling. Its standards of medical competence are, according to medical friends of mine, falling fast.
The main aim of the NHS seems to be to employ as many people as possible, since so much of our manufacturing industry has vanished in the last 30 years. Our health service used to be the largest employer in Europe apart from the Soviet Army. Now we have to look even further east on the Eurasian landmass, to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, to find a rival. The last thing it needs is sanctification. But this is what it received long before last year’s general election from Cameron’s Conservatives. They wished to win the favor of the main arbiter of British elections, the mighty—and instinctively statist and politically correct—British Broadcasting Corporation. To do so, they agreed to maintain spending on this voracious monster, which is really a National Sickness Service, stitching us all together again or cramming us with pills after we have made ourselves ill with grotesque diets, alcohol, tobacco, and sluggish lifestyles.
Another area of spending immune from cuts is foreign aid, much loved by the left but once memorably described by the economist Peter Bauer as taking money from the poor in rich countries to give to the rich in poor countries. British aid currently goes from the pockets of our urban poor to such nations as India and Pakistan—one a new global giant, both able to afford nuclear weapons.
What sort of government is this? Well, of course it is not a conservative one. And it is not even a Conservative one, as the Tory Party does not fully control it. Having failed to win an election against one of the most unpopular governments in recent history, Cameron has formed a coalition with a party called the Liberal Democrats, a hard-to-describe formation that has prospered in the last decade because of what it is not rather than because of what it is.
Some Lib Dems are uninteresting general-purpose leftists, important mainly because they are the most likely to walk out of the governing coalition if they become seriously unpopular for staying inside it. But the dominant faction in the Liberal Democrats is more complex. It is liberal in the economic sense—a position only possible since the end of the Cold War broke the link between the left and such fetishes as industrial nationalization. It combines this view with a post-1968 radicalism on social and cultural issues, especially sexual politics, together with a firm belief that man is responsible for climate change. This faction, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg, is more or less indistinguishable from Cameron’s own London coterie. It had almost no difficulty in forming a coalition with Cameron when he failed to win a majority on his own last year.
The speed and oiled smoothness with which this docking took place led many to suspect that it must have been discussed in advance, but there is no evidence of that. They were just made for each other, but it took the arithmetic of the 2010 election, plus a joint lust for office at all costs, for them to discover this. Cameron has been more than happy to use his coalition partners—or rather, the threat that they may walk out—to cow the actual conservatives who sit as Tory Members of Parliament. Not that they need much cowing, as they are for the most part unaware of what they are up against and in any case do not really believe in rebelling, thinking it unconservative.
Why are they so hopeless? Why do they submit to almost any intellectual insult heaped on them by Cameron? For decades the conscious parts of British conservatism have relied on a sort of nostalgic Thatcher-worship as a substitute for thought. The fact that Margaret Thatcher failed completely to address the left’s cultural, educational, and moral revolution, or to arrest the European Union’s takeover and evisceration of British institutions, eludes them. Before that they had insisted that Toryism was a disposition, not a dogma.” This is all very well if your opponents are equally undogmatic. But when those opponents are clever and determined 1968ers who know what they want and are determined to get it, this attitude is like fielding a cricket team in a hockey match.
And so we are where we are, with a government of wealthy, privately-educated persons in beautifully cut suits and handmade shoes, speaking in the accents of aristocracy, yet following the policies and ideas of the long-ago rebels of Paris and Berkeley, while not even aware that they are doing it. These people would guillotine Queen Elizabeth next if they thought it would strengthen their hold on office, the only thing they really want. And by placing on top of this absurdity an empty pretense of fiscal rectitude, they have won the applause of some North American conservatives so filled with loathing of Barack Obama that they will grasp at anything that is not him.
It would be far better to grasp the truth and understand that the process that has now reached its final stages in London is well advanced in Washington. Political conservatism, by refusing to think or resist, is rapidly being emptied of any purpose save the gaining of office without power. If conservatives will not make the effort to understand the New Left, they deserve to be overwhelmed by it.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday and the author of The Abolition of Britain.