Officers and Ideologues


“Only he who has no use for the Empire is fit to be entrusted with it.” said the Chinese philosopher Zuangzhi, and he probably had a point. Those who run for office generally do so on the basis that they think they will perform well in it. Most of them are wrong. If some political careers do not end in failure, the vast majority do, and many never even achieve any notable success en route to the inevitable disaster.

But unless we decide to become hardcore anarchists, someone has to be in charge, and we need a method for working out who that individual should be. In Zuangzhi’s time, that was quite simple – it was the heir of the ruling emperor, or the warlord who had conquered the state. But since hereditary power now seems a bit silly unless you happen to be a Monegasque, and conquering territory is no longer the done thing despite the best efforts of certain Russians to bring it back into fashion, we need another way of choosing our leaders.

An institution such as the papacy, where candidates do not run for office, but are elected to it, would probably meet with our Chinese friend’s approval, but this approach has not caught on. A conclave is comprised of a small number of people, all of whom are well aware of the virtues or otherwise of those deemed papabile. Most people who read this will never have met their MP, or, if they have, will not know them well enough to establish that they are the best candidate for the role. The first method of whittling down the candidates is to make them run for the job.

But, human nature being what it is, there is usually more than one individual who thinks that all that is necessary for the New Jerusalem to be built and milk and honey to flow across the land is for them to be in charge of things. So, we need a way of choosing between candidates. What is it about this individual which makes us think they should be in charge?

Different political traditions have taken different approaches to this problem. As the current Conservative leadership contest is displaying.

Why should Tom Tugendhat be Prime Minister? Because he was in the army. Why should Kemi Badenoch take over? Because of her policies. The former was running because of what he is, the latter because of what she believes. Both are relatively unknown, and both are using the contest to introduce themselves to a wider audience, aiming for different parts of the current Tory psyche. Tugendhat concentrated on his experiences – he was a leader in the Army, so he should be a leader in politics. His pitch was reasonably “policy-light”. Badenoch, by contrast, was quite “policy-heavy”. Her article in The Times set out what she believes and the policies that flow from that, but said little about who she is.

Given the nature of the party, this is a sensible approach, for it has long been a coalition, and both candidates are seeking to appeal to different parts of it.

For most of its existence it was a reasonably non-ideological vehicle for the retention of power by certain classes. It was called “the stupid party” by J.S. Mill not as a comment on the intelligence of its members, but as a reflection of its lack of interest in ideas and philosophy. It was not overly bothered about what it did in office (as a glance at its post-war contortions shows), as long as it was in office. As Nigel Farage noted, its MPs were generally military officers, barristers or business owners – people who had been in charge in other spheres, and thought this should be extended to politics. It is to this traditional caucus that Tugendhat speaks when he (as he does on occasion) refers to his military background.

From the 1970’s, however, this traditional party has been joined by another, altogether different grouping. When Mrs Thatcher threw a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on to the table and proclaimed, “This is what we believe”, she introduced the notion of ideology to a traditionally pragmatic party and from that point, fidelity to a particular set of ideas such as a smaller state and low taxes has been a reasonable claim to power on the right. Badenoch’s description of her beliefs is an attempt to show to her tribe that she is “one of them”.

Nor is she alone. Liz Truss’s pitch is that she has never met a tax she did not want to cut, or a regulation she did not want to add to the bonfire. For any MP stupid enough to miss the reference (and there must be some), she even goes to the effort of indulging in a little light Margaret Thatcher cosplay. Penny Mordaunt, by contrast, talks very little about what she would do, and quite a lot about being in the Navy (reserves). If she can captain a warship then she can surely run the country. Rishi Sunak is trying to (and possibly failing) to have it both ways – he would run on his experience, but many people think he did a bad job, and he is trying to run as a Thatcherite, but one reflecting the early ‘80’s reality, rather than the later myth.

What the leadership contest shows, then, is that the party has still not resolved the contradiction forced on it in the 1970’s. It is still an uneasy coalition between the patricians/wets/remainers/One Nation caucus (try to imagine someone who would have been a member of one of those groupings but not the others) and the true-believing Tory Trots for whom the state only exists to be torn down.

By contrast, Labour, which had been a coalition, now increasingly appears a monoculture. Initially a fusion of working class interests (as mediated through the trades unions) and metropolitan intellectuals, it rested its claims to power on, in the former case, representing the communities of which it was part and, in the latter, on being cleverer than everyone else. After Neil Kinnock, however, the intellectuals increasingly held sway as lawyer John Smith was succeeded by lawyer Tony Blair who passed power to economist Gordon Brown who handed on to Ed Miliband (whatever he was). The process reached its apogee with Jeremy Corbyn, an man whose ideas were “so stupid only an intellectual could believe them”. In the same way that Tory cabinets used to have a “token woman”, Angela Rayner now functions as Labour’s “token member of the working classes”.

This greater parliamentary cohesion has, however, come at the minor cost of the loss of numerous seats, as the losing part of the coalition has taken its votes elsewhere all but guaranteeing that the next Labour government will need a coalition with the Liberal Democrats or Scottish Nationalists.

Might something similar happen to the Conservatives?

While the Parliamentary party (more or less) stayed together during the Mayite interregnum, the electorate made its feelings perfectly clear, by relegating the Conservatives to fifth place. While Nigel Farage’s Brexit party was a high profile ready-made repository for disgruntled Tories, Richard Tice’s Reform is waiting on the sidelines to sweep up disgruntled Thatcherites. Probably not big enough to be a serious player for power in its own right, it would certainly be able to cause the Conservatives difficulties in a number of seats.

A bigger threat might have be if one of the ideologues had won. Numerous wags have remarked how good a leader Tom Tugendhat would make. Of the Liberal Democrats. With little philosophical difference, and numerous southern seats facing the yellow peril, might that electorate, faced with voting for a party easily caricatured as nasty, decide to give that nice Sir Ed Davey another look?

Perhaps the last man to represent both ends of Labour’s coalition was Dennis Healey, a Balliol Classics Scholar who rose from poverty to become Chancellor. It might be that the leadership election is showing us that it will be another who is the last to do so for the Conservatives. With the right education and a concern for the right issues (Greenery) Boris was certainly an officer (if you think his character was disqualifying, read some Flashman) but his long paper trail of libertarian-influenced articles gave hope to the ideologues that, at heart, he was really one of them. On the basis of this leadership election, the Conservatives may not see his likes again.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.