What exactly is so conservative about Brexit? That’s ‘small c’ conservative. And it’s a question that’s rarely been asked over the last three years. Most people, on both sides of the debate, seem to take for granted that conservatives are and ought to be in favour of leaving the European Union. This has led to extraordinary attacks on ‘big c’ Conservatives like Anna Soubry, whose opposition to Brexit has been painted as a betrayal of Tory values. But is that a reasonable charge to make? Is it something ideologically committed conservatives should accept?
Of course, there is ‘no true conservative’, and we shouldn’t engage in that fallacy, but surely conservatism should be, at minimum, a set of agreed upon principles, recognisable to anyone accepting that label? The now little-known Conservative MP Noel Skelton offered some guidance in a series of Spectator articles in 1923.
“A stable condition of society is the main pre-occupation of Conservatism,” Skelton wrote. “If change has been resisted, it has been because the Conservative has feared that it would produce confusion and instability. When it has been clear that only by change can stability be re-established, no party has been more fearless in making the most drastic changes.”
For most of the 20th century, this simple philosophy seems to have prevailed in the Tory Party. At least two prime ministers, Anthony Eden and Alec Douglas-Home, were influenced by Skelton’s thinking. Even Eden’s disastrous actions during the Suez Crisis can be seen as an attempt to make ‘drastic changes’ to re-establish ‘stability’. It was Conservative governments that first tried and later succeeded in bringing the UK into the EEC.
It hardly needs to be said that the radicalisation of the Tories began under Margaret Thatcher: the mania for privatisation, the embrace of ‘voodoo economics’ and so much else that was unrecognisable to many Conservatives, including former prime minister Harold Macmillan, who publicly mocked Thatcher. But on the EEC, she was solid: Europe must work in Britain’s interests and Britain is interested in Europe. Her opposition to German re-unification was founded on her fear of changing power dynamics in the EEC that would threaten the settlement she had achieved.
By the time the Tories returned to power in 2010, most observers believed that Conservatives had made their peace with the EU. They would never embrace it, but they’d positioned themselves as watchmen against European intrusion. And Britain had won significant victories against further integration, making this approach reasonable and based on evidence. But one of the central weaknesses of a first-past-the-post system is that it tends to produce two large parties containing numerous ideological factions. Among the Tory factions were the Eurosceptics, who were empowered by demagogues like Nigel Farage and a money-hungry right-wing press to pursue a distinctly un-conservative idea: a radical and unnecessary split from the largest trading bloc in the world.
Most conservatives would agree that making a country poorer is not conservative. Or proposing an unprecedented solution to a non-existent problem is not conservative. Or even that looking before you leap is not conservative. Theresa May probably agrees with these simple ideas, as Anna Soubry and others obviously do. Some have argued that leaving the EU was a patriotic act, and therefore conservative by definition. This is spurious. The right does not have a monopoly on patriotism, and threatening your own country with food and medicine shortages is hardly patriotic. There is something else going on here.
Just as in the United States, a gap has opened between traditional conservatism and a radical new agenda that first imitates, then infects conservative movements. This has been coming since at least the 1980s. Brexit, and Donald Trump, are expressions of a hybrid ideology that combines exclusionary nationalism and discredited economic theories. It hurts those who believe in it and those who try to resist it. It makes people poorer (see Trump’s trade war), it justifies fact-free policies and it uses ‘the will of the people’ as a cudgel, while simultaneously undermining democracy by weakening those who participate in it.
Noel Skelton also wrote that Conservatism “has a special duty constantly to search out the means by which stability threatened can be saved, stability lost can be recovered.” Conservatives, whether big cs or small, should be horrified by this radical threat to the stability and prosperity of their nation.