Politics, at its core, is the art of identity. It’s a method of placing labels on ourselves, and defining where we stand in public society — whether we’re conservative or liberal, leftist or rightist, authoritarian or libertarian, and anything in between, they’re the flags we fly on our ideological galleons.
While incredibly arbitrary, though, these labels are essential not only for self-definition but for finding and joining with others who share those same views. It is then that we can really set about conveying our vision to the rest of the world.
It’s on this basis that all political parties and organisations stand; they exist in order to rally together politicians and voters alike under one unifying banner. While these institutions may often seem unbreakable, the thin links that bind them are dangerously vulnerable to shocks —and when a new issue emerges that divides the crew in two, they can be shaken at their very foundations.
It’s pretty obvious to see that we’re going through such a paradigm shift right now: starting in 2016, really, we’ve seen our political climate become increasingly torn between traditional left-right economic arguments and a new axis of nationalism vs cosmopolitanism, which was ultimately defined by the storm of the Brexit vote (where the Remain side discovered that arguments relying on economics held little water). It is how our political parties respond to this change in the tides that will dictate their success now and for many years to come.
The Conservative Party, specifically, is the perfect example of this scramble to work out where it stands in these strange waters. Much like many right-wing parties today, it’s divided between two very distinct halves, both in its voters and its representatives: essentially, between traditional, middle-to-upper-class Conservatives under the old guard such as Commander Cameron and Admiral Johnson’s barmy Brexit Army, which taps into a younger voter base as well as the swathes of Vote-Leavers in the Red Wall.
As we saw with their 2019 landslide, the Tories have very effectively consolidated these groups with their “Getting Brexit Done” shtick, uniting both their passionate Leave voters a well as tired Remainer conservatives. But this unity won’t last forever, and I fear that the leaks have already begun to show: for evidence of that, one only need look at by-elections in Buckinghamshire and the outright mutiny of a former (and vocally anti-Brexit) Conservative Speaker to the Opposition. This last point, especially given the sorry state of Captain Hindsight’s Labour Party (due largely to the exact same issues), sets a worrying precedent for the Conservatives’ future.
So, what happens now? If you dismantle the Conservative Party and build it back up again, will it still be the same ship?
It is unlikely that the party will collapse, but if it continues on its current course, it will struggle to maintain its current popularity in future. It is today faced with an all-important choice: it can go back to the Tory party of before, or it can decide on a new identity of Brexit-fuelled, nationalist authoritarianism. It certainly seems that they are headed for the latter: if they elect to steer towards that dangerous route, I see moderates and liberals alike jumping overboard (as they have already started to do) before an iceberg is struck.
Identity is so powerful because it gives political actors purpose: without a strong sense of where exactly you stand, voters won’t be compelled to stand behind you. In a world which is increasingly defined by ideological clashes, this sense of who you are is only becoming more important; it will be up to politicians to conclusively choose which flag they want to fly, lest their supporters abandon them as a result. After all, how can you be expected to control the direction of a country if you can’t even decide your own?