Conservative Party sheds its One-Nation image

Don Flynn says the Tory wolf of private property is now out

The Conservative Party once prided itself as being the choice for people who wanted a ‘safe pair of hands’ on the tiller of national government. It was supposed to be political fellowship that could be trusted to be sensible, moderate, and above all non-ideological. Belief in the role of ideas as a force directing the movement of history was something the left went in for. No respectable person could be expected to muddy themselves in that mire.

This disdain for philosophical outlooks was tosh of course. As Gramsci made plain to anyone thinking more deeply about these things, the best ideology is one that hides itself in plain sight. It consists of ideas that are so pervasive across society that they appear more as an emotional response to the way we think things ought to be rather than a process of rational reflection.

The conservatism of the modern Conservative Party had its heyday in a Britain where towns and cities were clusters of industries and businesses offering something approximate to a decent wage for a hard day’s work. Local high streets bustled with grocers, butchers, newsagents, chemists and chandler’s shops which met the needs of households who lived just ten minutes walk from their weekly shop. Outright homelessness was held at a level where it was more-or-less invisible to most ordinary citizens, and the blameless poor (widows, pensioners, the chronically ill) had a social welfare system to fall back on.

This was a society which provided the Conservatives with their formidable cadre – reckoned to number over a million people in the 1950s. Centring on the cheap beer served at the local Conservative Association club, the party was a hub for merchants and shopkeepers, craft conscious tradesmen, regular attenders at the services of moderate protestant churches, and the womenfolk who organised the local fetes and charitable functions.

According to the figures for membership of the party that were being quoted during the recent leadership contest, there are somewhere between 140,000 and 180,000 people registered in Conservative ranks today. They are not just very different people from the directors of local builders’ firms, managers of the high street banks, and grammar school head teachers of yesteryear. In many ways they should be seen as the descendants of the people who rose up against this old Tory party back in the 1970s and 1980s, denouncing the people they had been closest to as ‘the establishment’, and who overthrew them through a series of policies that obliterated the social forces that had held the old localism together.

Municipal government lost its local identity during these years as it was reduced to a mere conduit for implementing national policies which required the sale of public assets and a role limited to commissioning the cheapest possible services from private corporations. Bank branches shifted from their austere role as the supporters of ‘sound’ business to profligate dispensers of the easy credit which later fuelled the debt crisis. The physical shape of communities changed in fundamental ways, as shops on high streets closed down and even local pubs went into steep decline.

Membership of the Conservative Party dwindled during these years as the organisation lost its organic connection with the communities it considered itself to be part of. What was left of its husk was thinly populated by the true believers of the Thatcher revolution. Advocates of the de-mutualisation of building societies (my, those windfalls look good!), speculative investors in the assets that now bubbled up across the economy, right wing libertarians with a visceral hatred of the nanny state – in a few words, the chasers after the rents that could be extracted from fellow citizens as more and more of the life force was drained from the public realm to reappear as something which could only be obtained on a commercial contract.

Now that it rested on representatives of a social class for whom greed equals good, the Conservative Party could not be anything other than a ‘nasty party’, pushed into ever more right wing, extremist stances by a determination to render the whole of society as a business opportunity for anyone with the wherewithal to make the initial investment.

The ascendency of the caste of ruthless wannabe Gordon Gekkos at least has the effect of laying bare the ideological nature of the Conservative Party. This is a political movement that will go anywhere to defend its most fundamental principle: that the rule of private property is sacrosanct and its preservation is its foremost mission, even if it leads to the evisceration of the civil society that has sustained the liberal and civic values which it claims as being its special endowment to British society.

The gloves are off. Politics is increasingly seen as a battle between two ideological stances which stand in full opposition to one another. The task for Labour is to make sure that it comes out on top in this battle of ideas.

Don Flynn

Don Flynn is Chartist managing editor and former director of Migrant Rights Network