In conversation with James Delingpole a few days ago, William (or maybe Jacob) Rees-Mogg said:
23:45: “People want to know that what you’re doing is based on some form of principle and that you have a direction you are going in. And it’s very straightforward for the Conservatives. We basically believe that people should make decisions over their own lives. They should be as free as possible to do that. That society is built from the bottom up from individuals and their families, building a society, a community. And that the job of politicians is to allow people to follow the path of life that they want, and that we should clear the path. We should cut the hedges and we should remove the stones they may trip over. We should not tell them which of the many paths they ought to go down, because we know best: that is socialism.”
Listening to this, and agreeing, I couldn’t help but wonder firstly whether Theresa May’s Conservative Party was actually “conservative” in this sense, and secondly whether this was an accurate description of “conservatism.”
After all, if Theresa May really believed that it is “the job of politicians is to allow people to follow the path of life that they want”, she would have fully supported those people who had chosen to smoke cigarettes (or pipes or cigars), and among the priorities of her government would have been the repeal of the UK public smoking ban.
But she has never expressed any support for smokers, and has never acted to lift any of the restrictions that have been placed upon them, even though about 65% of Conservative MPs voted against the smoking ban. And in fact her Conservative government, and that of David Cameron before her, have continued the War on Smoking. In this respect, both she and David Cameron’s Conservatives were no different from the Labour party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before them (and also no different from the Lib Dems either). Tobacco Control is represented by all UK political parties. The only possible exception is Nigel Farage’s UKIP. But since he is no longer its leader, it seems that UKIP is now in thrall of Tobacco Control as well. Nobody speaks up for Britain’s smokers.
But what William Rees-Mogg was describing didn’t strike me as being “conservative”: it was instead an expression of classical liberalism rather than conservatism. Because what I think of as conservatism is a wish to preserve the status quo. Conservatives, back in the 1950s, were people who above all stood for God and King and Empire. They were the party of aristocratic Britain.
But that sort of conservatism died shortly after WW2, when the British Empire was quietly dissolved, and Britain’s wealthy aristocracy became penniless, and God quietly departed from the churches. In some ways our current Queen Elizabeth II is the last remaining vestige of that lost world, like the mast of some sunken ship which still protrudes above the surface above. The new Conservatism that followed this old lost conservatism was the Conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, which was primarily concerned with industry and trade and entrepreneurship rather than God and King and Empire.
But if Conservatism in Britain died in 1945 and was reborn in 1979, it seems that the Liberal Party of Britain simply died, sometime circa 1920, and was never reborn. The first was one of the casualties of WW2, and the second was a casualty of WW1.
And perhaps all political parties have a natural lifetime. The British Labour Party was born in 1900, swept into power in 1945, but had to be re-invented in 1995 by Tony Blair as New Labour, much like the Conservatives had been re-invented in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher (and the US Republican party is now being re-invented by Donald Trump).
The British Labour party was the party of the working classes and their trade unions. It was the party of miners and factory workers, when Britain was the workshop of the world, and it grew powerful when such people were granted the political franchise. But it finally took power in 1945 exactly when Britain had ceased to be the workshop of the world, and many of the mines and factories were closing down. So it was, in some ways, stillborn. And that was why it had to re-invent itself in 1995, and find itself a new electorate.
And it would seem that, while political parties may retain their names, the beliefs of their party voters and members and leaders can (and do) change very radically.
At present there doesn’t seem to be very much of either a Communist party or Fascist party in Britain. And yet both of these were among the principal political movements of the 20th century. What happened to them? Well, being a “commie” is more or less identical with being a traitor (Philby, Blunt), and being a “fascist” is even worse. So hardly anyone ever describes themselves as being either communist or fascist. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any of them around any more. For both the communists and the fascists were believers in state power, and in every country in the world state governments have become far more powerful than they were a mere century ago. And so in many ways the ruling political orthodoxy is now a sort of soft fascism. The state – which is a collection of political party appointees, civil servants, NGOs, and lobbyists – knows best what’s good for people, right down to what they should eat and drink and smoke, and it sets out to bully and cajole everyone into complete conformity. We live in a society as carefully planned as that of the post-war British Labour party, or the 1930 Soviet Communist party. But the plans are no longer published or debated. The plans are made in secret by “experts” – just like Tobacco Control’s plans are now made in secret – and only periodically publicly announced (or ‘leaked’). We are governed by sort of new aristocracy of secretive insiders, with everyone else (over 95% of the population) kept in the dark.
Is there anything new about that? Not really. That’s how it’s always been. We are always governed by elites of one sort or other. The names they call themselves – Conservatives, Liberals, Progressives, Cosa Nostra, etc. – may change from time to time. They just don’t parade around wearing green ostrich feathers like Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914. But the struggle between these governing elites and those that they seek to control is as intense today as it ever was.