I have a confession to make. Some of my best friends voted remain; not only that, some of them were Tories who voted remain. This has always struck me as a violation of some deep-seated, rarely articulated reasoning. We used to think that radical socialists were the ones besotted with horoscopic fantasies like the universal soviet or the world without borders. Tories, meanwhile, just got on with serving what it was once fashionable to call the national interest. At a Conservative conference about a decade ago, when the European debate still seemed academic, Ken Clarke quoted the words of Iain MacLeod: ‘Socialists can scheme their schemes. Liberals can dream their dreams. But we in the Conservative Party have got work to do’.
Incidentally, Mr Clarke has been quite frank over the years about his dream of reducing the Palace of Westminster to the seat of a devolved British assembly beneath the authority of a European government somewhere abroad. And he has done a fair bit of scheming to bring it about, too – whether or not he ever got around to reading the Maastricht treaty.
But let us take him at his word. To many Tories, the European experiment was the antithesis of public-spirited Conservatism – ‘a recipe for national suicide’ (Margaret Thatcher), predicated upon a post-war experiment in technocratic statism that calls into question the fundamentals of British civilisation, from constitution and culture to social and economic order. How could Mr Clarke and his fellow travellers have reached such starkly different conclusions?
Tories, like socialists, have their European romances. Some are still under the influence of liberal peace theory, although it has been largely discredited. An Anglo-Catholic thread, deeply concerned with the unity of Christendom, stretches back long before the Tory grandee Lord Halifax convened the Malines Conversations on Anglican-Roman reunion in the 1920s. There are surely others for whom the European project is a last, expiring gasp of British world-making: at one with the idea, now championed by Guy Verhofstadt, of founding a mighty European empire that will soothe the continent’s almighty inferiority complex about American power. This is sometimes dressed up as a ‘patriotic’ case for remain, wherein the possibility of having one’s foreign policy overruled somehow leads to increased influence on the world stage.
Of course, these sorts of hallucinations have even less influence on the Right than the idea of a union of European workers’ republics has upon the Left; but the division of Conservatives between Leave and Remain does not seem to rest on more mundane disagreements over policy, either. British Conservatism is a very broad church indeed, and over the last two centuries it has embraced views on economics, society, and foreign affairs that are not merely divergent, but polar opposites. However, far from representing alternative philosophies, the two sides of the European debate compete for who can bear truer allegiance to the same set of shibboleths – which faction is really more committed to free trade, which will best sustain Britain’s role in the international system, and so on.
Rather, the division between Leavers and Remainers comes down to a still more mundane – and yet also more profound – difference in opinion over the idea of public service itself. There is a fundamental tension, endemic in free societies since their inception, between paternalism and delegation. Most of the time, this tension is concealed by the daily workings of representative institutions like Parliament, which is perhaps why it tends to bubble to the surface over matters of essential constitutional significance. But the tension can be revealed by asking two questions. Should policies be made on the basis of their wisdom (as defined by a political elite) or their popularity? Is government concerned with the material welfare of individuals, or in the health of the political community as a unit of value in itself? These questions are rarely answered in absolute terms: it is the weighting that matters.
The predominant strand of Conservative Remain thinking is grounded in a kind of utilitarian pragmatism, shared with the Labour Right, and distantly indebted to the paternalistic ‘One Nation’ tradition. Politicians, it presumes, ought to concern themselves with ‘what really matters’: economic growth, rising earnings, home-ownership, public service reforms, and other achievable, measurable social goods. Constitutional issues it regards as largely esoteric, except when they threaten to cause major economic or social disruption. For that reason, as the Scottish near-fiasco had shown, constitutional issues are best avoided. As a member-state of the EU, the United Kingdom was prosperous, stable, and fairly secure. And since the economic and social indices were ticking along better than those of most other nations, there was no reason to rock the European boat. Eternally pragmatic, the ‘centre-ground’ of British politics – Labour, Liberal, and Tory – dutifully voted to continue what was, to all appearances, a comfortable status quo.
By a wide margin, this was the strongest single argument for Remain, and it nearly prevailed. Surprised by the pin-prick power of their Euro-identity politics, Liberal Democrats continue to bemoan the failure of British voters to gather the EU into their hearts. Tory Remainers adopted a more credible position simply because they took the landscape of British political culture as they found it, appealing to the voters’ most immediate interests. In the process, they tried to buttress their party’s claim to be the party of prudent government, cautious stewardship, and incremental change. They appeared – at least to me – ambivalent about whether the European project was actually responsible for the UK’s successes. Most – including the Prime Minister – would certainly have preferred it to undertake a series of major, if quiet, reforms. This very ambivalence strengthened their position.
