The Conservative party has a problem. And it isn’t the problem that first comes to mind. Islamophobia, lack of leadership or a ‘nasty party’ reputation do not pose the same existential threat as that which is rotting this institution from the inside out. The Tories’ problem is buried so deeply that it remains unnamed. Which means it remains not only unaddressed but even undenied. Despite this, it remains hidden in plain sight, openly feasting on the fetid carapace of an ideology that I have never liked, but at least always respected. Or at least used to. The root of the problem is a small faction of fundamentalist, highly radicalised zealots who are murdering the party in a blasphemous manipulation of its core values. These are of course the Reactionaries of the ERG/Hard Brexit faction.
The failure of the Tory party to identify early on that these people are not ‘Conservatives’ may well yet lead Britain blindly off a cliff. We may fall to the sunlit uplands of a new Bolder Brighter Britain, or we may cripple many generations with the sins of the father (though I am sure Sextus will be fine) but no-one knows. And the problem is, that is neither conservative not Conservative. Reactionaryism is nothing new. The Luddites – machine-breaking artisans of the British Industrial Revolution, who would smash factory equipment and leave notes signed ‘Ned Ludd’ sought to arrest the progress of mine and mill and reverse the irreversible. The term now is used for a certain type of technophobic fuddy-duddy, but the reality of history anything but quaint. Often the Army was deployed to stop their actions.
Reactionaryism is fundamentally different to Conservatism. Conservatism is ‘the ideology of imperfection’; it seeks to preserve the best of the past while accepting that, history, like shit, happens. Change will occur and it is the job of the conservative, through respect and understanding of the past to shape and temper that incrementally to preserve continuity and the best of what has gone before, in the context of a humble acceptance of its inevitability. As Mark Lila, one of the best thinkers on this subject puts it,
“the conservative is (also) reconciled to the fact that history never stands still and that we are only passing through. Conservatism seeks to instil the humble thought that history moves us forward, not the other way around”
By contrast, the reactionary is the Cher of politics; If only she can turn back time, things will be great again. The frothing, rabid, fundamentalists of Brexit draw their legitimacy from our shared past which allows them to masquerade as Conservatives, whilst tearing apart shared institutions and values, and driving a cleft through the middle of their party and our country. The modern Britain that has developed since World War Two, (with apologies to Billy Joel) the Britain of NHS, Windrush. Vindaloo, butternut squash. TUC, BBC, David Bowie, Maggie T may not to be everyone’s tastes, but it was ours and is now also part of our tradition. They draw instead on older myths of (English) sovereignty and a Britain that never was, to legitimise the complete destruction of the current state of things. Rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ and sovereignty are a smokescreen for their desperation to erase the visible signs in our society of progress.This is a revolutionary ideology of the right, not Conservatism. Whilst claiming to be the guardians of tradition, they rip at the very seams of British society. At least Farage never hid that when he declared the referendum our ‘Independence Day’.
Reactionarism is an idea that is becoming increasingly widespread. From Trump, to Orban to Golden Dawn, there are politicians and parties of the ‘right’ who are borrowing from the playbook of the radical left to fling us backwards into a mythical past, destroying hard-won, incremental progressive victories. One of the great strengths of Conservative ideologies is that, in spite, or perhaps because of their suspicion of change, those that do stick become canonical. A Conservative would be unlikely to abolish the NHS, but a Reactionary would happily tear it down, claiming they were taking us back to a better time of medical independence and giving a ‘Free and True Englishmen’ the hard-won right to die in their own piss. You could argue there is a strain of the same ‘back-to-the-future’ iconoclasm in the Islamic State, the first experiment in reactionary Statehood.
Now I do not suggest that we are likely to see Jacob Rees-Mogg performing a Facebook live beheading – though I have a feeling he would bring back the death penalty – but if I was a true Conservative I would be worried. The once-great party is being hijacked, and it is to the detriment of the whole body politic, not just the right, and the current atmosphere is so febrile that no-one dares call it out. But if any Tories out there read this, and they care at all about their country – the Britain we all live in now, not some fictionalised, whitewashed past – then they must. This has gone on too long and it is a danger for all of us.