An instant disclaimer is in order: incompetent and lachrymose Mrs May isn’t a bog-standard criminal.
She hasn’t killed anyone, and I’m sure she has never stolen anything. She did play fast and loose with Brexit, but though despicable, that isn’t a crime in itself. In short, she has committed neither malum in se nor malum prohibitum.
These ancient legal categories describe, respectively, acts criminal in themselves (such as murder) and those criminal only because the law says so (such as snorting cocaine).
Yet I propose another term: malum effectum – an act that’s criminal neither in intent nor mode of execution, but because it produces disastrous effects. And, under some circumstances, incompetence can be malum effectum.
Think of a surgeon killing patients because of his ineptitude, a bad driver losing control and ploughing through a crowd, a cowboy builder whose house buries people under the rubble.
All these individuals would have a case to answer, a moral one definitely, a legal one probably, a criminal one possibly. But what about an incompetent prime minister causing untold damage to the realm?
It’s in that sense that Mrs May is a criminal, but she had plenty of accomplices, both before and during her tenure. It’s because of their collective efforts that the Tories are finished.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the party called Tory is finished. It may even still win the next general election and, considering the only realistic alternative, I hope it will.
It’s just that the party called Tory isn’t Tory. It hasn’t been that for half a century at least, but I only accepted that situation in 1991, when John Major succeeded Mrs Thatcher as party leader (and this is the only way John Major and ‘succeed’ can ever be used in the same sentence).
In his first speech as party leader, Major pledged commitment to ‘classless society’, which was inane on more levels than I can count. For no society can be classless, meaning without a vertical social structure.
People historically stratify themselves into groups, and these arrange themselves not only horizontally but also vertically. Had Major given the matter any thought, he would have discerned the difference between classlessness and social mobility.
He might have also wondered how a monarchy, even a constitutional one, can be classless – the very fact that our head of state is called Her Majesty the Queen precludes that possibility even if it existed otherwise.
But the statement didn’t come from his brain, such as it was. It came from his viscera, which is why he didn’t realise that what he was saying was tantamount to declaring that the Tories were committed to not being Tories.
John Major and the subsequent Tory prime ministers have lived up, or rather down, to that commitment. Nothing they’ve said or done has resembled Conservatism even remotely.
It’s not just because it rhymed that David ‘Dave’ Cameron described himself as ‘heir to Blair’, not, say, to Canning, Wellington or Disraeli (harrowing news: Dave is considering a comeback). At least he was being honest, for once in his life.
When the term was first used, the Tories were the party of aristocracy. They believed in a social order based on traditional hierarchy, Christian values and paternalism towards the lower classes, although not without a potential for social mobility.
The Whigs, aka Liberals, while also respectful of tradition, believed in laissez-faire economics at home and free trade abroad. They were opposed to protectionism, and their success in having the Corn Laws repealed spelled Britain’s economic growth.
At the same time Tory rearguard action was modestly successful in attenuating the shock waves of that growth and keeping the now threadbare social fabric from being torn to tatters too quickly.
Then in barged the twentieth century, heralded by the roar of howitzers. Out went the aristocracy, gassed in Flanders, taxed in Whitehall. And real Toryism went with it.
So what does the word ‘Conservative’ mean these days? Take aristocratic social order and Christian values out of it, and paternalism is all we have left. That, in today’s terms, means a gigantic welfare state, which is to say socialism.
The late Tory Alan Clark unwittingly confirmed this observation. “Almost lost to sight,” he wrote, “remain the… principal functions of the state: to ensure that its citizens are… gainfully employed, and that they are enlightened.”
The first of these functions is another word for wholesale nationalisation (the only way for a state to ‘ensure’ total employment), the modern for socialism; the second, another word for ‘free’ education, wherein the government makes us pay through the nose for the illiterate nonsense pumped into our children’s minds. That, too, is the modern for socialism.
The functions of the state can thus be reduced to one: being socialist.
Those who beg to differ have to acknowledge that the word ‘Conservatism’ is semantically inoperable, and add to it a typographic dimension by describing themselves as conservative with a lower-case ‘c’, thus renouncing knee-jerk loyalty to the upper-case Conservative party.
Most definitions of that small ‘c’ include some aspects of what in Britain is inaccurately called Thatcherism: limited government, laissez-faire economics at home and free trade abroad. In other words, things that circumscribe the traditional domain of Whiggish liberalism or the present one of economic libertarianism.
Indeed, Britain has followed America’s lead in identifying the right side of her political spectrum with libertarianism rather than conservatism. There used to be a seminal philosophical difference between the two political dispensations, but not any longer.
Thus Mrs May didn’t kill Toryism, as many are alleging. At worst, she drove the last nail into its coffin. What she might have killed with her Brexit shilly-shallying is any semblance of political tranquillity.
Brexit has acted as the catalyst of a deadly implosion, but not its cause. The cause is the tragic parting of ways between Britain’s political – I’d even say national – essence and her actual politics.
The British character gravitates towards pragmatism, moderation and distrust of ideologies, which used to be reflected in Tory politics. But, in the able hands of today’s politicians, pragmatism has become opportunism, moderation has turned into an absence of any principles, and distrust of ideologies has developed into a contempt for ideas.
The only thing now going for the Tories, whoever is at the helm, is that Corbyn is even worse. But because that’s the only thing, we’ll probably end up with the calamity of a Marxist government.
If making that likely isn’t a crime, I don’t know what is.