As many people half-realised the morning after, there were plenty of vantage points from which the status quo seemed less rosy; but the Tory Remain position was also undermined by a more fundamental naïveté. Representative governments are necessarily managerial most of the time, but the managerial ethos faces certain limitations in a free society. Ultimately, benign management requires that those who are being managed are content with the general direction of government and its architecture. Tory Remainers and many of their allies tended to presume that voters only care about material interests. This was a fatal error. They underestimated the extent to which voters would recognise connections between esoteric constitutional issues like EU membership and more mundane matters: ‘freedom of movement’ and uncontrolled immigration, for one. And they underrated the force of values and principles themselves. Popular sovereignty may be an ‘abstract’ intangible notion in some sense (although electing those who make the laws is far from abstract), but it has been a potent issue in western democratic politics since the late-eighteenth century nonetheless. This is to say nothing of the electoral resonance of national identity itself, which the Cameron government had already underestimated in Scotland.
It is no coincidence that vast swathes of the Eurosceptic movement coalesce around a theory of popular sovereignty every bit as venerable as the ethos of pragmatism. Indeed, if we revive the old cliché about the political spectrum being a loop, these ideas ought to be viewed as a second centre-ground, bridging the supposed ‘extremes’ of the Conservative and Labour parties. This creed sees mundane issues as far more closely bound-up with grander questions, which must be resolved first if the ordinary business of politics is to be anything other than a façade. To its adherents, the benign management of change appears impossible without the right constitutional architecture. At its heart, then, is the presumption that parliamentary and popular politics are profoundly symbiotic, to an extent far beyond the imagination of pragmatic Remainers.
This ‘populist’ wing of Toryism (‘republican’, in the ‘self-government’ sense of the word, would be a better term) identified European statism as a major political problem in itself, but it also invested the problem with a wider symbolic significance. The development of the EU’s opaque system of government – little scrutinised, bureaucratic, and distant from the peoples it pretended to govern – seemed symptomatic of a double-standard in political behaviour, disrupting the moral continuity that ought to exist between parliamentary and popular politics. Historically, the appearance of such a double-standard has often been treated as a symptom of oligarchy, of a government dangerously alienated from the people. And for as long as the British state has existed in a remotely representative form, foreign policy has always furnished causes célèbres for the criticism that the central government had become oligarchic. This is the thread that connects popular opposition to the Georgian monarchy’s meddling in eighteenth-century German wars with the hostility directed at Tony Blair’s foreign interventions, and latterly at the EU connection itself. We may, in fact, be experiencing an afterlife of the court-versus-country division that once gave shape to the British political landscape.
Now is not the time to debate the relative merits of these two lineages of Toryism: it is far more important to recognise what they have in common – most importantly, an acceptance of managed change. Strange as it is to imagine, the idea that ‘change’ is a permanent feature of politics, and that it can be mediated by an endless series of ‘reforms’, has only been around in the west for two or three hundred years. Roughly speaking, this was the principal bequest of the French Revolution: it is still with us today; indeed, it may be the quintessential fact that distinguishes pre-modern from modern life. Continental conservatism, unlike British Toryism, met the prospect of ‘permanent revolution’ with intransigence, ranging from stubborn loyalty to the ancien régime and reactionary Catholicism, to totalitarian theories that replaced the very notion of ‘historical progress’ with metahistorical ideas about the rule of raw power and racial unity. The result was two centuries of strife between Left and Right, several further French revolutions, two (nearly three) world wars, and some of the bloodiest dictatorships in human history, besides other horrors.
Since 1945, technocratic principles, exhaustion, and external threats have gone some way towards containing ideological conflict of this kind, at least in the western half of the Continent. Yet as Richard Tuck has argued in a recent contribution to Briefings for Brexit, the architecture of the EU only serves to repress the problem of ideological conflict by keeping the democratic element tightly circumscribed. Its architects seem to have been of the opinion that the best way to contain a bulging powder-keg is to sit on it. The startling rise of secessionist, nationalist, and neo-marxist movements across the Continent during the last decade is one way of evaluating this piece of wisdom. The EU may yet turn out to be more pressure-cooker than Pandora’s Box.
Britain, meanwhile, experienced an astonishing and still unequalled stretch of domestic peace and stability, stretching roughly from the late eighteenth century to the present: this was largely because British Toryism rejected the reactionary politics of the European right, in favour of a philosophy that sought to temper radical change and marry progress to prudence. Indeed, the rather misleading decision to rebrand this creed as ‘Conservatism’ was one of the earliest efforts to shoehorn British politics into a Continental nomenclature (particularly French, Spanish, and Italian) with which it had little in common. To put it crudely, British Tories have usually decided to commandeer, rather than to resist revolution – especially after it has occurred. This is as true of David Cameron’s acquiescence to new social norms about sexuality as it is of the acceptance of nationalisation by the Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, and Home governments. Conservative revolutions, from Thatcher’s reforms to Brexit itself, have likewise been couched in the language of prudence and stability and tradition, rather than the reactionary Continental mode of counter-revolution. Or as Macmillan once said:
The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.
