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‘The Conservative Party: No Common Good’

The Conservatives have abandoned their post-war commitment to any meaningful social contract, argues Chris Painter, and are reduced to discredited market dogmas and neo-imperial fantasies

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak enters Downing Street. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA/Alamy

The Conservative Party: No Common Good

The Conservatives have abandoned their post-war commitment to any meaningful social contract, argues Chris Painter, and are reduced to discredited market dogmas and neo-imperial fantasies

As Rishi Sunak struggles to articulate his governing mission, providing a modicum of stability after the calamities of 2022 hardly cuts the mustard. Sense can only be made of his Premiership, in fact, by taking into account the changing trajectory of the Conservative Party since the Second World War.    

There have been three eras of Conservative hegemony post-1945: 1951-64; 1979-97; and 2010 on-going. The first of these eras burned through four Prime Ministers: Churchill; Eden (memorable for the Suez debacle); MacMillan (a Premiership eventually weighed down by the Profumo scandal); and finally Douglas-Home, who never really looked the part.     

The second period was highly charged but remarkable for an aura of political invincibility, until the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher by her Party in 1990. Nonetheless, John Major won a fourth consecutive election for the Conservatives, staggering on until 1997, despite early setbacks over ejection from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. A ‘back to basics’ slogan came to haunt him through a multiplicity of sexual and financial scandals perpetrated by his own MPs. Yet, how refreshing was countenance of the Nolan principles of public life compared with the subsequent behaviour of Boris Johnson.

The Conservatives since 2010 have already moved onto their fifth Prime Minister, David Cameron who became victim of his own botched EU referendum, followed by three forced resignations precipitated by Parliamentary Party factional in-fighting. Theresa May was unable to forge a consensus around Brexit implementation; Johnson showing utter disregard for standards in public life; and Liz Truss unceremoniously dumped from a Premiership lasting only weeks that pushed markets into turmoil.

The latest incumbent, Sunak, presides over a curiously rudderless Government, making his pitch fiscal responsibility, despite waste, fraud and public procurement scandals blighting pandemic crisis management.

Collectivist & Individualist Values

Far more significant than this procession of leaders, however, is a fundamental change in trajectory during those three post-1945 periods of Conservative longevity. 1951-64 marked acceleration in the transition from post-war austerity (“you’ve never had it so good’) whereas, post-2010, austerity became a defining feature of Conservative Administrations.

These early Premierships also largely operated within the managed economy-welfare state post-war policy architecture. In his ground breaking work in the 1960s on Modern British Politics, Harvard’s Samuel H. Beer highlighted this predominant collectivist political culture. Even trade unions were accepted as full participants in public life, providing stark contrast to later, successive, legislative measures aimed at marginalising their influence (discussions about the pandemic employee furlough scheme in Spring 2020 a rare exception). Indeed, even public service professionals have found themselves treated almost as pariahs as they resort to industrial action over declining living standards.     

Moreover, MacMillan became reconciled to the dying embers of British Empire by embracing the ‘winds of change’. Indeed, before the end of his Premiership he concluded that the UK’s future lay in a much closer relationship to Europe. Because of obstinacy from the then French President, it proved to be a vision not realised until the early 1970s under the ill-fated Heath Premiership.    

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Heath’s failures created an opening for Thatcher at the helm of the Conservative Party, pursuing a project very different from that of her post-war Conservative predecessors.  

Enter the era of neo-liberalism, when individualist values supplanted collectivist ones, ushering in the now familiar cocktail of privatisation, deregulation and new public management. It all reached a crescendo in the mid-1980s with Nigel Lawson’s deregulation of financial markets whilst Chancellor. That sowed volatility fuelling the later (albeit global) 2007-08 financial crisis and ensuing anaemic UK economic performance. Nor was Thatcher averse to using the coercive powers of the state to enforce radical change; hence Andrew Gamble’s paradoxical formulation in his book of the late 1980s, characterising this era as The Free Economy and the Strong State.

Major endeavoured to bring a more emollient style to the Premiership during the 1990s. But he became embroiled in battles within his own Party as Euro-sceptics started to flex their muscles, provided with thinly-veiled encouragement from the sidelines by Thatcher.

Aborted Modernisation 

When taking over the reins of leadership, Cameron posed as a Party moderniser. However, austerity became his signature policy at the commencement of a third post-war period of Conservative hegemony, fallout from which continues to take a toll on the social safety net and public services, leaving health and social care particularly in parlous straits.

Far from observing a social contract, even the voluntary ‘shadow’ welfare state is buckling under pressure of soaring demand. We know how Cameron’s story ended, in a poorly conceived and badly executed in-out EU referendum.

Together with political gridlock during May’s Premiership, this cleared the way for an opportunistic Johnson, seizing on Brexit and taking political refuge in neo-imperial fantasies of ‘Global Britain’. Not only that, he presided over the most corrupt Premiership of the post-1945 period. With an unstable coalition of voters cobbled together in the 2019 election unravelling, the Conservative Party descended into full-scale crisis mode during the course of 2022, from which it is currently trying desperately to extricate itself.  

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One commonality in these three periods of extended Conservative rule is that they all eventually succumbed to scandal, ultimately lapping at the very doors of Downing Street under Johnson’s Premiership. In other respects there was an even more remarkable transformation.

A party once accepting the social contract became instrumental in a society marred by inequality and poverty, with corrosive socioeconomic structural forces becoming deeply embedded. The market paradigm remains the default position, despite unavoidable large-scale state interventions during the pandemic and subsequently to mitigate an energy crisis. Yet, an imperative need is for sustained return to more proactive government, given how the UK has been relegated to almost developmental status. 

Additionally, there came retreat from the vision of leaders who accepted, on dissolution of Empire, that Britain’s only viable future lay with Europe, to instead fantasising about ‘Global Britain’. As Sathnam Sanghera argues in Empireland, in contradiction to the cultural warriors, progress as a nation can only proceed through challenging myths around imperial legacies. Instead, we have again become stranded by lack of any meaningful clarity— as in the 1950s— about the role the British state can and should perform on the international stage. All has come full circle, at the very time when Ukraine’s conflagration re-pivots the gravitational pull towards the European Continent. 

Chris Painter is an emeritus professor of public policy and management at Birmingham City University

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