Writing in the foreword of the 1946 edition of his own novel from 15 years previous, “Brave New World”, Aldous Huxley said this:
“For the last 30 years there have been no conservatives; there have only been nationalistic radicals of the right and nationalistic radicals of the left.”
Huxley saw the First World War – correctly in my opinion – as the breakdown of British conservatism, something which did not come back in to itself again until after the Second World War and the shock of the Attlee government to focus Tory minds. Perhaps the scariest thing about Brexit is that we are witnessing a similar breakdown of conservatism once again. This is bad whether you are a conservative or not given we have a Tory government and little prospect in the short term of an alternative.
It isn’t unconservative to want Britain to leave the European Union; it is certainly not conservative, however, to want to leave at any and all costs. Before and during the referendum campaign, the idea of Brexit was relatively simple: if the British people voted to leave the EU, the European Union would crumble. Either it would fall apart completely before our eyes, or at the very least it would give Britain everything it was after in Brexit negotiations. If it didn’t, EU unity would fracture, with the Germans arguing with the French, with the whole thing unravelling in Britain’s favour.
This hasn’t happened. In fact, the exact opposite has taken place. When you construct a plan based on a set of assumptions, and then every single one of those assumptions turns out to be incorrect, you have one of two options: you can admit you were wrong or you can double down and shape reality around you to fit your original premise. You can either come to terms with the world as it is or you can construct a fantasy. Conservatism is supposed to be about taking the world as it is, yet we’re not seeing that from many British figures who self-identify as conservative.
Beyond taking the world as it is, conservatism, in Britain at least, is supposed to be about the following: respecting institutions and conventions, the importance of the western order, that business knows best what business needs, that getting ahead in life must be earned. All of these have been overturned in the name of Brexit. So many have got upset about Johnson proroguing parliament, talking about it as a constitutional outrage, when in fact Downing Street has threatened something that is exponentially more constitutionally outrageous in the shape of suggesting that if there is a vote of no confidence in the government and an alternative PM can find a majority, Johnson will barricade himself inside of Number 10 and refuse to make way. If that happens, that’s when we can start talking about creeping dictatorships and the like.
There is one idea that underpins Brexit that is the least conservative of all, I would argue: that as a member of the EU, Britain is weaker than it deserves to be, and that by unshackling itself from the European Union, Britain can be truly great again. From a conservative point of view, this is impossible. A nation is as valued as it deserves to be in the world order – again, respect must be earned. If the EU treats Britain the way it does and not the way Brexiteers expect it should; if America and China treat Britain as a minor player in the grand scheme of things, this is all just reality asserting itself. You have to take the world as it is. or, I suppose, conservatives don’t need to any longer.
With the arrival of Johnson’s premiership, this is all getting worse. Bad as May was, there were elements of conservatism of which she wasn’t willing to let go. Now, conservatism is ideologically unmoored, happy to go wherever Brexit leads. I don’t think this has a good ending for conservatism. Conservatism is too strong a political concept to die out forever, but we seem to be witnessing its hibernation. When it awakens again, it may be into a very different world.