WHO are the real conservatives in British politics? You’d think the answer to this question ought to be straightforward, given that the current party of government has the word “conservative” in its title.

But names can be deceptive – particularly in politics. Our collective unconscious is often eloquent. Political parties are drawn to titles which precisely invert what they really stand for.

In Poland, the Law and Justice Party have stoked controversy and faced EU sanctions by undermining the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads up the Justice and Development Party – having developed Turkey from a parliamentary system into an increasingly unjust, autocratic one.

Dig through the roster of international campaign outfits, and you’ll discover a long and shabby list of undemocratic democrats, unrepublican republicans and illiberal liberals vying for their nations’ votes.

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Conservative” (adj.) Definition: “Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.”

We have a new contender for the title of Britain’s conservative party this weekend. Speaking to the Progressive Britain annual conference, Keir Starmer announced yesterday that “Labour are the real conservatives” now. “Somebody has got to stand up for the things that make this country great and it isn’t going to be the Tories,” he said, urging Labour to “change its DNA” in a political project he characterised as “Clause IV on steroids”.

Clause IV famously pledged the Labour Party “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production”.

Tony Blair persuaded his party to ditch this commitment in 1995 – a move widely regarded as pivotal in signalling a transition from Labour old to new, shifting emphasis towards an equality of opportunity discourse which remains with us to this day. The moment has been presented both as a flight from socialism and a necessary compromise with political and economic realities in modern Britain – delete as your political inclinations tend.

Sir Keir’s body-snatching, mad-scientist routine might sound a bit febrile and gruesome – but there’s the kernel of something interesting in his analysis, above and beyond the familiar idea that the Labour leader’s main job is to transfuse the policy preferences and talking points from Britain’s feral media into party policy.

Starmer’s right to this extent: the Tories have always had Jekyll and Hyde tendencies about what their governing purpose really is. With the Conservative and Unionist Party, it has never been a simple matter of just being averse to change, tending England’s green and pleasant land and preserving cherished national institutionsTM. In the DNA Starmer is so keen to transplant into the Labour Party, there’s simultaneously a strong desire to wreck the joint.

It rather depends, I think, how you choose to remember Margaret Thatcher. Was the Iron Lady a smasher and a vandal, or a compromising politician who was often willing to trim her sails to political headwinds till she entered the final imperial phase of her premiership?

This probably strikes you as a silly question. Thatcher’s folk memory only goes one way. Both her critics and her superfans tend to see her as a hard-as-nails, no-compromises kind of gal.

Certainly, she once asked “what great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’” She characterised consensus as the “process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved”.

But in truth, Thatcher’s stint in government is considerably more complex than the myth would have it. The patron saint of the modern Tory Party didn’t shrink from certain fights inside and outside her party – but in other respects, the Sainted Margaret demonstrated a capacity for worldly compromise which her contemporary cheerleaders in the Tory Party tend to forget.

This doubleness lives on in the modern Conservative party, combining reflexive defence for certain elements of the status quo with a powerful but deeply unconservative desire to burn down major components of public life in the UK.

Late-career Thatcher contributed to this myth-making. Political senility is a common fault in former politicians. Having handed back the levers of power, an amazing number of leading politicians suddenly discover that their dearest political wish was to introduce a series of reforms they didn’t advocate when they had the power to do so. Ideas which were shunned in office suddenly become de rigueur when you have time on your hands, no red boxes and nobody calls.

IN retirement, Gordon Brown has discovered a remarkable enthusiasm for the kind of constitutional change he refused to countenance in office with a working Labour majority. Leaving Bute House seems to have transformed Alex Salmond from a fawning royalist into a geriatric Robespierre. Better one sinner repenteth, as he likes to say.

But there’s always been a part of the Tory soul that begins to hear voices in the bitter watches of the night. This inclination towards smash-and-grab politics was memorably encapsulated by the brief but lasting mayhem of Liz Truss’s stint of misrule.

This was the kind of conservatism that thinks the punters will be fine with turning the Cotswold into Mordor, geligniting the village cricket pitch, and in Britain’s brooks and waterways, letting the slurry rip. Truss promised “creative destruction”. Politicians are often accused of ratting on their promises. Truss at least achieved half of what she set out to do.

The British press have largely internalised this sense that “radical” reforms ought to involve setting one or more cherished national institutionsTM on fire. Anything which doesn’t involve pandemonium tends to be dismissed as boring, bureaucratic or half-hearted.

In Scottish politics, by contrast, we have the opposite problem. Proposals attracting anything less than full-throated support from business or civic society are now almost immediately catastrophised in the media or attributed to government incompetence – rather than recognising that political interest groups often have divergent political interests and decision-making on the allocation of benefits and burdens tend to create winners and losers, and recognising that losers can be expected, rightly or wrongly, to girn about it.

Starmer is right to perceive that his main opponents have created an opening for a party offering the illusion of managed continuity with less of the paranoid politics. The Tory Party’s list of unpatriotic elements has grown remarkably lengthy as its stint in government peters out.

Much of civic society and most of the major institutions of public life in Britain are now included in the Tory list of enemies of the people. There’s the old bogeymen of trade unions and foreigners – to which they’ve now added the BBC, Channel 4, lawyers, judges, junior doctors, senior doctors, nurses, teachers, universities and the whole of the civil service, which has been intermittently denounced as obstructive, snowflake and idle.

Starmer also offered a degree of existential security in his big speech, suggesting that only Labour can bring the current flux to an end. Promising the punters a quiet(er) life is a familiar Tory move. But Sir Keir has more to work with here.

Political, economic and social life in the UK has been characterised by a sustained period of instability and uncertainty for years, through Brexit, Covid and the energy, inflation and associated cost of living crisis it precipitated.

Where this rhetoric gets suspicious is the idea a new UK government can inoculate us against these uncertainties – particularly one which has pre-emptively committed to no big changes on public spending.

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Karl Marx – who I can quote so Sir Keir doesn’t have to – famously argued that one feature of capitalist society was that “all that is solid melts into air”.

No respecter of persons or traditions, capital production and destruction unsentimentally assembles and disassembles the public domain, builds up and knocks flat our built and natural environment, making and unmaking people’s lives in the process.

This gave rise, he said, to “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”. Marx thought this social flux and the anxiety it gave rise to would ultimately force humanity to “face with sober senses” their real conditions – and change them.

If Starmer’s speeches are anything to go by, he thinks the Labour Party’s historic role is to present the punters with an illusion of continuity, and call it conservatism.