Opinion | They Wrecked Britain, and They’re Not Going Anywhere

LONDON — As Britain prepares for the coronation of its new king, an end-of-days feeling is sweeping the nation. In an atmosphere of social unrest, economic dysfunction and government corruption, deep political disillusionment has set in. The Conservative Party is polling 15 points behind the opposition, and the popularity of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives’ fifth leader in seven years, remains obstinately low. After years of Tory misrule, the opinion of the British public seems clear: We’ve had enough.

And with good reason. For over a decade, the Conservatives have ransacked the country they claim to love, unmooring it from its foundations and enriching their chums. While the wealth of the very richest rocketed, the party’s program of austerity, begun by David Cameron in 2010 and continued by each Conservative prime minister since, starved public services, created one of the most miserly welfare states in the developed world and contributed to the longest period of wage stagnation — for many, wage regression — since the Napoleonic Wars. Life expectancy is down, child poverty is up, and there are few signs of a reprieve on the horizon. Life under the Tories has become poorer, nastier, more brutish and shorter.

The travesty of the Tories’ legacy has led some to wonder whether the next election, to be held by January 2025, will prove terminal. But these obituaries are premature. The party’s ancient history — which stretches back beyond their baptism as the Conservatives in the 1830s and into the 17th century — tells us that, whether in government or in opposition, the Conservatives will continue to find ways to adapt and preserve power. No matter what happens in the next election, the historic vessel of Britain’s ruling class is not going anywhere.

By many accounts, the Conservative Party is not just the oldest but also the most successful political party in the world. Since 1884, when workers made up a majority of the electorate for the first time, the Conservatives have defied their own doubts about democracy to remain in government for two-thirds of the time. They have won eight of the past 11 elections. Their main opposition, the Labour Party, by contrast, spends most of the time as just that: the opposition. Next year, Tony Blair will be the only Labour leader to have won an election in half a century.

During this historic dominance, the Conservatives have created a nation in their image, ensuring a degree of Tory rule even when out of government. Antique poles of ruling-class power — the monarchy, the unelected House of Lords, public schools and Oxbridge — continue to dominate the political landscape. In the absence of a codified constitution or an elected second chamber, checks on the ruling party’s power are minimal. The first-past-the-post voting system remains distinctly undemocratic: Governments need claim only the support of about a quarter of the electorate to attain total executive control. The Tories are usually at the helm.

The Conservatives cast these undemocratic anachronisms as quintessentially British, glamorous symbols of a timeless stability and splendor. But they are also convenient pillars of the Conservative cause. The House of Lords, where the Tories have long been dominant, is illustrative. The Lords ceased to be predominantly hereditary only in 1999, after a reform by the Labour government. Still unelected, the chamber now enables a kind of legitimatized corruption: A prime minister can give any ally — a fellow politician, a family member, a journalist, a press baron, a party donor — a job for life as a legislator, regardless of suitability, with full state approval. According to a recent analysis, one in 10 Tory peers has given more than 100,000 pounds, around $125,000, to the party. In any other context, we would know what to call such a practice.

And then there are the public schools, whose name belies their exclusive, private nature. About half of Conservative leaders went to elite boarding schools like Eton and Harrow, which were founded in 1440 and 1572. Only the University of Oxford, with roots back to 1096, can boast more illustrious alumni. Out of the university’s 30 prime ministers since 1721 (more than half the total), three-quarters went to public school. In Britain, the path to power often begins on the playground.

Throughout their history, the Conservatives have worked hard to give their antiegalitarian ethos a popular facade, wrapping up elite privilege in an aura of deference, tradition and patriotism. Britons are encouraged to take pride in the agedness of their institutions, to see themselves in the pomp and ceremony of the monarchy and the Lords, to relish their status as royal subjects rather than citizens.

In film and literature, most of the country’s favorite characters and story lines contain at least a seed of the Tory nation — the Old Etonian James Bond, who breaks the rules with a gentleman’s charm; the humble wizardry of Harry Potter, who risks it all to save his enchantingly regimented boarding school from evil outside forces; and the magic of Mary Poppins, the English nanny who wants only to keep the house in order. Television offers the same escape. In 2019 alone, there were more than 30 new series of period dramas, which tend to be conservative-friendly depictions of the past, either produced or set in Britain.

The right-wing press is another indispensable accomplice in maintaining the Conservative vision of Britain. With most media moguls natural allies of the Tories, the newspapers’ daily drip feed of jingoism allows the Conservative Party to convincingly claim to reflect — rather than shape — the national mood. In the 1924 election, almost three-quarters of the press supported the Tories. In 2019, during the last election, the proportion was essentially the same. Only under Mr. Blair has a majority of Britain’s press not favored the Tories.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that, faced with these hostile conditions, Labour often opts for the path of least resistance. That it took so long for the party to even reform the House of Lords, and that this reform neither democratized the chamber nor removed all hereditary peers, testifies to the party’s quasi-truce with Toryism. Often Labour politicians seem keener on receiving the blessings of the current system — a peerage, a knighthood, a royal invitation — than on changing it. The current Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, decidedly follows this path. Idealism and hope are scorned in favor of pragmatism and common sense, two terms that, in Britain, almost always seem to mean cleaving to the right.

If there is hope, it’s that buried within Britain, suppressed by a political system constructed in the Conservatives’ favor, other visions of society exist. This is precisely what the Conservatives are committed to stifling. For all the Tories’ odes to the British people, their recent forays into authoritarian territory — proroguing Parliament, trying to outlaw disruptive protests and strikes and pushing through voter-ID requirements — tell you everything you need to know about the party’s attitudes toward democracy. The Tory philosopher Roger Scruton, described by Boris Johnson as “the greatest modern conservative thinker,” was surely correct when he wrote that “no conservative is likely to think democracy an essential axiom of his politics.”

Neither Britain nor the more Tory-voting England is fundamentally Conservative. In the absence of a genuinely representative democracy, such conclusions simply cannot be drawn: The Conservative Party’s remarkable ability to win elections has no corollary in nationwide popularity. This is both grounds for optimism — the Tories no more speak for Britain than does the one-party press — and a warning against complacency. No matter how much damage they cause, no matter how unpopular they seem, the Conservatives can never be ruled out.

Samuel Earle (@swajcmanearle) is a journalist who writes about politics and culture and the author of “Tory Nation: How One Party Conquered Britain,” from which this essay is adapted.

Sources images by assalve, Raylipscombe, and Valerie Loiseleux, via Getty Images

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Source: Read Full Article