However the General Election turns out, it looks as though we are indeed due for a return to the 1960s and ’70s. If Corbyn’s programme looks like the moderate Wilsonian social democracy of those years, May’s is starting to resemble the response of Conservative leaders like Macmillan to that – Tory paternalism, accepting the welfareist consensus of the times.
The key sentence in May’s speech on Thursday was the one in which she declared that Conservatives ‘do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism’. That is an enormous ideological U-turn for her party. It’s what most Conservatives would have said in Macmillan’s and Heath’s time, and going back, in fact, to Benjamin Disraeli, and before then to Edmund Burke; in other words to the most venerable tradition of Toryism, before Thatcherite economic liberalism took its dreadful hold. There had of course been Thatcherites before Thatcher – Edward Heath showed signs of the infection early on – and there were always some Tories keen on keeping the lower orders down simply out of mean-mindedness, without any particular ideology behind it; but the general direction of Conservative thought and policy before 1979 was generally softer than that.
Thatcher’s arrival on the scene revolutionized the party. Personally I don’t think this was Thatcher’s contribution alone; rather she was being swept along by an international tide of High Capitalism and neo-liberalism. But the effect was the same. The Tory party was captured by free market fundamentalists. Those who protested were dismissed by Thatcher as the ‘Wets’. There aren’t many of those around now, apart perhaps for Kenneth Clarke. (I could vote for him.) This set in motion a period of free market fundamentalism, culminating in ‘austerity’ and the truly awful George Osborne, which could be seen as turning its back on the deepest historical traditions of the Conservative party, and, indeed, on the nature of ‘conservatism’ – taken literally, with a small ‘c’ – itself. What could be less ‘conservative’ than a radical revolution? And of course it did no good at all to the British economy, as it was supposed to, but instead left it more vulnerable to international takeovers and bank collapses, and rendered society more unequal and divided than for many years. We’re seeing that now.
The implication of May’s U-turn is that the past thirty-eight years – roughly a generation – have been an unfortunate blip, or interruption, or backsliding, in the trajectory of British Conservatism. Historically, therefore (my field), she’s quite right to protest that she’s aiming to revive ‘true Conservatism’ again.
Whether she is able to, in the light of the phalanx of neo-liberals who entered her party after 1979, is another question. Already there are murmurings in the ranks against what are seen as her ‘anti-market’ views. It’s also, of course, permissible to doubt her sincerity in this regard, and her ability to return completely to the paternalistic socialism of Macmillan’s time. And – thirdly – it’s valid to resile against certain of her characteristics as a ‘leader’; in particular her authoritarianism, her opportunism (changing her mind over ‘Europe’), her aggressive stance towards the people she is going to have to negotiate with in Europe, and the hostages to fortune her party manifesto has left lying around: like clobbering pensioners, taking the food out of the mouths of schoolchildren, and the ‘death tax’. Voters will probably notice these more than her grand ideological conversion. I hope so, because they may, just conceivably, do her electoral harm. If they stopped a landslide Tory victory, that could be enough. We’ll see.
Out of the two ‘1970s’ we’re being offered in this election I’ll certainly be voting for the Wilsonian one – as I did in the 1970s. That’s Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The prospect of a ‘hard Brexit’ Britain, which May seems to be promising, depresses and even scares me. But we must give her some credit, at least, for getting her Conservative History right.