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Will Brexit break the Conservatives?

They’ve come through war, the end of Empire and not a few spats about Europe. But just occasionally a special sort of row arises, one that truly sinks the Tories

Can the Tories survive Brexit?

What does it mean to be a Conservative? For Lord Salisbury, it was about standing firm against the “army of so-called reform.” For Disraeli, in some moods at least, it was about healing the rift between England’s two nations. And for Tony Hancock, it was an acceptable patriotic alternative to giving blood.

The lack of any agreed answer hasn’t stopped the tribe that bears the Conservative name from being, in England at least, the natural party of government; it has been a source of great adaptability and advantage. But today, as Andrew Gamble sets out on p26, the whole European centre-right is under new pressure from resurgent nationalist populism to define itself much more sharply. And in the UK, with the clock ticking down towards Brexit, these dilemmas are particularly urgent. The Tories stand on the cusp of making decisions that will not only be fateful for the country’s place in the world, but will also define what—and who—the Conservatives stand for today.

With her “backstops,” “implementation phases” and panicked last-minute compromises, Theresa May has kicked cans down the road wherever possible precisely because she senses that any decision that gives the Tories more definition will be dangerously divisive.

And she may well be right to fear the unforgivingly bright light that Brexit is casting on the party’s ideas and priorities. For the doctrinal haze that sits at the heart of Conservatism has served it well.

The long list of values that have, at one time or another, been associated with Conservative thought— including freedom, authority, community, individualism, tub-thumping militarism and world-weary pragmatism—is varied to the point of self-contradiction in theory. No wonder that its intellectuals have pleaded that Conservatism is not “a doctrine, but a disposition” (Michael Oakeshott) or “not so much a philosophy, as an attitude” (Quintin Hogg). As for the practice, the application of all this is positively dizzying. Traditional community? It counted for little when Thatcher was consigning old industries and ways of life to the scrapheap. Militarism? The party lurched from Edwardian jingo to interwar appeasement— before it supplied Britain’s greatest belligerent in 1940. Liberty? The party suspended habeas corpus in the 19th century, but then supplied the lawyers who drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in the 20th—only to regret this achievement by the 21st.

If politics was confined to debating societies, all this sliding about would spell a Conservative rout. Liberals, socialists and assorted other rationalists have often imagined that their day is coming because they judge that they’re winning the ideological argument. Yet more often than not, the Conservatives have cleaned up, precisely because of their willingness to jettison inconvenient ideological baggage. Some may see Brexit as a profoundly un-Conservative thing to do—it tears up relationships and institutions rooted in 40 years of experience, and sacrifices established advantages for an unknowable future. When it comes to the fate of the party as opposed to the nation, however, this doesn’t necessarily matter. Indeed, the Conservatives are today, if anything, narrowly ahead in the polls. If there is any centre-right party in Europe that you would expect, on the strength of its record, to find a way through the challenges of resurgent nationalism and Brexit, then it would be the Tories.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect's July issue: Editor of Prospect Tom Clark tackles the major fault lines developing in the Conservative Party over Brexit, arguing that the issue could be one of those few occasions where the Tories can’t overcome a significant challenge. Alongside his lead essay, Andrew Gamble, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, examines why many European parties on the right are struggling and why the continent should be worried. Conservative MP Lee Rowley charts what some of the policy areas that the Tories will have to deal with beyond Brexit if they are to get it right. Elsewhere in the issue: Nabeelah Jaffer tries to answer one of the most difficult questions of our time: how do you de-radicalise an extremist. Using examples from both the UK and Denmark, she argues that the UK model needs more work to be effective; Philip Collins asks why Britain’s towns have fallen by the wayside while its cities have thrived; and Sam Tanenhaus profiles “the real deal-maker” in Donald Trump’s White House, Mike Pompeo, after the Secretary of State oversaw the US-North Korea summit.