The Strange Death of Tory England

In the window panes of the stone cottages of Somerset, posters last weekend proclaimed the names of Liberal Democratic candidates. Strolling through the nearby village, a former Tory member of Parliament laughed and kept his head down while passing the local Tory Party office—hoping, he said, not to be recognized. In the evening, bankers and businessmen sitting around a dinner table made jokes about their local Tory candidate; one of their daughters professed embarrassment at her mother’s insistence on putting up a Tory Party poster at the edge of the drive.

On the morning after yet another Labor electoral landslide, perhaps none of this should sound peculiar. Yet this particular bit of rural England is precisely the sort of place that once would have been a bastion of the Conservative Party. It was once much like what large swathes of the South are to the American Republicans: a solid, reliable conservative place filled with undemanding voters who always returned reliably large Tory majorities. For the past decade, however, Somerset and other bits of western England, while not quite going so far as to back the Labor Party, have slowly turned away from the Conservatives and toward the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s somewhat ill-defined third party, the one that usually gets the votes of everyone who is disillusioned by the other two. “Safe” Tory seats, held for decades by Tory candidates, have begun to fall, one by one.

Yesterday, the pattern of the past decade held. All over southwest England, Tories fell or failed to take back seats they lost last time around. Yet the rest of the country was no different either. Although the number of Tory and Labor members of Parliament will remain more or less the same (click here, here, or here for precise results), the general outlook for the Conservative Party is worse than it seems. In dozens of seats, Liberal Democrat as well as Labor candidates who beat Tories by tiny margins in the 1997 campaign appear to have widened their majorities. More to the point, it is not just the Tory Party that is in trouble. A certain brand of British conservatism may be dying altogether.

By this I don’t mean Thatcherism, since Thatcherism lives on in the form of Tony Blair. While Blair is not, perhaps, Lady Thatcher’s own ideal heir—she would never have condoned his changes to the British Constitution or backed his views on the European Union—he has nevertheless stood by, and in some cases improved upon, the radical changes she made to the British economy. He has endorsed privatization, advocated low inflation, created an independent central bank, and most of all promoted a vision of an entrepreneurial, meritocratic Britain. Thanks to Blair, the socialist Britain that Thatcher inherited in 1979 is a thing of the very distant past.

But if Thatcherism is not endangered, the conservative values that once dominated rural and middle-class life in Britain are very much threatened indeed. In the wake of this election, we can now say that a particular, patriotic, traditional vision of Britain—of the British countryside, of British customs and habits, even of British eccentricity and British independence—no longer appeals to British voters. A whole range of institutions—the church, the monarchy, the union, the Parliament—no longer command the respect they once did. William Hague, the leader of the Conservative Party (who announced his intention to quit this morning—click here to read his resignation speech) ran a “Save the Pound” political campaign based on opposition to British entry into the use of the euro, the common European currency, a policy that Tony Blair supports and will probably execute in his second term. Yet despite polls showing British dislike for the euro, it had no effect: Saving the pound and preserving British economic independence really aren’t, it turns out, priorities at all. 

The causes of this change are political and social, local and global. Certainly the Labor Party has helped. By first stealing the Conservatives’ best ideas and then successfully characterizing them as far-right lunatics, they have helped push the party, its values, and the people who traditionally supported them to the margins of political life. Hague, who by American standards is an extremely moderate, not to say left-wing conservative—he supports the state-run health-care system, among other things, and would like to spend more money on it—has been portrayed as a “hard-liner” and an “extremist.” Blair’s own prejudices—most notably his manifest dislike of British history and his promotion of the pop-culture vision of Cool Britannia—have helped this process along as well. As a result, many people, particularly young people (my Somerset friend’s daughter among them) are embarrassed to be associated with such an outlandish, outdated political movement. No wonder, as one British columnist pointed out today, volunteers have been leaving the Tory Party in droves, damaging the party at its roots.

At the same time, the Conservative Party has done itself no favors. Some have argued quite plausibly that Thatcherism itself destroyed the Tory Party: By promoting meritocracy and entrepreneurship, Thatcherism chipped away at those traditional institutions upon which conservative values once hung. How can the existence of a monarchy be justified in a truly meritocratic society? Some have also suggested that the Tories’ choice of parliamentary candidates, which has over the past decade deliberately tilted toward self-made men and women and away from the country gents who manned the party’s backbenches in the past, has actually destroyed whatever links between the Tory Party and the countryside still remained. Too many rural constituencies have been saddled with urban candidates; the Tories are no longer seen as the natural party of rural England.

But I suspect that the biggest blow to British and particularly to English conservatism has come not from British politicians but from forces well outside their control. Put simply, Tory Britain has suffered the same fate as those tribes in Papua New Guinea whose languages are disappearing, or those chunks of rural China that have vanished beneath the concrete of fast-growing new cities. Its entertainments—village fetes, Sunday church services, Conservative ladies’ tea parties—cannot compete with videos and cable television. Its heroes—Churchill, Disraeli, Thatcher herself—seem fusty and dull beside Madonna and her ilk. American culture is cheaper, more colorful, and seemingly more up-to-date than English culture. No English market town, however quaint, is now without its McDonald’s. Much has been written about the effects of cultural globalization, which is really Americanization, on the Third World. Its effects in Tory England are more rarely noticed, but no less profound.

Because it is always bad luck to predict the future, I don’t want to end by writing off the Tory Party, or British conservatism, forever. Nevertheless, it is true that whoever replaces William Hague has in front of him an enormous task: not just reviving the Tory Party’s political fortunes, but reinventing its philosophy and its cultural appeal for a new generation, one which has scant respect for the party’s past traditions, and a far different agenda for the future.