Evolution or Decline? A Glimpse Beyond Thatcherite Conservatism and the Unsettling Prospects Ahead
In the throes of a global political right that seems to be floundering, the question echoes: Where is conservatism headed? In the context of British politics, the answer appears to be in a direction of opposition, potentially for an extended duration. The looming possibility of a Tory implosion in the next general election gains credibility with their significantly diminished support evident in recent by-elections. While skeptics may recall past Conservative recoveries, the current political landscape hints at a precarious future for the party, as polls consistently place the Tories closer to a quarter of the vote—an ominous position under the unforgiving gaze of the electoral system.
However, amidst the shadows of potential political disasters, or perhaps catalyzed by the looming threat, a space for new possibilities is emerging. The traditional boundaries of conservatism are being tested and, at times, shattered. The turbulent journey of the Conservative party toward reinvention has been evident in recent years, especially since 2021. Three successive Tory premierships have been marked by frantic attempts at transformation, and a broader period of self-doubt and experimentation has been underway.
This transformative process birthed Theresa May's 2017 manifesto, a surprising departure with attacks on "untrammelled free markets" and "the cult of selfish individualism," coupled with a pledge to forge "an economy that works for everyone." Boris Johnson's vague promises to "level up" Britain and construct a "high-wage economy" reflect a similar trajectory in the Tories' reevaluation. Rishi Sunak's audacious vow to end "30 years" of "broken" politics and "fundamentally change our country" adds to the eclectic mix of aspirations.
Yet, this journey is not a linear one; it weaves through anti-establishment rhetoric and awkward forays to the left, juxtaposed with lunges to the right—or even the far right. The ongoing culture wars against minorities, an authoritarian stance on protest and parliament, and attacks on institutions impeding the exercise of Tory power have characterized this period. The Conservative party, for some time, has conveyed a discomfort with the society and economy it played a substantial role in shaping. This discontent, coupled with a deepening unpopularity, has led the party to a peculiar space.
In this space of political uncertainty and upheaval, ideas once deemed heretical or extreme are gaining traction. A unique amalgamation of anger and electoral dread coexists with a sense of excitement. For the first prolonged period since the formative years of Thatcherism in the 1970s, the very essence of conservatism is in flux, up for grabs, and undergoing a profound reevaluation.
Amidst a broader ideological tumult stretching from Hungary to the United States, a profound transformation is underway on the right, fueled by a pervasive disillusionment with modern life and the market values that conservatives once championed. This ideological ferment encompasses a diverse spectrum, involving populists and intellectuals, insurgents and party leaders, semi-academic conferences, and assertively belligerent media, bringing together ordinary activists and billionaires in an unexpected confluence.
In the latest episode of this ongoing self-examination within conservative circles, largely unnoticed save for a brief mention on UnHerd—a well-funded platform where conservatism undergoes scrutiny—a notable billionaire took the stage at Oxford. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, a self-proclaimed libertarian with contracts extending to the Pentagon and the NHS, emerged as a pivotal figure. A significant supporter of Donald Trump and other unpredictable right-wing politicians in the U.S., Thiel embodies the contradictions, confusions, and immense influence characterizing the evolving landscape of this nascent conservatism.
Thiel's lecture, delivered in his characteristic stuttering and restless style, traversed an intriguing path. From anticipated diatribes against the "woke disease" to unexpected critiques of the property market as a "housing racket," and reflections on the one-time nature of Margaret Thatcher's deregulation and tax cuts, Thiel displayed a complexity that mirrored the fluid state of the new conservatism. Expressing sympathy for Liz Truss, a Tory premier attempting to extend policies Thiel deemed unrepeatable, he further muddied the ideological waters by labeling himself as "centre-right" while criticizing Rishi Sunak, a fervent social conservative and lifelong free-marketeer, as too moderate and akin to Keir Starmer.
As the lecture reached its zenith, Thiel ventured into contentious territory, asserting that fascism was "more innocent" than communism—a statement likely to discomfort even those within the conservative fold. Despite the provocative nature of his discourse, the setting of Thiel's lecture was far from a gathering of an embattled tribe. In a grand Oxford University auditorium, a capacity audience comprised high-profile right-wingers from Britain, the U.S., and Canada, adorned in prosperity, networking with confidence, and seemingly impervious to the chaos unfolding within the Tory and Republican parties and the territories they govern. Thiel's rhetoric, rebellious as it may be, failed to convey a sense of a beleaguered assembly; instead, it echoed the paradoxical dynamism and uncertainty characterizing the evolution of contemporary conservatism.
In the shadows of conservative gloom about the state of the world, a performative melancholy that historically accompanied the well-off right's sense of security, a more profound turmoil is unfolding. The current upheaval within right-wing circles globally signals a belated reckoning with the inadequacies, and possibly outright failure, of the economic model they championed for half a century—a model once hailed for creating widespread wealth and fostering social mobility.
The realization that free-market capitalism is likely unsustainable from an environmental perspective adds a layer of complexity, one that many conservatives, including figures like Sunak, seem hesitant to confront. Simultaneously, conservatives are awakening to the harsh reality that they've lost significant ground among young and middle-aged demographics in many democracies. While the current narrative attributes this loss to the perceived encroachment of liberal and left-wing values—the so-called "woke disease"—there's a growing recognition that this dismissive approach to social change may not be a winning strategy.
The right finds itself at a crossroads, realizing the need for a fresher conservatism—one that grapples more realistically with the challenges and opportunities of the modern world, and rethinks governance strategies. The current dilemma echoes a historical precedent from the 1970s when the right engaged in a comprehensive rethink. In party meetings, policy papers, think tanks, and exclusive gatherings, the right explored a spectrum of political recipes, spanning from nationalist to globalist, eugenicist to corporatist, libertarian to authoritarian, before ultimately settling on the effective formula of Thatcherism.
As the right embarks on this introspective journey once again, the window of opportunity opens for non-Tories to shape the narrative. The need for a pragmatic and forward-thinking conservatism is evident, one that understands the contemporary landscape and charts a course for governance that resonates with a diverse and evolving society. In this moment of reevaluation, the trajectory of conservatism in Britain and beyond hangs in the balance. The opportunity for a thoughtful recalibration beckons, and the choices made in this pivotal period will shape the political landscape for years to come. Andy Beckett, a Guardian columnist, offers this insightful perspective on the ongoing transformation within conservative circles.
In conclusion, the tumult within conservative circles signals more than just a performative display of gloom; it reflects a substantive reevaluation of long-standing ideologies and economic models. The realization that the once-championed free-market capitalism may be inadequate and environmentally unsustainable is forcing conservatives to confront uncomfortable truths. Simultaneously, the disconnect with younger generations and the changing demographic landscape is prompting a recognition that dismissing social change with disdain may not be a winning strategy.
As conservatives grapple with these challenges, the call for a fresher, more realistic conservatism echoes. The historical precedent of the 1970s, when the right engaged in a comprehensive rethink before embracing Thatcherism, serves as a reminder of the transformative power of introspection. In this moment, as the right embarks on a new journey of self-discovery, the window of opportunity opens for non-Tories to shape the narrative and contribute to a conservatism that aligns with the complexities of the modern world.
The need for a pragmatic and forward-thinking conservatism is evident, one that addresses the contemporary landscape and redefines governance strategies. Andy Beckett's analysis offers a valuable perspective on the ongoing evolution within conservative ideologies, emphasizing the pivotal choices that will shape the political landscape in the years to come. As the right navigates this critical period of reassessment, the trajectory it chooses will not only influence its dominance in Britain and beyond but will also play a crucial role in shaping the future of political discourse and governance.