A month or so ago, when the public’s opposition to any intervention in Syria was revealed, the stock explanation of their views was pretty simple – boiling down to Iraq, the unhinged premiership of Tony Blair, and people’s instinctive understanding of what is now known as “overstretch”.
But something else was in the air: a very British kind of scepticism, coupled with an instinctive belief that other nations’ wars are usually best left alone, and a general sense of people turning inward in pursuit of a quiet life. A conservative position, in other words, at which a certain kind of metropolitan commentator huffed and puffed, while others such as Paddy Ashdown pompously despaired of their own country, which is never the best look.
They should get used to it, because this is where a large swath of public opinion has arrived. Conservatism with a small “c” has always been ingrained in our politics, spanning both left and right – but it is starting to feel like its values may yet define the future. The shift is bound up not just with the wreckage of “liberal interventionism”, but something even more deep-rooted which, outside London, runs rampant: post-crash, a palpable sense of people having had a bellyful of globalisation, open markets, and much more besides.
When expressed, such sentiments are often reduced to gripes about immigration and the EU. But precious few in the media and political class seem to even want to understand what’s going on. Easier, obviously, to think of the world beyond the M25 as stuffed with bitter Little Englanders newly in love with Nigel Farage, raising union flags in their garden and listening to Vera Lynn, rather than a country that seems to be in a quiet state of ferment.
What has happened, in fact, is blindingly obvious. In the days when politicians of all parties were crowing on about the demise of left-right politics and a new dichotomy between “open” and “closed” views of the world, few noticed that the “open” credo was not doing millions of people many favours. For too many, the free movement of labour meant stagnating or declining wages and the doctor’s waiting room suddenly being full to bursting. Open international markets became equated with outsourced jobs. The “open” view that states should regularly intervene abroad was manifested in the tragic grind of Afghanistan and the disaster in Iraq. Within all this was something remarkable: New Labour reinventing the left’s internationalism as military belligerence and blank support for the demands of global capital, which are obviously rather different things.
Ergo the rise of Ukip, and public sentiment that blurs into antipathy towards supposed welfare scroungers, the non-debate about the niqab, and so on. This profoundly conservative turn in the country has been brewing for at least a decade. Some recognition of what was afoot was there in the “faith, family and flag” politics explored in the early days of “Blue Labour”. There’s a whiff of it in Ed Miliband’s attempts to mould a new kind of left populism, shorn of the new conservatism’s tendency to nastiness, but conscious of the fact that a politics built on Blair’s famous rejoicing that “new, new, everything is new” no longer works. Modern Labour politics, in fact, is streaked with something very different. The squeezed middle is surely a modern synonym for the petit bourgeoisie, the wellspring of conservatism down the ages; last week’s revival of the British jobs for British workers trope in Labour’s policy on apprentices spoke volumes.
But where is the Conservative party? It meets in Manchester this week, where it has no city councillors, knowing that across post-industrial Britain, it is underperforming. Its leading figures seem aware of where non-metropolitan public opinion is going, and can convincingly talk conservative on penal policy and some aspects of so-called welfare, as well as hyperventilating about immigration. Indeed, we can expect the inevitable noises off about such themes this week, as evidenced by word from Cameron over the weekend about a new immigration bill due this year that will supposedly hack through migrants’ “something for nothing” rights to any public service you care to think of.
But too many modern Tories’ conservatism is dissonant, for some key reasons. First – and here, picture George Osborne, who is not actually a small-c conservative at all – most of them are brimming with neoliberal zeal, and for all their thin approximations of patriotism, have a tin ear for issues that go from politics and economics into questions of national identity, culture and people’s feelings for where they live (which is why they think nothing of selling off the Royal Mail and are in love with the quasi-Stalinist white elephant that is HS2). Second, on foreign policy, Cameron is a Blairite, who underestimates how much we now mistrust callow politicians stomping around the world stage.
Third, the only conservative songs he and his allies can sing are the nasty ones. Funny, isn’t it, how with the “big society” having long breathed its last, they have so little to say about such quintessential conservative themes as family and locality? Certainly, if they think the moronic wheeze of a married couple’s tax break is meant to highlight some overlooked understanding of the fabric of people’s lives, they are surely mistaken – it looks cheap, in every respect.
Aside from Eric Pickles and the transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, the upper reaches of the Conservative party no longer contain anyone who understands non-metropolitan, working-class conservatism as a matter of instinct. Indeed, there is an abundance of people like Osborne who probably feel very awkward about it. Thatcher, Tebbit et al sold the population neoliberalism because they combined it with an innate understanding of ordinary people’s values and prejudices, and a brilliant sense of how to sweeten the pill, as demonstrated by the sale of council houses – the kind of masterstroke modern Conservatives must fantasise about. Without such elements, the mask drops, and you end up with the spectacle of posh people brazenly defending the interests of other posh people, as seen in Osborne’s millionaire’s tax cut: again, never the best look.
On the fringes of this week’s bunfight will be a new Conservative pressure group called Renewal, founded by David Skelton, a policy wonk and native of Consett in County Durham, and backed by Pickles. Its supporters’ pet policies include the raising of the minimum wage, localising the benefits system, and re-acquainting the Tories with industrial activism. They acknowledge the untamed economic winds that have laid waste to a lot of the UK, and the Tories’ mislaid talent for finding working-class leaders. They also understand that in a great deal of non-Tory Britain, to quote one sympathetic MP, life is bound up with “strong family and community bonds and a deep sense of history and place”.
They have yet to decisively find their voice, maybe for fear of offending the people at the top, perhaps because they are a very interesting work in progress – though, as far as I can tell, they are among the few Tories who even begin to understand the reason for the great gap between British conservatism and Conservatism. But is anyone listening?