Drop the pretence of One Nation Toryism
Published by The i paper (9th September, 2019)
It would be a brave person who picked out the politician that has most debased themselves since the Brexit debacle exploded. But among the favourites in this crowded field would be Matt Hancock, the over-promoted health secretary who switches views so freely whenever he sees any threat to his seat at the cabinet table. One minute he is a compassionate conservative, bitterly opposed to No Deal, valiant defender of businesses and vowing to fight on the beaches to prevent the proroguing of parliament. Then he pops up a few days later to do his latest leader’s dirty work by arguing passionately against his own previously stated views.
Hancock personifies why so many voters have lost faith in Westminster. He is a plasticine politician, moulded by others into contorted positions while posing as someone of stature. Last week he tweeted that one of his jobs was ‘to stick up for doctors’ after Jacob Rees-Mogg compared a neurologist with whom he clashed to the disgraced medical fraudster behind the measles epidemic – but only after the leader of the house was forced to apologise by a tide of outrage. Then after Amber Rudd found her backbone, he expressed sadness at her resignation but hoped ‘other One Nation Tories will stay and fight for the values we share.’
Note how this ludicrous figure still dons the mantle of One Nation Conservatism when he is serving the most divisive prime minister and right-wing government in modern history. In just a few short weeks Boris Johnson has trashed constitutional norms, jeopardised the union, risked peace in Ireland and purged many of his own moderates as he completes the transformation of the Tories into the Brexit Party. As a horrified Ruth Davidson asks, how is there no longer room in their party for Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson Nick Soames? Nor indeed for Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart, Philip Hammond, Sam Gyimah and Margot James among others.
The Tories in exile are far more impressive than the lickspittles in cabinet. Any moderate still defending Johnson is either deluded or simply deserving contempt. In just three years – thanks to the idiocy of offering a binary vote on such a complex issue as Brexit – their party has gone from fighting for the centre ground to feuding with Nigel Farage over who speaks for English Nationalists. Warned they could lose Guildford if pressing on with hard Brexit, Johnson breezily replied ‘Guildford will have to go then.’ The arrogant ease with which he is prepared to ditch such a true blue seat, which had a majority of more than 17,000 at the last election, shows how fast the tectonic plates are shifting in politics as his party hurtles to the right.
Never mind that nearly four in ten Tories voted Remain. Nor that an idea fuelled by an idea of supposed freedom from unelected bureaucrats is being driven by a shady official pulling all the strings in Downing Street, reportedly even dictating to the prime minister what he can tell the cabinet. Johnson looks shattered, stumbling in that bizarre speech before police recruits last week, and was said to be in tears over his brother’s resignation. But he seems prepared to do anything to deliver his faction’s vision of Brexit, regardless of the impact on his nation or his party. And yes, he too, claims to be a One Nation conservative.
British politics has become a dark Orwellian place of ugly doublespeak, especially under its latest prime minister who distorts truth so freely. But please let us drop the pretence: the Tory party has abandoned any trace of One Nation conservatism, that noble idea of bonding peoples together which is so at add odds with the inherently-divisive creed of nationalism. One Nation has become a hollow term for all its proud history in the party, one more sign of the corrosion of the Conservative brand as it is tweeted out and claimed remorselessly but utterly detached from current reality.
The idea of One Nation Toryism has developed since Benjamin Disraeli, founder of the modern party, wrote in his 1845 novel Sybil about the divide between rich and poor as ‘inhabitants of different planets….ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings’. How ironic that this still reflects our nation today amid a meltdown induced by his own party. Over subsequent decades, his successors in the party evolved the paternalistic term to talk about uniting the kingdom, then to embrace the welfare state and create a property-owning democracy.
This was the sort of centrist, internationalist and pragmatic conservatism that kept the Tories in government for two-thirds of the last century, then put them back into Downing Street under David Cameron. It is a term revived as an umbrella group by dozens of MPs opposing No Deal Brexit. Yet it is devalued if they retain their whip. For how can anyone defending this disruptive government claim to be promoting the sanctity of the union, the strength of society, any concern for the disadvantaged or even British leadership on the global stage when these are all being put at risk by the fanatical shock troops of hard Brexit that have seized control of their party?
One Nation Toryism has died a brutal death – just as a Labour party that might be recognisable to its past leaders has also disintegrated. Brexit has riven the country, ruptured politics and ripped apart the generations. However much Johnson and his followers talk of unity, they have inflamed the divisions that torment our nation and betrayed the legacy of their predecessors. Our nation has been shattered – and there is no longer a recognisable version of the Conservative Party.