The Tory Party Turns Inward
Just over eleven years ago, a young politician called David Cameron traveled to Norway, where he rode a sled towed by husky dogs to a remote glacier.
Cameron had recently been elected as leader of the venerable Conservative Party and wanted – he told waiting photographers – to see the effects of global warming “first-hand”. In the months and years after the trip, Cameron’s sled ride was widely derided. In both the left- and right-wing media, ‘husky-hugging’ became something of a by-word for the worst kind of political posturing, hollow environmentalism and photo-opportunism. At the time, though, to some people at least, it seemed like a ground-breaking step: a moment when the Conservatives stopped talking about ‘bringing back matron’ in hospitals, and began to engage with the modern world. I started working for the Conservatives around the same time as the Norway trip, and can remember the palpable sense of relief and excitement which swept through parliamentary offices and Westminster bars as Cameron made his vision clear. Finally, we thought, a leader who was more interested in Kashmir than in fox-hunting, more worried about abolishing poverty than banning abortion, and more likely to spend his holidays surfing in France than making jam in the Home Counties!
In hindsight, of course, Cameron’s record is far from unblemished. But even in retrospect, the husky stunt was a signifier of something important: a worldview which one might call centre-right internationalism. In five years as Conservative leader, and another six as Prime Minister, Cameron spoke strongly in favour of international development aid, and co-chaired the UN process to set new global development goals. He built alliances with other centre-right globalists like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Domestically, he modernised the party’s platform and promoted candidates who were comfortable with the way the world actually is today, rather than the way it was in the 1950s. Economic conservativism was married with social liberalism; tax cuts with gay marriage; a hawkish military policy with proud support for British charity abroad. Cameron insisted the party should stop “banging on” about Europe, and then (having foolishly called a referendum) campaigned in favour of Britain remaining a strong, reformist voice in the EU.
Of course, all this had its downsides – Cameron and his acolytes were (among other things) rightly criticised for seeming aloof and detached from the lives of people who couldn’t ski and did’t read four newspapers before breakfast. Above all, as Prime Minister he’ll be judged by the single disastrous decision which made him, as a woundingly accurate Sky News headline put it, a ‘Serial Gambler Who Lost It All’. However, in terms of his outlook, Cameron at his best embodied (like Tony Blair before him) what Britain could and should be in the 21st century: cosmopolitan, assertive, globally engaged and outward-looking. For many people like me – members of that privileged, globe-trotting generation who were just as likely to spend weekends in Lisbon as in Leicester – the Conservatives of 2005-2010 seemed to embody what we wanted Britain to be, if not domestically then at least on the world stage. One of the reasons I was happy to stay working for the party, on and off, for about five years was that I didn’t want to see that vision – for confident, tolerant, centre-right internationalism – defeated, and replaced by something more old-fashioned.
Yet sadly, under Theresa May, that’s exactly what now seems to be happening. This year’s British election campaign has been pretty disagreeable in many ways, but one of them is its sheer parochialism. Politicians across the scale seem to be competing to prove they believe that there’s no good sense to be found south of Brighton or west of Harwich.
This is partly about Brexit, of course, and the loss of influence which leaving the EU will entail.
It’s also partly about May’s baffling decision to align (or at least, be seen to align) with Donald Trump at the expense of people like Macron and Merkel. But even looking beyond Brexit, the Conservatives seem to be embracing the idea that Britain should withdraw from the world stage.
Efforts to balance Brexit with a new global role for Britain have been half-hearted at best. The international aid commitment has been kept, but only after a bruising internal fight, and is now treated like a dirty secret best not talked about. Brussels is treated as an enemy, and geopolitics as a zero-sum game where Britain only wins when other countries lose. Foreign experts reportedly have been banned from advising the government on Brexit, and foreign students are discouraged from doing anything as foolish as going to Britain to learn about the world. Businesses may be forced to reveal the proportions of their workforce which are “foreign”, as if hiring people from (say) Germany or the Netherlands were something to be ashamed of. ‘Immigration’ is considered a dirty word, and the triumvirate of politicians running British foreign policy – Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis – do little to inspire confidence in their strategic vision. On issues like Russia and Ukraine, British policy is difficult to define. Ironically, an administration which will be judged almost solely on its ability to manage foreign policy doesn’t really seem to have one.
One might well argue that all this represents a necessary retreat from the over-reach of previous years, which lead to calamities in places like Iraq and Libya. However, watching the election campaign unfold, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the petty domesticism of it all, and the extent to which leaders have focused on issues which could be designed to discourage first-time voters: grammar schools, dementia, inheritance taxes, fox-hunting and clamping down on internet freedom.
Above all, the government sends countless small signals about the new world order they wish to build; pledging to create a post-Brexit “Empire 2.0” in which “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. There seems to be little in Theresa May’s worldview with which UKIP would disagree. At best, this represents a weakening of the internationalist tradition which has served Britain (and the Conservatives) well. At worst, it represents a wholesale rejection of Britain’s strategic role as a defender of liberal values, and the beginning of a long process which will see the UK turn from a global hub into an isolated, grumpy fortress.
When Brits go to polls on Thursday, May’s Conservatives will almost certainly win a comfortable majority, and continue governing in much the same way as they have done before. Given the feeble alternatives, that’s probably a good thing. In my opinion, a government lead by Jeremy Corbyn would be a disaster, and (like any reflexive, populist backlash) harmful to the very people it would claim to be helping. After the election, post-match analysis will probably focus on the decimated centre-left: those centrist New Labour supporters who feel abandoned or betrayed by Jeremy Corbyn, and may (if he clings on as leader) break away to form a new party. However, it’s perhaps also worth sparing a thought for those of us who are stranded on the internationalist centre-right, too.
Faced with a choice between a pro-Brexit, pro-Trump, anti-globalist Conservative Party and a pro-Brexit, pacifist, socialist Labour Party, a former Tory internationalist could be forgiven for feeling a distinct lack of enthusiasm for either.
This week, someone erected giant effigy of Theresa May atop the White Cliffs of Dover, giving the middle finger to the rest of the world. No-one seems to know who put the effigy up, and (unlike the huskies) it certainly wasn’t an official Conservative Party campaign stunt. But the fact that it could have been speaks volumes.