The moral cowardice of moderate conservatism in Britain.

Historically speaking, but especially since when George Bush Jr became president in 2000, British conservatives have regarded themselves as more reasonable than their American cousins. Unlike the Republicans, British conservatives have no desire to allow mass gun ownership. They firmly believe in universal healthcare, even if they want the private sector to play a role in delivering it. For the most part, they accept the science of climate change, even if some are sceptical of government initiatives in the name of environmentalism. The British conservative movement is also much less religious, and so social conservatism is less pronounced, and a belief in creationism is held only by a very small minority.

When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president in 2015, the contrast between British and American conservatives could not have been greater. Trump epitomised the popular stereotype of American conservatives amongst British people: brash, rude, arrogant, totally self-confident, crudely xenophobic. Conversely, Britain was led by a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron- an Old Etonian with impeccable manners and charm, even if he was never wildly popular. Cameron was a moderating force within the Conservative Party, whereas Trump indulged all of the Republicans’ worst instincts.

But since Brexit, and particularly since Trump’s inauguration, I would argue that British conservatives aren’t necessarily more reasonable than their American counterparts. The obvious example is that many British conservatives have defended Trump. UKIP, a nationalist party that played a crucial role in winning the EU referendum for Leave, overtly supported him. Some conservatives have made needlessly ambiguous signals as to how they feel about Trump. Many argue that Trump is good for Brexit Britain, since he is more likely to give the UK a trade deal than Hillary Clinton. But Theresa May and the Conservative Party’s sucking up to Trump has backfired. Trump is extremely unlikely to sign a free trade deal with the UK. When the Democrats return to power, they will prioritise a trade deal with an anti-Trump EU, which is a much larger market than the somewhat pro-Trump UK. Not only was trying to establish a close relationship immoral, it was also counterproductive.

British conservatives have also abandoned moderation in regards to Brexit. Most of the parliamentary Conservative Party supported Remain. When Leave won, they rightly said they would respect the result. But since then, they have embarked on a strategy of ruin. They triggered Article 50 in the belief that a process clearly designed to favour the EU could yield a good outcome for the UK. Article 50 was triggered prematurely- the process should not have started until the government was united and clear as to what precise sort of Brexit it wanted. Theresa May has ruled out staying in the Single Market and Customs Union, believing that a deal negotiated in a short period of time will be better for the country than an off the shelf agreement akin to Norway’s. This is foolishness of the highest order; ruling out staying in the Single Market and Customs Union means having to accept whatever the EU offers the UK, since leaving without a deal at all is just about the worst possible outcome.

Post-Brexit Britain has experienced a notable rise in extremely conservative viewpoints being made, even if all conservatives don’t necessarily share them. The right wing press has embarked on a Breitbart-style ideological crusade, branding anyone not committed to their views as ‘mutineers’, ‘traitors,’ ‘saboteurs,’ or ‘enemies of the people.’ British conservatives, to an even greater extent than American conservatives, are utterly convinced by the benefits of a dramatic reduction in legal immigration. The Prime Minister even wants to limit the number of foreign students, despite them contribution vast sums of money to the higher education sector and the wider economy, while claiming no benefits at all. Britain has taken in relatively few refugees, and the right wants the country to take in even fewer.

However, the most radical change in British conservatism has been its economic stance. Under David Cameron, the Conservative Party was committed to a European social democracy, albeit a slimmed down one for the sake of deficit reduction. But now, the idea that we should abandon social democracy altogether post-Brexit has entered the mainstream. Those on the Tory Right talk of a ‘Singapore on Thames’- a low tax, low regulation, tariff-free nirvana. But this would be an unmitigated disaster. For a start, unilaterally abolishing tariffs would decimate British agriculture, unable to compete with cheap imports from heavily subsidised large scale farms in American and Asia. It would eliminate the country’s leverage in negotiating free trade deals for the benefit of Britain’s exporters. A considerable reduction in taxes would also be a catastrophe. The deficit, already higher due to the costs of Brexit, would increase even further. Britain’s taxes are already relatively low by developed world standards, so there wouldn’t be much of an increase in foreign investment. Moreover, the accompanying spending cuts would also have an impact, from a worse education system to a lack of much-needed infrastructure spending. Finally, Britain cannot deregulate its way to growth. International corporations follow EU rules because the EU is such a large market; Britain does not have the clout to become a rule maker in world industry and trade.

Now I’m not saying that all British conservatives are closet Trumpists who support a hard Brexit, massively reduced immigration and neoliberalism on steroids. My point is that those once-fringe ideas are now accepted as perfectly normal, and are barely challenged by Britain’s moderate conservatives. Like the Republicans, the Conservatives are putting party unity above the country’s interests. They are going ahead with a poorly thought out Brexit strategy, and won’t challenge the Tory Right, because to do otherwise would throw the party into civil war. There are some notable exceptions, such as Anna Soubry, Kenneth Clarke, Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve. But for the most part, moderate conservatives have given up fighting. They may live to regret their silence, as a party dominated by the Tory Right is one more likely to lose to Labour.

For more information, I would read this excellent column: https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2017/06/michael-gove-conservative-collapse/.

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