Distilling the essence


May 27, 2024By Pete North

My writing of late has been exploring what the essence of conservatism is. This is a necessary exercise because genuine British conservatism can win where rootless populism cannot. And it has to be pitched firmly in the centre right. But what does "centre right" even mean when you have the likes of David Gauke, Rory Stewart and Amber Rudd laying claim to it? If those people are centre right then words no longer mean anything. 

In a post-Brexit referendum context, there is nothing centre-right about remainerism. Because real conservatism is about pragmatism. 

It was actually the president of the European Commission from 1977 to 1981 who said it best. In 1999, Roy Jenkins said “There are only two coherent British attitudes to Europe. One is to participate fully and to endeavour to exercise as much influence and gain as much benefit as possible from the inside. The other is to recognise that Britain’s history, national psychology and political culture may be such that we can never be other than a foot-dragging and constantly complaining member; and that it would be better, and certainly would produce less friction, to accept this and to move towards an orderly, and if possible, reasonably amicable withdrawal.”

We did the latter. We're letting them get on with it the way they want to get on with it. With a sharply divided British electorate, there simply wasn't a mandate to go all in on the European project. This was always known, and our departure was always inevitable. The campaign to leave the EU began in 1975, before the EU was the EU.

And there's something else that's fundamentally conservative. And it's not even "centre right". It's respecting the outcome of referendums. And as pragmatists, it is not for conservatives to try and drag us back to where we were never destined to be. We move forward. We believe, as a country, in national independence. We believe in internationalism, not supranationalism. Furthermore, we believe in national government and national democracy. That's your starting point. 

But then just this week, we have the supposedly "centre right" complaining about modifications to study visas. There simply isn't a conservative case (centre or otherwise) for allowing universities to expand beyond sustainable limits, selling visas to foreign students who won't complete courses, debasing the value of British qualifications in the process. It's grasping and short-sighted. 

The more one examines the ideas and attitudes of those who lay claim to the centre right, the more I'm convinced that these people are dissembling squatters.

Far from being centrists or moderates, they advocate for the most radical changes to the makeup of British culture imaginable. These so-called "one nation" Tories are no-nation Tories. Or perhaps more accurately, post-nation Tories. Their misplaced sense of "pragmatism" is merely surrendering to the forces of globalisation without fighting back. This isn't pragmatism, it's supine indifference.

If conservatism is to find its feet again, it must leave these dinosaurs far behind. The era of globalisation and "liberal internationalism" quietly died while we were all in lockdown. 

When we emerged from our collective incarceration, we stepped into a multipolar world, in which the post-war institutions are in a state of terminal decay, captured by a radical activist class. A world in which America is no longer the guarantor of European security. A world in which the EU no longer believes in free speech and free exchange of ideas. A world in which economic nationalism and national identity is roaring back to life. A world in which the young feel no obligation to maintain archaic international structures that were cemented in place many decades ago. A world in which electorates will no longer tolerate the stranglehold of duopoly and the false choice of consensus politics.

The new conservatism must speak to this new world. It cannot be yesterday's men trying to put Humpty back together again. It must be prepared to build a New Britain, and a new settlement for the age of uncertainty. An age when the people demand more of a say in how they are ruled, and demand their politicians only act with consent. 

The centre is rooted in the nation state. The centre right is rooted in the time-honoured traditions that have withstood throughout. Nation, community, family, free enterprise and free association; the authentic centre of conservatism. If the Conservative Party can find its way back to these core concepts, it will rule for a generation and create a nation its people can be proud of.

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