Thursday, May 16, 2019

Conservatives are an endangered species

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.

All gone.

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.


Sackerson said...

JD comments:

Excellent post. It is the same everywhere I think.

When the councillors came knocking on doors before the recent local elections I asked why they had spent half a million tarting up the pavements around the 'shopping centre' in our small suburban village when there are no shops other than similar to those you mention. She said "Oh, but the new smoothie bar is very popular!" Yes, of course; an essential amenity if you are looking for food and other household goods to take home. I kept on at her about other things until she ran away!

You mention corporatism. The paving was done by Capita, the Council's maintenance work is done by Kier. Both of those are remotely controlled which means accountability is easily diverted to other departments within their organisations. The local Council is the same: I have often thought in the past that the system is too big and nobody knows what they are supposed to be doing. Big is not beautiful!

And some further thoughts: it occurred to me that the old Labour of my grandfather's generation was a lot more conservative than the current Conservative party. It was the Conservatives who tied us to the EU, it was the Conservatives who encouraged the rise of corporatism, it is the Conservatives who are encouraging abortion and 'gay marriage' and other minority obsessions. etc etc.

Paddington said...

Here the Democrats managed to include laws that government construction by the State had to be done by workers who live in the state. The Republicans don't like that, so they threw the laws out, in order to once again bash the unions.

There is more to an economy than driving up stock prices by cutting costs.

Sackerson said...

@P: What do Conservatives conserve?

Paddington said...

Currently, conservatives conserve the money of the wealthy. There are movements in the US to have them get their hands on everyone's pensions.

In fact, some conservatives have openly said that 'regular' people do not deserve either healthcare or pensions.

A K Haart said...

I have the impression that many people are quite comfortable living within a vast corporate embrace. As if size implies permanence and permanence is comfortable. I sense that even round here in a patchwork of old coal-mining areas.

James Higham said...

Thinking of you today.