Once upon a time, the British political movement with the simplest ideology was the Conservative Party. Whether you liked them or not, you basically knew where you stood with them. Since the Conservative Party of the 1670s was formally renamed in 1834 by its then leader, Sir Robert Peel, its fundamental underlying message was Don’t Rock The Boat. In more general terms, the Party traditionally stood for the protection of existing institutions, such as the Church (of England, of course), the family, private property and private enterprise, the maintenance of the rule of law, the preservation of the British Union and the implementation of changes only when the case is unanswered. The new name was adopted by Peel as a response to what he and his supporters saw as the sinking or “destructive” tendencies of their opponents, the Whigs, who two years earlier had succeeded in getting the Great Reform Act passed by the Parliament after a five-year struggle that had seen two more governments fall (although, if any change had surely had the most compelling case in the UK at the time, it was that of parliamentary reform).
If anyone at the time of Peel’s first term as Prime Minister (1834-1835) was unsure what conservatism was supposed to mean, he offered some clues into what would become the the country’s first political manifesto. In the Tamworth Manifesto of December 1834 (named for Peel’s own constituency in the English Midlands), Peel promised ‘a careful examination of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly spirit combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proven abuses and the redress of real grievances‘ as good as…
[T]the maintenance of peace – the scrupulous and honorable accomplishment, without reference to their original policy, of all existing engagements with foreign powers – the support of public credit – the application of a strict economy – the fair and impartial consideration of what is due to all interests – agricultural, manufacturing and commercial.
Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), first Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Even as his second government (1841–1846) imploded, in light of his dramatic U-turn in repealing the Corn Laws, Peel himself never considered his actions unconservative. For him, if the facts changed (and the food prices of this decade were unnecessarily high at a time of economic downturn in Britain and famine in Ireland), then the course of the Conservative government should change. Whatever one may think of Peel’s tactics (not to mention his legendary awkward tact and tone on a personal level), his flip-flop was supported by much of his parliamentary party, whose members included future prime ministers George Hamilton-Gordon (the Earl of Aberdeen) and W. E. Gladstone – although it would take another generation for Gladstone to consider himself a Liberal .
Whatever their personal views of Peel the man and leader, later Party leaders Edward Stanley (the Earl of Derby) and Benjamin Disraeli more or less continued Peel’s essential approach to Conservative government. Although the Party did not win another general election until 1874, they and their successors would take up its program and henceforth dominate British political life, being in power for nearly two-thirds of the following century and a half, alone or as a party. dominant in a coalition. Their gradual and pragmatic approach to the need for change also resulted in some interesting reforms, such as the Public Health Act 1875, widows’ pensions, universal suffrage (1928), various clean air laws, the abolition of workhouses, the prohibition of caning in public schools and the legislation on the wearing of seat belts.
All of this begs the question: if Peel or Disraeli were here today, would they feel comfortable in (let alone recognize) today’s Conservative Party? The so-called Law and Order Party doesn’t seem to care that he frequently violated the Ministerial Code while he was in government. The Church of England Party is pick fights with that. The Business Party is led by a man who allegedly said (in a much fruitier language) that he doesn’t care much about business. The Gradual and Pragmatic Change Party has fully embraced a hard Brexit that would have shocked even Margaret Thatcher. Finally, this Hard Brexit agreement means that the Union Party has accepted which is, for all intents and purposes, a boundary of the Irish Seadespite the lingering media spotlight by the government and its lackeys (specifically, its James Corden lookalike of a negotiator in the form of Lord Frost).
It’s easy to pinpoint the B-word as the source of the Conservative Party’s flight from conservatism. After Theresa May left in 2019, following her accidental (or incompetent?) attempts to broker a Brexit deal that would allow Britain to leave the EU while retaining most of the benefits of membership, Boris Johnson’s approach seems to have been: just sign what they want us to sign, go out and blame any ensuing problems on Insert Tabloid-familiar Enemy Here. Brexit is over. Three-word slogans work. The ethics of such an approach might have been somewhat problematic, but they managed to neutralize the Farage factor: in the run-up to that year’s general election in Westminster, the former UKIP leader ordered its political vehicle at the time, the Brexit Party, to withdraw their candidates from the seats held by the Conservatives. (Exactly who promised what to whom about this move remains unclear.) The result of this electoral pact which dared not pronounce its name was the first electoral landslide of the conservatives in more than thirty years, with many new MPs from the party take a UKIP-type approach to policy: there would be no room for more traditional conservative figures like Rory Stewart, Anna Soubry or Sir Nicholas Soames.
But maybe Brexit is only part of the story. Perhaps the origins of the Conservative Party’s transformation into an act of tribute that can’t decide whether to emulate UKIP or the 1970s National Front go further than that. Perhaps the warning signs had been there for many years before the term Brexit was even coined. Writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran were surely onto something when they created the character of amoral, greedy and self-centered MP Alan B’Stard in their 1987 sitcom. The new statesman. Played by the late (and still much missed) Rik Mayall, B’Stard seemed to embody a whole new kind of conservative politician for the Thatcher era and beyond – someone who didn’t see the Party like Peel or Disraeli (or even Churchill or Macmillan) saw it, but rather as a vehicle for something even more right-wing (curious how he and Norman Tebbit shared the same middle name…). As well as being critically acclaimed, the show won an international Emmy as well as a BAFTA TV award. In what turned out to be his last television appearancein a mock BBC interview by Brian Walden in December 1994, B’Stard laid out his philosophy:
B’STARD: Since becoming politically active, I have championed the four principles of freedom, low taxation, the eradication of restrictive labor laws, and the radical restructuring of the welfare state… By freedom, I mean total freedom: the freedom of the citizen to do what he wants within the most libertarian framework of the law. He should be free to do drugs if he wants, to engage in any sexual acts I want, his imagination can imagine, drink when it wants, shop when it wants. Low taxation automatically follows: the legalized trade in drugs and pornography will contribute huge amounts of VAT, allowing all but the lowest paid to abolish income tax.
WALDEN: The – the poorest would continue to pay income tax?
B’STARD: Someone has to!
B’STARD: Well, because the poor vote Labor, then they won’t get any favors from me! And the poor are the biggest consumers of public spending – ah, which brings me neatly to my third point: the elimination of restrictive employment legislation. Quite simply: we don’t need it! When was this country the first industrial power in the world? When we sent children to chimneys, women to mines and trade unionists to Australia! This is no coincidence, I affirm!… And my fourth point, which again fits perfectly into my vision of the world, concerns the welfare state. In my opinion, this is the most disastrous development of post-war social policy. It has made people unfit, lazy and complacent – I mean, ordinary people know that free medical care awaits them, so what incentive do they have to stay healthy? As I said, on the record, in 1987: in the good old days, you were poor – you got sick – you died! Today we face the dreadful prospect of young, fit, virile men (like myself) giving up an ever-increasing proportion of our wealth in taxes to support sick, aging people like – well , like you, Brian!
It’s a safe bet that today none of B’Stard’s current emulators (who seem to view him as a hero figure rather than a satirical warning) would have time for Peel or Disraeli. For his part, Disraeli would return contempt, as he himself had warned in a speech he gave to High Wycombe in 1832:
I’m conservative to keep all that is good in our constitution, radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to maintain property and respect order, and I also denounce the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few.
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a writer and actor