The Conservative constitutional turn

Andrew Blick
By: Andrew Blick

The UK government policy of deporting refugees to Rwanda has created tension between it and prominent individuals from outside the party-political arena. Most recently, it was reported that the Prince of Wales (not a complete stranger to controversy) was a critic. Previously, the Archbishop of Canterbury publicly opposed the plan. These episodes are revealing with regard to the constitutional approach of the present Conservative administration, and the extent to which it differs of that pursued by the party in earlier times.

Once, the proposition of the Conservative Party pursuing a policy that brought it visibly into conflict with senior representatives of the Royal Family and the Church of England might have been hard to credit. Now, it is less surprising than it could once have been. Disputes with public institutions seem to be part of regular Conservative business.

Constitutional matters have often been crucial to party thinking. During the nineteenth century, analysis of the possible outcome of expansions of the franchise tended to hold that it was likely to damage the Conservatives. The assumption was that as they acquired the vote, less wealthy people would swell support for other parties promising redistribution of wealth, leading to a relative decline in the size of support for the Conservatives. However, in the event, the party proved remarkably successful at adapting to the emergent electoral landscape. By the late nineteenth century, it had found an effective formula: using cultural issues to build a cross-class support base while dividing its opponents and separating them from their supporters.

Often the focus for such campaigns was the constitution. In a famous speech delivered on 3 April 1872, Benjamin Disraeli, referring to the monarchy, described how:

‘the programme of the Conservative party is to maintain the Constitution of the country…Whatever the struggle of parties, whatever the strife of factions, whatever the excitement and exaltation of the public mind, there has always been something in this country round which all classes and parties could rally, representing the majesty of the law, the administration of justice, and involving, at the same time, the security for every man’s rights and the fountain of honour.’

As well as describing what he wanted to defend, Disraeli identified a threat to it. Speaking a little over two months later, on 24 June 1872, Disraeli depicted ‘a body of public men’ who had ‘introduced a new system into our political life. Influenced in a great degree by the philosophy and the politics of the Continent, they endeavoured to substitute cosmopolitan for national principles; and they baptized the new scheme of politics with the plausible name of “Liberalism”.’ The purpose of this Liberalism, Disraeli held, was ‘to attack the institutions of the country under the name of Reform, and to make war on the manners and customs of the people of this country under the pretext of Progress.’ Disraeli was confident that ‘the great body of the working class of England utterly repudiate such sentiments.’

The nineteenth century Conservatives, then, employed the constitution as a means of generating cross-cutting support. The contemporary party has done the same with Brexit, and with what might be broadly termed the ‘culture war’ – presenting itself (as Disraeli did) as resisting liberal forces seeking to impose alien ideas and values to which working class voters, among others, are supposedly naturally hostile. But there is a key difference. In the Disraeli model, the Conservatives were defenders of traditional institutions around which people of all classes could rally. Now these entities are often presented as part of the problem, opposed to the people, whose will was supposedly expressed through the 2016 referendum.

The 2019 Conservative Party General Election manifesto contained a notorious passage complaining of ‘[t]he failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit’, asserting that ‘the way so many MPs have devoted themselves to thwarting the democratic decision of the British people in the 2016 referendum’ had ‘opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people.’ The manifesto also held that ‘[a]fter Brexit we…need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution’. Areas of interest included ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts…[and]…the role of the House of Lords.’ Alongside the Commons, the Lords, and the courts, other public institutions targeted in different ways have included the Civil Service and the BBC. And recently, though it has not directly challenged the Church of England or monarchy, the Conservative government has pursued courses of action than have created tension between it and them.

Constitutional antagonism is not wholly new to the Conservative Party. Excluded from office between 1905 and 1915, it adopted a more disruptive approach, blocking legislation in the Lords and pursuing a controversial approach in its opposition to Home Rule for Ireland. Later in the twentieth century, Margaret Thatcher had a relatively hostile stance towards bodies such as the Civil Service. But the extent and intensity of contemporary Conservative antipathy towards established institutions is exceptional. It seems to be an inbuilt part of its political platform, in the same way that defence of the constitution once was. Perhaps this hostility will eventually subside. But before it does, it has the potential to generate considerable upheaval.

Andrew Blick is Professor of Politics and Contemporary History and Head of the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London and Senior Adviser to The Constitution Society.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.