British Politics: a Circular View
It is remarkable how little British politics has changed in the last four decades.
Since Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, it has often seemed as if the radically centrist, neo-liberal consensus he helped establish were permanent — that the ‘Blairite’ was the only species capable of surviving in the political realm: red in tooth and claw, but decidedly not Red.
And the Blairite is radical. When someone says there was nothing radical about Blair, I want to ask if they think there was anything radical about Thatcher, for the latter called the former her finest creation. The Lib Dems, too — having split from Labour — declare, in the wake of Brexit, that their centrism makes them the only sensible, non-ideological party, without realising that centrism is itself a radical position wedded to a near-creedal belief in social and fiscal liberalism.
There has been nothing conservative, therefore, about the Conservative Party since at least Heath, and nor was there anything ‘left’ of the Labour Party until Corbyn battled his way to the top. It is as Orwell put it: the position that something has nothing to do with politics is itself a political stance.
We should then welcome Jeremy Corbyn. Socially he is perhaps too mushy a liberal to appeal to the ageing, socially conservative ‘old Labour’ faction that was in large part responsible for the Brexit vote. But even to them, his return to socialist policies of re-nationalisation, and his quasi-religious reverence for the NHS, is a welcome change to a consensus that could pretend, for example, that Tristram Hunt understood one jot what animates the people of Stoke-on-Trent.
Whereas the ‘old left’ of Tony Benn and the yet-skinning Dennis Skinner was concerned chiefly with unions and industry, Corbyn’s Labour Party, while retaining its ancestral servitude to the cult of Socialism, is more concerned with the social justice causes for which its new base, i.e. The Young, live.
As such, Corbyn represents a return, not so much to the causes, but the sentiments, that birthed the Labour Party 117 years ago. While I am not a fan of socialism, I see the direction in which Corbyn has taken Labour as cathartic, for it was inevitable — the antithesis to a thesis that began before Blair but was epitomised in his removing Clause IV from Labour’s constitution.
The concomitant change in the Conservative party has been far, far more insidious. They have betrayed their base more completely than any other Party, but they have so managed their PR as to continue to fool them into voting for them. In what other country could a party with conservatism in its name ban fox hunting; legalise gay marriage (for which, to be clear, I am in favour, but consider it a peripheral issue to begin with); allow its justice and prison systems to keep rotting; turn a blind eye to a rampant and unprecedented culture of drug-taking; and mock and Church of its ancestors?
I shall repeat what I have already said: there is nothing conservative about the current conservative party. Nothing. It is socially, fiscally, politically liberal and has been for decades. If, therefore, Corbyn has an analogue in the conservative party — someone who would represent a shift towards its ancestral base — it would be Jacob Rees-Mogg.
To say this is not to endorse him. His views on abortion, for example, are obviously retrograde (an adjective he seems to want to foster). But in his defence, he did point out that, were he in a position to change those laws (i.e. Prime Minister), he would not, and in any case could not. That is perfectly true. The ability for an elected public official to make this distinction is the mark of liberalism. Tim Farron attempted to defend the same distinction but was shamefully, stupidly pilloried for it.
(The extent to which conservative opinions are reviled in modern Britain cannot be overstated, and finds it most juvenile expression in the young, for whom any opinion outside the regressive-left consensus is racist, Islamophobic, and fascist all at once. T-shirts, tweets, announcements, and pleas to ostricise the conservatives in your life, and at worst maim them, abound. This kind of attitude is anti-thesis of the gentle, humane politics that has so delicately flourished in this land for so long.)
In any case, Rees-Mogg speaks to the ghost in the machinery of the Conservative Party that has been silenced by the Blairites that have been running it. Whether or not Rees-Mogg can appeal to the many small-c conservatives around the country who, for example, favour renationalising the railways, I don’t know. He appears to be something of a free market fanatic. But to the extent that he defends the perfectly sensible belief in parliamentary sovereignty, the nation state, sensibly-governed national borders, and the ‘prudent change’ that imbues philosophical conservatism, he at least offers something for which there is a taste and a yearning.
If the forces behind Corbyn and Rees-Mogg continue to grow, British politics, despise its long, radical shackling to the centre, will have changed very little in terms of what motivates her people. When Corbyn says he is offering change, people believe him; I believe him. Whether that change is good or not, we shall have to wait and see. I hope the Conservative party undergoes its own revamp: the prospect of an election offering two genuine alternatives is a refreshing one.