Populism: the death of Conservatism?
How did the oldest party in Britain, the conservative party, come to embody right-wing populism? Is that all conservatism ever was, the polite face of a deeply unattractive right wing populism? There has never been a better time to pose this question after the Supreme Court’s judgment that the government had acted unlawfully.
Conservatism and populism normally take different approaches to the rule of law and the people. Liberal representative democracies, such as that in Britain, emphasise the representative role of the people through elections and referenda. Yet they uphold the rule of law as the means to guarantee the institutions and the processes through which the people can make a decision. Populists, in contrast, often claim to speak directly in the name of the people – and against those who would get in their way. The collision between traditional conservatism and right-wing populism, set in motion by Boris Johnson, was nowhere more apparent than in the Supreme Court’s unanimous condemnation of the government’s prorogation of parliament as ‘unlawful’. Conservatism has always emphasised respect for tradition, most notably the rule of law, and the (unwritten) constitution. For over three hundred years the Conservative Party claimed to embody law and order. The Supreme Court ruling shredded that claim.
The repercussions will haunt the Conservative party. No longer can the Tories claim that they are the natural party of law and order. Their government broke the law. This is far more significant than whether or not Boris Johnson defied drugs legislation by snorting cocaine. The highest Court in the land ruled that the leader of the oldest political party in the world, the Conservative Party, the prime minister and his Cabinet, broke the law. This is so unusual that the epithet historic does fit. Political commentators, constitutional historians and parliamentary experts can find no parallel case. This was, is, unprecedented.
The government received a short-term bounce at the polls after the decision. The Telegraph, The Sun, The Express and The Daily Mail portrayed the judiciary as part of the elite, once again using procedure to frustrate the democratic will of the people: ‘Unlawful? What’s Lawful About Denying 17.4m Brexit!’ one headline insisted. However, the long-term consequences for the erstwhile party of law and order are stark. Their political opponents will portray them as lawbreakers. They will do so for decades. Note for example how for a decade the Conservatives have characterised austerity: ‘We are clearing up Labour’s mess!’, ‘Labour crashed the economy; we are putting the house in order’. The Conservative Party, opponents will argue, knows no bounds to their privilege and entitlement. They break the law to get what they want, while slouching insouciantly through parliamentary debates. Our PM’s latest digression in refusing to sign the letter to the EU that complies with the Benn Act, while also sending an additional letter requesting that the EU ignores the first.
Many Conservative politicians view this high-risk strategy as fraught with danger. The impatience ‘to get on with it’, ‘to implement the people’s will and deliver Brexit’ stretches Conservatism’s steady-as-you-go credentials to breaking point. Quite apart from their differences with the executive over Brexit, Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Phillip Lee, Amber Rudd and others are well aware that the party’s carefully honed presentation as respectable, normal and legal is in tatters.
Britain now has a government of rogues. The reported strategy of Dominic Cummings is to deepen the populist approach of pitting the people against the establishment – with either parliament or the judiciary serving as the enemy (or preferably both). Boris Johnson’s language is not quite so hard line. Since entering Downing Street he has refrained from invoking the people against the elite. This may be a recognition that his associations with the elite – Eton, the Bullingdon Club, The Telegraph, de Pfeffel, and so on – run deep and are immovable. Instead, he and his government have adopted the slightly more subtle approach of identifying parliament or, the judiciary, as the culprits who have frustrated the people’s will. He may get his deal through parliament before October 31st, but if not he has prepared for it – those responsible will be punished at the polls, he contends.
Another classic distinction between populism and conservatism concerns their characterisation of the people. Conservatives claim always to have protected tradition in a joint project with their constituents, the silent majority, the people. The party conserves the past in order to preserve the future. It mediates a seamless bond between people and the elite. Populists breaks that bond. They declare that the elite have abandoned the people, that the elite act against the people.
‘Boris’ and his cronies are jeopardising the carefully nurtured assumption that conservatism forms a natural, compact unity with the people. This trope, the assumption that conservatives represent and articulate the common sense, is now shredded. Their recent leadership candidate, Rory Stewart, argues that the Conservatives are going through a ‘passing phase’. The worry for him and for ‘moderate’ One Nation Tories is that Johnson’s populist turn is more than a phase. There is a real risk that the enduring, carefully crafted tropes of Conservatism will not survive this populist onslaught. Conservatism and right-wing populism are uncomfortable bedfellows. The longer they cohabit, the more entrenched the connection becomes, the sooner will conservatism as we know it die.
Andy Knott is a contributor to and co-editor of the forthcoming The Populist Manifesto