Aaron Hugh Ellis is reading History at the University of Bristol and is the former VP of the Bristol University branch of Conservative Future. In this generous guest post Aaron outlines his concerns for the future of British politics and captures the contemporary issues facing our modern democracy.
‘The dangers we have to fear may roughly be summed up in the single word – disintegration’, Lord Salisbury wrote in 1883. ‘It menaces us in the most subtle and the most glaring forms.’
Uneasiness permeates our society, a vague feeling of dislocation and insecurity, which can roughly be summed up in the single word ‘disintegration’. It is the end to which we sense being driven by the defective working of our political machinery, the public temper of our time, as well as our deteriorating environment. The process of disintegration has occurred in the last twelve years but its pace quickened over the last twelve months. It has been accelerated through the potent combination of an inept government with an irresponsible leadership, the dreary expenses scandal and an unintelligent partisanship that forthcoming elections encourage. A society where all interests are equal is mutating into one where all interests are selfishly pursued, and the institutions which sustain the balance-of-interests in our society decay as their cultures are undermined both from within and without. We sense the power of the dreary, the pedestrian, the pompous, the respectable and the unimaginative and see the triumph of its adherents.
The disintegration of the last twelve years has resulted from a poor understanding by politicians and their opinion-makers of the British political system. A millennium of perpetual conflict between vying groups and factions produced a settlement where all interests in society are equal, not people. The physical manifestation of this settlement is Parliament, which condensed as fighting between the factions moved from the battlefield to the ballot-box in the 18th Century. Its virtue lies not only in the communal ‘inclusiveness’ but also the guarantee of mutual security. All interests within society are represented and each group has an influence on the country’s laws. By limiting our aims and moderating our actions, we not only preserve our opponents but also ourselves. We are a ‘commonwealth’, and the cohesion of society is sustained through each of us taking two steps forward and one step back – a handy philosophy if approaching a precipice.
Since 1997, however, the settlement has gradually disintegrated as the institutions which sustain society have been undermined both from within and without. The cause is best termed as ‘totalism’: factions pursuing total aims rather than limited ones at the expense of their opponents whom they try to destroy, disguising their dislike with a moral or legalistic gloss. It begun with the New Labour Government attempting to reform institutions it saw as antiquated but upsetting the balance-of-interests. ‘The most fundamental problem in politics,’ Kissinger has written, ‘…is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.’ A result of the righteous totalism of New Labour was other interest groups adopting similarly total aims, motivated by the righteous hatred which fights for survival produce. Things fell apart; our institutions could not hold.
Disintegrating institutions led to the decay in their cultures, most notably Parliament. As the purpose of institutions became unclear, and politics characterized by factionalism and hate, there has been an influx of ‘professionals’ who identify public good with personal advancement. Those ‘professionals’ in active politics resemble the character of Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’, pursuing power at any cost but disarming suspicion by being incredibly dull. They are staffed by cherubic aides and interns who soil their dalmatics trying to climb up the greasy pole. This decay in the cultures of our institutions was blindingly encouraged by a mixture of uninformed or ill-experienced pedagogues, prophets and newspaper columnists (for there is no one more stupid and more opinionated than teachers, preachers or journalists…) As a result, the best lacked all conviction, while the worst were full of passionate intensity.
The expenses scandal to some extent exposed this decayed culture, but the restive Puritanism that it roused and the fear it created in politicians led not to the rehabilitation of our institutions but their further destruction. People saw them as the problem and not the cultures that had grown up with their gradual disintegration. The ‘professional’ culture was strengthened, not weakened by measures such as punishing second-jobs. Yet this doesn’t matter to the dreary, the pedestrian, the pompous, the respectable and the unimaginative whose power has grew bit by bit over the last twelve years but now dominate since the scandal. So our sustaining institutions continue to disintegrate, and those who oppose this process fearfully wonder what rough beast slouches towards Westminster to be born?
One would think this is the time for Conservatism, but the Tory Party is as affected by the decay as any other institution. The current Leadership are arguably the best educated and most cerebral since 1945. ‘Cameronism’, if it exists, embodies this idea of ‘equality of interests’ added with the intellectual and humanitarian traditions which extends far back through our history. But like their postwar forebears, they seem intellectually timid; committed enough to defend Conservatism, too afraid to put it on the offensive. They are anxious about appearing the smartest kid in the class, which gives our opponents the opportunity to fill the vacuum in ideas and use our timidity to strong-arm us into conniving in the decay of society’s institutions.
‘The idea that the convictions of politicians are never stable,’ continued Salisbury, ‘that under adequate pressure every resistance will give way, every political profession will be obsequiously recast, is fatal to the existence of either confidence or respect. Neither trust nor fear will, in the long run, be inspired by a school of statesman who, whatever else they may sacrifice, never sacrifice themselves.’