What is a Conservative? An endangered species, I would suggest; and the reason is corporatism.
British Conservatives tend to be coy about their beliefs. If you wish to be the ‘natural party of government’ it is not a good idea to be too definite and dogmatic about principles, which can only lead to damaging splits as per the factions in Python’s ‘Life Of Brian’ . Quintin Hogg said it was ‘not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society.’
Okay, something to do with freedom; but specifically, individual freedom – not some collective freedom that is equivalent to a coach trip going where many of the passengers don’t wish to go.
And that implies a degree of economic independence.
Over the centuries, between the peasant in his field and the King in his court there sprang up the burgess in his town, where ideas, information and capital could circulate creatively. The special skills of goldsmiths and haberdashers, protected from ruinous competition by guilds, allowed their accumulation of wealth through trade; and fostered the attitude that the rulers should serve the people, or at least, people like themselves. There might be challenges to the throne from time to time, yet as my farmer grandfather observed, the oxen change but the trough remains the same.
Now, the social order is threatened not by an ‘overmighty subject’ looking to unseat the King, but by multinational businesses that undermine the burgess class with impunity. There is no need to be over-careful about a nation’s welfare and social cohesion so long as one can extract the cash and carry it far away.
And then, political attitudes will change.
What goes around, comes around. Tesco’s Dave Lewis is calling for a cut in business rates funded by a tax on online sales. It’s not as though Tesco hasn’t itself taken advantage of Internet trading and tax offshoring, in the past, but now they are getting pinched between the likes of Amazon in the virtual world and the discount supermarkets in the real one.
Still, what’s happening now to the big brick shops is only what they themselves have done to small High Street traders. When I first came here in suburban Birmingham, the local shopping parade boasted a mom-and-pop hardware store, a second-hand bookshop, a post office, two greengrocers and three butchers.
What have we got now? Knock-off shops, nail and tattoo parlours, fast-food takeaways and an opaque-fronted store selling hydroponics to grow cannabis. The people are getting fatter, tatter and mad as a hatter. Greyfaced hoodies slip unshaven from the barber’s and into their mates’ nippy cars - don’t look at them, and don’t walk around at night.
The bookshop owner told me the neighbourhood was ‘artisan’; that was over thirty years ago.
The self-serving narrative of big capital is that it ‘creates jobs’, but as the sharply pessimistic US writer James Kunstler observes, ‘one of the founders of the Home Depot company, billionaire Ken Langone… made his fortune by putting every local hardware store in America out of business, which enabled him to capture the annual incomes of ten thousand small business owners and their employees.’
And more is lost than even this wide-angle perspective might show. One of my greengrocers was employing his son, training him up to take over. The boy learned how to talk to customers, handle goods and money, and build the relationships that would sustain what would one day be his business. He would not be hanging around the off-license at night or setting fire to street waste bins. Round the corner, one of the butchers had three generations in the shop, the latest a primary age child who on Saturdays donned his little striped apron and watched how meat was cut. He, too, was going to grow up law-abiding and self-supporting.
Don’t expect a shelf-stacker on income supplements to vote the same way as them.
One of the reasons more people don’t support Brexit is, I think, the Marie Antoinette effect: they tend their washed sheep in blithe ignorance. Some of the comfortably-off, based perhaps in London or university cities or market towns, will still have butchers and greengrocers, will buy at the deli, the wine merchant and the artisan baker, will patronise the farmer’s market and fuss over having their strawberries in paper bags instead of plastic punnets. Despite what their eyes may skim over in the papers, they will look around their immediate environment and see that nothing much has altered. What on Earth, they will feel, is this ridiculous fuss all about?
They are heartened by the LibDems’ success in the recent council elections, not seeing that while Con and Lab each lost 7% of their voters, most of those didn’t migrate to the LibDems, who only added 3% to their own, much smaller share. It was an electoral collapse for the major players, and a shop-soiled victory for the least hated.
But it’s not business as usual. A great change is coming.