And this points us towards a lesson for those Conservatives who found themselves on the losing side of the EU referendum.
Brexit has placed Tory Remainers in an unambiguous position: while some may still refuse to admit it, and some are yet to recognise it, they have no choice but to support an entirely clean break from the European Union. Vanishingly few think it possible to stop the UK’s withdrawal from the EU entirely. The scale of affront to public opinion would almost certainly make it electoral suicide – quite apart from the fact that it would bring on both a leadership challenge and a constitutional crisis, which are unappealing prospects for any minority government. To nit-pick about the constitutional niceties of referenda is to miss the point, philosophically as well as electorally. Parliament is not an absolute monarch: like all representative assemblies, it exercises sovereignty on public trust. Its recourse to the legislative power of the sovereign people represented an admission of its own inability to resolve the European question. The idea that citizens have encroached on the powers of their Parliament is definitionally absurd.
To go against a popular majority, which has expressed its will so clearly, is a violation of the fundamental democratic principle with which Toryism has been unusually comfortable throughout its history. When Sir John Major likened Brexit to ‘the tyranny of the majority’, he expressed wilful ignorance of the issue at hand as well as the traditions of his own party. Majority tyranny is a liberal principle, which asserts that laws – like those which stripped legal rights from German Jews in the 1930s – are illegitimate if they are prejudicial against minorities, because a society can only be free if the rule of law is blind. In no sense has Brexit undermined the equality of British citizens. The condition of participation in a democratic system, on the other hand, is a prior agreement to be bound by the will of the majority. Without this principle, democracy degenerates from an expression of collective self-government into civil war by headcount. To reject the will of the majority in a case such as this is not to defend the rights of the minority – their rights are not at stake – but to cross the line from paternalism into anti-democratic politics. This sets a disconcerting and reckless precedent.
Of course, we are still told that ‘the people did not know precisely what they were voting for’: even if this were true, the idea of leaving the EU, while remaining subject to its laws about customs and/or trade, would still be no refuge for Tory Remainers. For the management of change – and Tory-Remainers clearly anticipate enormous change ahead – is only possible with control of the levers of power. In one immediate sense, that means winning elections. But an altogether more permanent danger is at hand than a Labour victory in 2022. To remain subject to the EU’s single market, or its customs union, would not only be rather craven; it would be to resign entirely any control over the regulations that govern critical parts of the British economy, since the British government will lose its representation on the relevant bodies in March 2019. Instead of having your cake and eating it, as Boris Johnson once quipped, it would be making do with whatever crumbs happen to fall off the table. William Pitt the Younger was once known as ‘the pilot who weathered the storm’: such an outcome would be more reminiscent of the pilot of a plane locking himself out of the cockpit. Ironically, Remainers won this part of the argument during the referendum, when many – including the Prime Minister – recognised that it was unthinkable to remain in the single market while outside the EU.
Shortly after the referendum, Ken Clarke protested that he was merely continuing to uphold policies which the Conservative Party has pursued for forty years, but he failed to recognise that the result of the referendum had shifted the political landscape in such a way as to place him well outside the broad boundaries of British Conservative philosophy. For a pragmatic Tory, the cause of British membership of the EU, is, as Disraeli described the early Victorian Corn Laws, ‘not only dead, but damned’ – damned by the electorate, damned by constitutional reality, but damned, above all, by prudence. The strength of Tory philosophy is precisely its refusal to die for lost causes – not to wallow in reaction, but, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, even in old age, ‘to seek a newer world’.
For pragmatic Tories, the move from Remain to Leave is no volte-face, but a prudent adjustment to new circumstances, and this is why it seems likely that most Conservative Remainers will follow the lead of the current Prime Minister and heed the wisdom of Iain MacLeod: they have work to do – namely, to make Brexit work. (After all, for a Tory there is no such thing as historical inevitability.) A few months following the referendum, I asked one Conservative MP – a firm Remainer, whom I admire greatly – whether he thought it was a curse to live in these interesting times. ‘Honestly, on 24th June’, he answered, ‘I wanted to stay in bed; but you don’t choose the time when you get to do this job’. Sajid Javid’s decisive intervention in the Cabinet debate on the customs union was a commendable example of this kind of common sense.
Of course, not everyone will return to the Tory fold. Some fanatics (David Cameron would perhaps have called them ‘head-bangers’), having confused their egos with their political positions, must be expected to fight on, shoulder to shoulder with Sir Vince, for the lost cause of EU Britain. Perhaps they will found the twenty-first century’s equivalent of the Monday Club. They might call it ‘The League of EU Loyalists’. It is a matter of generational importance that they are not allowed to salt the earth in a final spasm of spite. And an old adage reminds us to beware an old man in a hurry – we should be still warier of one who is about to see his life’s work shredded.
Dr Daniel Robinson is a specialist in international history, and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.