Where on earth is conservatism going? In Britain, at least, the simple answer seems to be opposition, and possibly for a long time. Non-Tories scarred by previous Conservative poll recoveries and shock victories may not quite believe it yet, but a Tory implosion at the next general election is becoming likely, as their dramatically shrunken support in recent byelections has shown. Our electoral system can be brutal towards any party whose share of the vote falls below a third, and for many months most polls have put the Tories closer to a quarter.
Yet political disasters, or even just the threat of them, can also create new possibilities: the abandonment of old taboos and assumptions; the rise of new ideas, personalities, messages and alliances. Particularly since 2021, as three successive Tory premierships have become exercises in frantic reinvention, but also over a longer period of self-doubt and experimentation, a new Conservatism has been struggling to emerge.
This process produced Theresa May’s misfiring 2017 manifesto, with its unexpected attacks on “untrammelled free markets” and “the cult of selfish individualism”, and pledge to create an “economy that works for everyone”. Boris Johnson’s even sketchier promises to “level up” Britain and build a “high-wage economy” were part of the same stop-start Tory re-evaluation. So is Rishi Sunak’s absurdly ambitious vow to end “30 years” of “broken” politics and “fundamentally change our country”.
Alongside the anti-establishment rhetoric and clumsy lurches to the left have come lunges to the right – or the far right: the endless culture wars against minorities, the authoritarian approach to protest and parliament, and the attacks on any institution that frustrates the Tories’ exercise of power. For years now, the Conservatives have given the impression that they don’t like the society or economy they in large part created – and that dislike, together with their deepening unpopularity, has carried the party into a strange place. Ideas previously considered heretical or too extreme are winning converts there. Feelings of anger and electoral dread mingle with feelings of excitement. For the first sustained period since the formative years of Thatcherism in the 1970s, the meaning of Conservatism is up for grabs.
This is part of a much wider flux on the right, from Hungary to the US, also fuelled by disillusionment with modern life and the market values conservatives used to venerate. This ferment involves populists and intellectuals, insurgents and party leaders, semi-academic conferences and crudely aggressive media, ordinary activists and billionaires.
Last week, unreported except for a brief write-up on UnHerd, a well-funded website where some of conservatism’s self-examination is happening, one of these billionaires gave a lecture in Oxford. Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and the data analysis company Palantir, a self-styled libertarian who has contracts with the Pentagon and the NHS, has been a leading funder of Donald Trump and other unpredictable rightwing US politicians. In many ways, Thiel is a perfect embodiment of the contradictions, confusions, potential appeal and huge power of the new conservatism, even in its half-formed state.
At first, he seems an unlikely public speaker and rightwing kingmaker. Stuttering and restless, he zigzagged in his lecture between predictable attacks on “this woke disease” and more surprising ones on the property market, which he called “the housing racket”. On the Tory idol Margaret Thatcher, he said her deregulation and tax cuts were unrepeatable, “one-time” policies. But then he said he had supported the Tory premier who disastrously tried to extend them: “I was very sympathetic to Liz Truss.”
More confusingly still, he described himself as on “the centre-right”. Yet he criticised Sunak – an increasingly aggressive social conservative and lifelong free-marketeer – as too moderate and essentially the same as Keir Starmer. By the lecture’s climax, Thiel was making assertions with which even some on the right might be uncomfortable, including arguing that fascism was “more innocent” than communism.
It’s possible to dismiss such talk as self-indulgent transgression, as baiting more moderate conservatives, liberals and the left from a position of great privilege, while chaos continues in the Tory and Republican parties, and in many of the places they govern. Thiel’s lecture was in a grand Oxford university auditorium, and the capacity audience was full of high-profile rightwingers from Britain, the US and Canada, such as Toby Young, Douglas Murray and Eric Kaufmann, prosperously dressed and networking with confident smiles. Contrary to Thiel’s rebel rhetoric, it did not feel like a gathering of an embattled tribe.
Conservative gloom about the state of the world, and warnings about all the dramatic deeds needed to save it, has always had a performative side: the partly contrived pessimism of well-off rightwingers whose assets and social status are safe from most upheavals.
But there is more than melodrama to the current rightwing turmoil. Conservatives around the world are belatedly facing up to the inadequacies, and quite possibly outright failure, of the economic model they have supported for half a century, as a mechanism for creating widespread wealth and facilitating social mobility. That free-market capitalism is almost certainly not environmentally sustainable, as well, is a realisation that many rightwingers, including Sunak, are avoiding for as long as they can.
Conservatives are also starting to realise that in many democracies they have lost most young people, and many middle-aged ones as well. Currently, much of the right attributes this loss to the supposedly malign and unnatural spread of liberal and leftwing values – to Thiel’s “woke disease”. Yet the disdainful lack of curiosity about social change in such language suggests that the right’s values counter-revolution is probably not going to prevail.
The right is going to need a fresher conservatism, more realistic about the problems and opportunities of the modern world, and about how to govern, if it is going to regain its dominance in Britain and beyond. The last such rethink lasted for much of the 1970s. In party meetings, policy papers, thinktanks and elite private gatherings, the right cooked up all kinds of political recipes, from nationalist to globalist, eugenicist to corporatist, libertarian to authoritarian, before it found an effective one in Thatcherism. Until that happens again, non-Tories should seize their chance.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist