History and the Conservative mind

I’ve never been a Conservative, even before the British Conservative Party reached its current grotesque form.

I say “even before”, because the Conservatism that prevailed through much of the 20th century was less obviously grotesque. Until Margaret Thatcher came along Conservatism had settled into a kind of pragmatism essentially laid down by Disraeli (for the “judicious reform of proven abuses”). It saw itself as anti-ideological, and perhaps under the influence of Michael Oakeshott (who did not see himself as partisan) as somehow fundamentally realistic, as well as attached to tradition.

I could never see the status quo as so benign. Indeed even in its mild form this anti-ideological stance is itself ideological, demanding the preservation of a system that’s under pressure from a changing reality. Conservatism’s “realism” has always been self-serving.

Ironically things took a different turn under Thatcher, “ironically” because apart from a vague attachment to the anti-Marxist thinking of Friedrich Hayek, Thatcher would have seen herself in the “realist” tradition of Oakeshott, even while ushering in Conservatism’s turn to neoliberalism. In other words she didn’t know what she was doing. John Major tried to pull things back to a “warm beer and cricket” centrism, but the disease of free market fundamentalism had already infected the body of the Tory party.

In a sense it would be wrong to call Boris Johnson an ideologue. He doesn’t appear to believe in much except his own advancement, but to achieve that advancement he’s hitched himself to a wagon of third-rate fanatics. He has however always wanted to call himself a Conservative, and his recent comments on the destruction of political statues (suggesting it was a denial of our history) illustrate the incoherence of what has now become the Conservative mind.

Johnson positions himself as a defender of that history, as if that history offered a simple clear story. He objects to the daubing of the word “racist” on Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, because he says Churchill was a national hero, but while that’s indubitably true it’s also indubitably true that he was a racist.

If you want to say a statue’s function is to remind us of our history (the only way you could claim its removal was denying history), then it’s better that it reminds us of how history isn’t usually simple, and so tells a fuller story. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t commemorate Churchill, but we should commemorate him with our eyes open. It would not do us any harm, and might help us understand our present problems more thoroughly (that’s what the study of history is supposed to do).

Equally if the plaque explaining that Edward Colston’s wealth was derived from the murder and enslavement of thousands had been fixed to his statue I would very much favour it being left in place, a monument to promote our understanding of the present’s blood-soaked debt to the past. Despite prolonged efforts to create such a plaque the statue was left in its propagandic state, and it deserved to be pulled down.

“We can’t edit our past”, claim the Conservative defenders of these statues, but that’s exactly what they are asking us to do.

Conservatives struggle with history. I’m not suggesting that the study of history will necessarily make you left wing, but it certainly makes it hard to be a Conservative. I don’t want to fall into the trap of Whiggish history, which sees everything tending towards a state of grace, but equally it’s hard to ignore the fact that the broad narrative of modern Western history shows a movement away from exploitative autocracy towards a greater attention to the well-being of everyone. Conservatives have mostly opposed that movement, and had to give way as that movement pushed forward, proving itself to be progress as well as a forward motion. It’s why we can say Conservatives have been consistently on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps it’s small wonder then that Conservatives have trouble with history. I’m not suggesting that they have a monopoly of stupidity, because there’s plenty of idiocy among the centre and the left too. But they are unusual in taking an exclusionary view of the bits of history they like, and never more so than in their view of the British Empire.

British colonialists did some good things. These are typically the things Conservatives will highlight as reasons why we should not apologise for their behaviour, and indeed feel proud of it. This really is akin to praising Mussolini or Hitler for getting the trains running on time, an extraordinary and deliberately blinkered view, for there is no serious debate about the practice or impact of British colonialism: it was rapacious, oppressive and marked by atrocity.

And yet Conservatives like Michael Gove have demanded that their blinkered and demonstrably false version of British history should be taught in schools, seeing the alternative as left wing propaganda.

Conservatives are not interested in history. They’re not interested in a discipline that demands an active awareness of confirmation biases, and as far as possible an open search for evidence. In other words they’re not interested in getting closer to the realism that’s supposed to be at the heart of pragmatic Conservative philosophy, preferring instead to sit comfortably in a fantasy version of how things have been, and how they are now.

It’s small wonder that we’re in such trouble, and with a looming environmental catastrophe that trouble is only going to get a lot worse.

On the face of it there’s no reason why Conservatism and environmental activism should not go hand in hand, but for the most part they do not (even the allegedly centrist David Cameron privately dismissed environmentalism as “green crap”). I’d suggest that once more it’s a problem in the way Conservatism can deal with reality. To see the environment as a looming problem is to make a judgement about the future, and it’s no longer even a controversial one. To deny this is to take an ostrich-like view of present reality.

But neoliberal conservatism has a strong reason to do so. The market cannot respond adequately or fast enough to a complex future threat. The “market” choice mechanisms we have as individuals (recycling, energy efficiency, not driving and so on) will not make enough of a difference in the time we have available. Businesses will essentially follow their government’s lead, looking to government to create a sustainable playing field in which they can operate. In other words, minimising the future impact of the damage we’ve already done to the environment requires hefty government intervention and strong international co-ordination and co-operation. It makes nonsense of any dogmatic insistence on minimal government.

It’s a hard complex problem and it seems the Conservative mind prefers to take refuge in the simplistic. It also exposes how much neoliberalism depends not on a realistic view of human nature and society, but a fantasy.

The US, closely followed by the UK and to a lesser extent the EU has led the world down the dangerous cul de sac of neoliberalism. Its inadequacies have been widely revealed, though its beneficiaries have so far managed to hang on to power and resist the radical change we need. In the past Conservatism has been just about flexible enough to accommodate and adapt to the forces of change, reflecting the pragmatism that was supposed to lie at its heart. Now, as the Conservative mind has become nakedly ideological, it is failing to understand what’s going on. Its preference for a false view of history reflects a broader failure to engage with the real challenges of the moment.

Unhappily, we’re all paying the price of this stupidity.

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