Striving for More; Conservatism and the Soul of the Nation


It has, for as long as I can remember, been with a touch of pride that many Conservatives would say that ours is a pragmatic party. As Labour bandies about recriminations over its electoral failure and self-immolates over ideological stance, it is especially tempting to take some measure of joy that we are above the fray which so plagues the opposition. Our past three prime ministers have each portrayed themselves as not being extremely ideological. David Cameron’s ideology, apart from ‘cleaning up’ the Conservative image as the nasty party, can best be described as a balanced budget. Theresa May likewise made vague utterances about a ‘Red, white, and blue Brexit’, but never actually staked out any stance. Most recently, Boris Johnson pronounces garbled pseudo-Churchillisms but ultimately presides over a party which, despite its electoral success, is a heartless automaton. This may not be a problem for many. After all, one might say, ideology does not matter if one is not in power. But what use, I ask, is power if one does not have a soul?

The Conservative Party has become a husk of political realism. It is successful at getting into power, but not truly deserving of it. Our leaders do not lead, but merely make decrees about political programming, economic diagnoses, and mouth empty shibboleths about ‘culture wars’. Boris Johnson, in attempting to portray himself as a latter-day Churchill, only demonstrates the gulf between his own paucity of virtue and that of the great man. The populace is fed vacuous slogans about Strength, Stability, and ‘Global Britain’ without ever being told what we shall use our strength for, what does that stability serve to preserve, and what image Britain is portraying to the globe.

By presenting the Conservative Party as one of practicality and pragmatism, devoid of any ideology save for the balanced chequebook, the party has become a salesman for a theme park. Britain is no longer seen by many as a new Jerusalem, but rather as a stage for Austen costume dramas and The Crown or as a steel-girded hub for countless banks. This tactic may certainly have been of some use during the Thatcher years, when Britain was in the direst of financial straits, but it has resulted in a politics so pedestrian and blasé that it is incapable of saving Britain from a disaster worse than financial collapse: a deep-set spiritual decline.

Modern Britain is badly situated to deal with the civilisational rot which plagues us. Our blind focus on practicality and our natural cynicism makes us allergic to serious conversations about what makes this country what it is, or rather, what it was. Tradition becomes viewed as an obsolescence; public beauty is seen as a meaningless extravagance; moral fortitude is relabelled as chauvinism or bigotry; God is forgotten as bygone superstition. I do not celebrate the Conservative Party’s empty victories in May. It is not a victory for anything. We have not defeated Labour or the Liberal-Democrats over a better vision for this country; we have only suitably demonstrated that the blue team is a better administrator than the red or yellow team.

Yet there is hope for the Conservative Party to mean something if it wishes to and to be the arbiter of change. There is a genuine desire among the British people for meaning, although it has been poured into any number of false idols – the greatest being the NHS. The National Health Service is a valuable British institution, of that there can be no doubt. However, the NHS has become a golden idol in many people’s hearts; it is paid obeisance to through publicly placed placards, Facebook profile frames, and performative applause. Can the NHS provide meaning? Can it provide fulfilment and inner satisfaction? No. The NHS is merely an institution untethered from any great meaning and can ultimately not become the new national church.

The actual national church is not much better. Although individual vicars, priests, and chaplains may preserve the spiritual values which seek to sustain God in the lives of believers, the Church superstructure seems more concerned with neutering itself to fit into whatever trending topic on Twitter seems to be most popular. The present leadership of the Church of England would be unrecognisable to the great bishops and saints who challenged the actions of secular rulers. Would Archbishop Welby, like St Ambrose of Milan, bar Boris Johnson from entering Canterbury Cathedral? Could we possibly imagine any political leader participating in a public act of penance for sins committed in office? The Church, which ought to be the watchdog and moral enforcer of virtue, is a toothless organisation which, terrified of disestablishmentarians, prefers to keep its head well below the political parapet.

What is to be done? What is to be done when our politicians have failed, and the clergy is unwilling to represent the deeper aches of the people? The answer is rather un-British. For a nation which has always shied away from drastic action, instead preferring steady reform, the only response is a complete silent revolution. A revolution which is total in its scope, scouring away the accumulated muck of British bourgeois self-effacement, the unrestrained hunger of neoliberal capitalism, as well as the false leftist credos which only exacerbate the existing problems. A new unity must emerge which unites political realities and actions to higher spiritually held ideals. Such a task is unsuitable for just a political party to accomplish. The Conservative Party, or perhaps whatever replaces its ruin, must clasp hands with elements of the church and wider society in order to form an entire movement capable of this societal redemption.

In this new, bold future the merely political is transformed. Environmentalism, torn away from screeching activists, is transmuted into an act of faithful stewardship over the Eden which humanity has so faithlessly exploited. Social welfare becomes a genuine and sustained act of Christian charity. Politicians work not to control the centre ground and debase themselves for votes, but instead act as the public’s elected guardians of the nation’s history and virtue. It is an utopic vision, certainly, but it is one worth cultivating in our hearts and minds. Conservatism is not and never should have been perceived as merely financial, only to be turned to in times of economic peril. Rather, the Conservative Party – if it ever seeks to mean something again – must become the steward of the nation’s flickering soul and the vanguard for social metamorphosis.