It always seemed somehow wrong when the more Right-wing of the two main parties in Britain continued to call itself ‘Conservative’, even after every trace of its wanting to ‘conserve’ anything disappeared under Thatcher. Thatcher was in fact the most radical Conservative leader since Robert Peel, in the (literal) sense of wanting to uproot everything and replace it with something quite different. When she came in, the political and economic status quo consisted of a mixed economy and a welfare state, broadly accepted by both Labour and Tories as the basis of any future development, albeit with slightly different emphases and to different degrees. Thatcher – or the tide she was riding – destroyed all that, or as much of it as she could lay her hands on; and by that means – as she herself boasted in her self-promoting autobiography – ‘turned Britain around’.
Whether that was a good or a bad thing – we can differ on this – it hardly qualified as ‘conservatism’, taking that word literally. On the contrary, it was revolutionary. (Or counter-revolutionary, by another way of looking at it. It comes to much the same thing.) True ‘conservatism’ would have involved proceeding consensually along the same social-democratic lines Britain had been pursuing – albeit with some mishaps along the way – through the days of Attlee, Churchill, Macmillan and Wilson, and up to Thatcher’s arrival on the scene. Nowadays she and her followers in the ‘Conservative’ Party, especially the ‘hard Brexiters’, are often described as the ‘Radicals’ in the party; a name that used to attach to Left-wingers, but which now does seem more apt when applied to the Right. Really the Conservatives ought to re-brand themselves, if not as ‘Radicals’, which they might not like in view of the word’s past associations, then perhaps as ‘Liberals’, as the equivalent parties are called in many other countries; and might indeed have done so if Britain’s ‘Liberal-Democrats’ had not already – long ago, when the word had meant something subtly different – bought up the copyright to that name.
In fact, the true ‘conservatives’ in modern-day British politics could be seen as the democratic socialists who were represented in the last election by Jeremy Corbyn, wanting to take us back to the 1960s and ’70s. Corbyn is stigmatized as ‘far Left’ today, but would have been regarded as middle-of-the-road in 1970. In that sense, he was the ‘conservative’. Except that socialists can no longer see themselves as conservatives, in the light of what has become of the country since the seventies. ‘Conserving’, literally, would now mean shoring up the present neoliberal regime, with its attendant inequalities – much more extreme than they were in the sixties – and consequent tensions. So strictly speaking the Corbynites are the reactionaries of our time. (Although not so reactionary, of course, as Jacob Rees-Mogg. He’s another thing entirely.)
Social-democrats would like us to return to the optimism, at least, of the 1950s and ’60s; not to that period as it has been presented in contemporary and subsequent right-wing propaganda – Union militancy, strikes, unburied bodies, drugs and free love; or as it really was for many people who lived though that time: women, homosexuals, blacks. The sixties were all those things; but were also a time of conscious progress, and so – even for those disadvantaged sectors of society – of hope. Women, gays and blacks were about to be liberated. The future beckoned. We still, as a country, made things. And the music was great.
I published a piece in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of years ago about the Fifties, elaborating on this point: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/swinging-fifties/. (Most of it is behind a paywall, but if you’re patient you can read it in my new collection of essays, out in May.) I realise that my nostalgia for that period may be related to my personal circumstances then, chiefly my youth; but there is, surely, a case to be made that the path we were travelling along then – mixed economy, welfare state, decolonisation and the rest – was a more promising one than the one we’re stuck on now. Does anyone today have that sort of ‘hope’? If thinking this way makes me a ‘reactionary’, then so be it.