“Conservatism,” wrote Disraeli in his novel Coningsby, “assumes in theory that everything established should be maintained; but adopts in practice that everything that is established is indefensible.”
Much like the Conservative Party in Britain today, the party that Disraeli joined as a young MP was suffering a crisis of faith. Would it maintain old verities at the risk of political annihilation? Or jettison them for faddish ideals and make a play for popular esteem?
This is a moment for Boris Johnson to study his famous 19th century predecessor. Disraeli’s genius was to recognize that Conservatism’s roots remained vital and cherished by the British population. Only electors were denied the best that Toryism could offer, since the party’s leading politicians either abandoned their heritage or lacked the courage to defend it.
Tories are once more at a crossroads. And, like the 1840s, a conservative disposition remains alive in the United Kingdom while its leaders choose to curry favor more with the press than with the voting public. Apostasy starts at the head. Boris Johnson, James Delingpole writes, “is going to go down as the Prime Minister who cancelled London.”
The Prime Minister’s problem, Mr. Delingpole believes, “is that he is a fundamentally unserious person.” Cometh the times, cometh the man? Not with BoJo. Resolving the political and economic crises overwhelming the UK “requires courageous, principled leadership of a kind Boris is quite incapable of providing,” is Mr. Delingpole’s assessment.
With respect to the coronavirus, Mr. Delingpole suggests that Mr. Johnson adopt Sweden’s about-face and admit to making serious miscalculations, greatly overestimating the coronavirus health scare and underestimating its economic costs. Few politicians have the moral fortitude for such public flagellation and, Mr. Delingpole laments, “least of all one as slippery and desperate to be liked as Boris.”
What is to be done? Disraeli’s principled stand against Sir Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws (criticizing the desertion of the party’s greatest asset, the agricultural interest) is a ready example that has no modern equivalent.
Tory MP Steve Baker shows promise, having argued for an end to the shutdown that hobbled the British economy and for sacking Mr. Johnson’s principal advisor for such counterproductive policy, Dominic Cummings. Mr. Baker does not share anything like Disraeli’s hold over dissident MPs nor his commanding presence in the country. His time might come, but that lies in the future.
Another conceivable candidate for rallying conservatism is Nigel Farage who, as founder of the United Kingdom Independence Party, played a pivotal role in making Brexit a reality. While Mr. Farage enjoys wide popularity, he rankles more Tories than he palliates. He may be sound on the principles of national self-government, but on other issues his populist message of political reform (whether it be making MPs more answerable to their constituencies or remaking the House of Lords) are more problematic.
Brexit should inspire not only returning power to Westminster from Brussels, but from Westminster to the people themselves. Mr. Farage’s reform agenda, while motivated by honorable intentions, is apt to result in more government and bureaucratic intrusion rather than less.
So while there may not be a sizeable Tory parliamentary opposition to their own Government, this does not mean that adherents of liberty are nonexistent. That Conservative rank-and-file members are tearing up their membership cards at the news of mandatory facemasks, just as the marketplace is opening up, is proof that principled citizens are standing up for individual freedom.
Meanwhile, Disraeli’s question becomes our own: “Is there a statesman among these conservatives who offers us a dogma for a guide, or defines any great political truth which we should aspire to establish?”
Mr. MacLean, a freelancer based in Nova Scotia, writes the Sun’s Brexit Diary.