British Conservatism in an Age of Populism
Last week witnessed the renewal of conservatism in Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May launched a Conservative Party manifesto—the UK equivalent of a U.S. party platform—that marked a major break with the laissez-faire philosophy of Margaret Thatcher.
Relatively light on policy detail, the manifesto reads as a statement of May’s political philosophy. In the wake of the Brexit vote, May has made it her mission to address the economic and cultural failures of liberal governance in Britain since the end of the Cold War by rebalancing the relationship between the nation-state and globalization.
There is even a strong populist flavor to the manifesto. It states that rather “than pursue an agenda based on a supposed centre ground defined and established by elites in Westminster, we will govern in the interests of the mainstream of the British public.” The manifesto also claims that the Conservatives will help “ordinary working families” who “have been ignored by politicians, and by others in positions of power, for too long.”
Renewing Conservative Philosophy
May’s populist response to globalization is a distinctly communitarian form of conservatism. In the most important passage, which is worth quoting at length, the manifesto says:
We do not believe in untrammeled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.
True Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do; a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together; an insight that change is inevitable and change can be good, but that change should be shaped, through strong leadership and clear principles, for the common good.
We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals. We know that we all have obligations to one another, because that is what community and nation demands. We understand that nobody, however powerful, has succeeded alone and that we all therefore have a debt to others. We respect the fact that society is a contract between the generations: a partnership between those who are living, those who have lived before us, and those who are yet to be born.
This arrival of communitarian conservatism in British politics has been a long time coming. Phillip Blond, a conservative philosopher, and Maurice Glasman, a socialist political theorist, respectively founded the “Red Tory” and “Blue Labour” movements in 2009, and made the case for communitarianism as an antidote to the failures of liberalism in its free market, welfarist, and multiculturalist forms. Their ideas received brief attention from David Cameron and Ed Miliband during their respective leaderships of the Conservative and Labour parties, but were never embraced. Under May, these ideas have now achieved a major breakthrough.
Redrawing the Electoral Map
An important catalyst for this embrace of communitarian conservatism has been the decline of the Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a hard-left socialist who shuns British patriotism. Many patriotic, working-class Labour voters voted for Brexit last year and feel left behind by the economic and cultural disruption of globalization. Corbyn’s Labour party has done little to address their concerns.
The collapse of the UK Independence Party since the referendum has also been instrumental in forming May’s communitarian conservatism. Now that the Conservatives are delivering Brexit, many former Tories are returning to the party, uniting the right-wing vote for the first time since the 1990s. Just as significantly, working-class voters who left Labour to join UKIP now find themselves prepared to vote Conservative for the first time in their lives.
May now sees an opening to redraw the electoral map by taking working-class seats across Labour’s heartlands in the deindustrialized North and Midlands. To symbolize her determination to accomplish this feat, May unveiled the manifesto in Halifax, a former factory town in the northern county of Yorkshire. This not a place where one would normally expect to see a Conservative prime minister outline her vision for Britain.
At the heart of May’s pitch to working-class Labour voters is patriotism. May’s Conservatives have promised to deliver a successful Brexit and restore the sovereignty of the British state. Integral to this effort is the pledge to end the free movement of EU citizens and reduce annual net migration to the “tens of thousands.” Defending the Union between the four nations of the United Kingdom is also a clear priority for May. To drive the point home, the cover of the manifesto displays the party’s full name, “The Conservative and Unionist Party.”
As well as wrapping the party in the flag, May has also stolen some of Labour’s clothes. The manifesto includes a number of policies which would establish a more interventionist British state, such as capping energy prices, building more social housing, and increasing the minimum wage. More investment is promised for the National Health Service, founded by the Labour government in 1948, which is described by the manifesto as “the essence of solidarity in our United Kingdom—our commitment to each other, between young and old, those who have and those who do not, and the healthy and the sick.”
Even the structure of the manifesto is designed to reflect the history of state interventionism in British history. Each chapter tackles one of “five giant challenges”: the economy, Brexit, social divisions, an aging society, and technological change. This is a deliberate echo of the “five giant evils” identified by William Beveridge in a historic 1942 report that laid out the blueprint for Britain’s post-war welfare state.
After her speech, May was asked by a journalist what “Mayism” is. May’s response was simple, “There is no Mayism…only good, solid conservatism.” May is very much a Burkean conservative, but she is also doing something undeniably new. May is using the Brexit vote as an opportunity to strengthen the British nation-state in a globalized age for the benefit of British citizens. As a guiding document, May’s manifesto is an strong example of how center-right parties ought to respond to the challenges of populism and globalization.
David A. Cowan is a freelance writer and conservative activist who graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history. He blogs at The Tory Democrat.