What are the Tories for? Received wisdom has always been that the Tories are, essentially, Britain. The CofE, the state church, was the Tory Party at prayer. Tory ladies were the mainstay of the magistrates bench. The generals, the vice-chancellors, the captains of industry, the great and good, were, with few exceptions (eccentrics?), Tory by divine Right. It was just the way things were. The natural party of government.
They were, of course, the Stupid Party, too. But that was no slur. This is a country in which to be ‘too clever by half’ is deeply suspect. Or as we put it today, we don’t trust ‘experts’. Being ‘stupid’ was a way of showing ‘common sense’. A bone-headed, John Bull triumphalism, shorn of any pesky, doubt-inducing reading. No one ever joined a gentleman’s club in order to pursue the life of thought.
In short, and for a couple of centuries, the Tory Party represented some of the better impulses of this country (charitable obligations, can-do, hands-on public service, a break on impulsive radicalism, a desire to limit the scope of government to stop it intruding into personal and family life), and some of the worst (anti-intellectualism, snobbishness, fatalism about inequality, prejudicial or bigoted social attitudes, defence of hierarchies of power and wealth). Many of us, over generations, opposed the Tories, sometimes winning victories over them, but never for long. They had iron discipline, a firm social base, a grip on the higher ranks of influence and power, and the ability to roll with change, absorbing it, appearing to modernise, whilst all the time remaining the same.
But now it all feels different. Very different.
When Tony Blair strode up Downing Street in 1997, proclaiming that Red, White and Blue ‘New Labour’ had routed the Tories, it didn’t feel as though it was the end of the Tories. Not only was the Labour programme essentially premised upon Tory economics, so the government changed without the whole direction of travel changing – Toryism with a human face, if you like – but the Tories themselves looked exhausted, not finished.
For, twenty years ago, the Tories still had a large and active party base, a rampant Tory press, and the trust and financial backing of the business world. That’s a formidable foundation for any political movement. And, initially, after running through a few hapless leaders (Hague, Howard, IDS), they found in David Cameron the perfect modern Tory leader. Old-school (Eton), yet modern metropolitan (Converse sneakers, attractive wife), Cameron as Opposition Leader was able to offer, with some conviction, the jibe at Blair, “You were the future once!”
But Cameron’s only real-life job had been as a PR man. Hugging a hoodie simply wasn’t enough. ‘Owning the narrative’ could swing an election, but it didn’t have a lot of effect on his own party. The members weren’t keen on equal marriage, and climate change, and foreign aid, and all that modern malarky. And in the Parliamentary party, John Major’s “bastards” were still there, the Redwoods, and Lilleys, the Bill Cash backbench boneheads, their ranks reinforced by new swivel-eyed radicals, like Bernard Jenkin, Kwasi Kwateng, Priti Patel. Their manifesto was a thin, nasty document called ‘Britannia Unchained’. The virus of Euroscepticism was spreading, and mutating, in the Tory bloodstream.
And so we are here. Since 1979, the Tory legacy has been to deskill and hollow out the state, dismantle effective local governance, privatise natural monopolies like water, power, and rail, entrench social division, destroy industries that provided dynamism to regional economies, make financial services ‘too big to fail’, parasitic upon what’s left of the state to underwrite their errors, and to make the capital a drain on the rest of the country, rather than a source of national irrigation. And Brexit.
The Tories own Brexit. They invented it. They made it happen. In the process, and not inadvertently, they stoked social division, criminal levels of hate, and even a political assassination of a British Member of Parliament.
What’s worse, now that they have Brexit, they don’t know what to do with it. What is it, they say? It’s not the Single Market, oh no. It’s not the Customs Union. Jesus, not the ECJ. Freedom of movement? That’s just for capital. They own a word, Brexit. And asked to say what it is, they invent other, equally meaningless words, like Anglosphere. They have months left to build a home fit for 65 million people, and no plan, no architect, no competent builders, no bloody clue.
There are other things the Tories don’t have now. They don’t have a parliamentary majority. They don’t have the backing of most of business – particularly the ones that employ a lot of people. They don’t have a vote that includes the young and well-educated (aka the future).
The Tories are a Norwegian Blue, nailed to its perch. It has ceased to be. It has shuffled off its mortal coil, gone to meet its maker, gone to join the choir invisible. This is an ex-government. And when they do, finally, go, it’ll take an almighty effort to regain any credibility whatsoever.
The Tories have simply lost the right to govern.