The Lives and Deaths of Tory England
Poised to name yet another leader, the British Conservative Party hasn’t been so much defined by its incapacity as its bizarre invincibility.
PHOENIX—The British Conservative Party is said to have this much in common with the immortal bird that is this American city’s namesake: it lives; it apparently dies; it rises swiftly again.
Though far away from Greenwich Mean Time here in Arizona, I read the Isles suffered a Tucson-tier summer season this year, at least by British standards. The inferno has extended to the U.K. Conservative Party’s upper caste, which ousted Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month. In power, at least in part, since 2010, by American Labor Day the “Tories” will have to select their fourth leader in six summers.
The stylish David Cameron was followed by the unvaried Theresa May, who governed for three years, just as the helter-skelter Boris Johnson did. Now Liz Truss, the unco foreign secretary, is odds-on for a turn at the wheel.
In 2005, the venerable British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft penned “The Strange Death of Tory England.” Therein, he documented the center-right party’s perplexing fall from eighteen years in power under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, to becoming utterly outclassed and certainly outfoxed by Tony Blair’s rival “New Labour.” Wheatcroft aptly diagnosed the Iraq War-championing Blair’s power as being rooted in his “brilliant cynical sincerity.”
But something stranger has happened since publication of Wheatcroft’s classic; it has been Labour which has suffered a strange death, at the hands of a rum right-wing party.
Only Blair has bested a Conservative challenger in a general election, since 1974. In other words, the only center-left winner in British national politics since the year President Richard Nixon resigned, or the time Joe Biden was a first-term senator, has been “the Blair creature” as cantankerous British columnist Peter Hitchens calls the man.
The Conservatives have become something close to a permanent governing party, not quite at the level of the Japanese Liberal Democrat Party (a center-right party), but close enough, and with arguably similarly little to show for it for forty years in power. And like the LDP, it can seemingly change leaders pell-mell, all the while paying little price.
Ross Douthat in the Times last year posited a phoenix-style resurgence of Reaganism, in an era where crime, communism, and inflation returned from history; a continent from here and an ocean away, neo-Thatcherism is vogueish.
The left-wing writer Matthew Sitman, a conservative apostate and bemused documentarian of the movement, wrote recently in zombie Gawker that Thatcherism is the cold core of the right:
When I think of Margaret Thatcher, a series of ghastly associations flits through my mind: her passionate hostility toward unions, the time she spanked Christopher Hitchens with a rolled-up batch of papers (punctuating the blow with ‘naughty boy!’), and her infamous claim that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ To put it in the grating parlance of the Trump era, the last of these has always struck me as saying the quiet part out loud.
Truss’s probable triumph will represent the naked dominance of the British right wing.
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Whatever Truss actually believes—she had a libertarian phase; or, in British English, she was a Liberal Democrat—her ascent represents the victory of China hawkishness, Russia hawkishness, and low tax over the program of her jejune rival, Rishi Sunak, more dovish and less cynical about the state.
Neither is the exact Grenache-Syrah blend I’d reach for. But, if pressed, I think Truss’s vision is the more perspicacious. Aside from sort of comically betraying Johnson (to what end?), Sunak is distinguished by his utter guilelessness—he plays the part of a man who married into millions pitch-perfect.
Still, Truss’s undead Thatcherism is the stuff of a low-trust society, or no society at all, as left-wing abominators so diagnose. It’s responsive to a world where even the almighty Dollar or Pound Sterling isn’t as reliable as it used to be. It’s a philosophy that wordlessly recognizes that permanent survival means having the knowledge that the knives are always out. Certainly, a British politician would know.