In Praise of Complacency, part 1
Peter King on the benefits of herd instincts
There has been a lot of debate over what happened in the 2015 General Election. Why did so few pundits and pollsters predict the outcome and what does the small Conservative majority say about the nature of our political culture? Is the country actually rather more conservative than most pundits and commentators would admit?
Firstly, the election result does not show that the Conservative Party is widely loved. They won a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but did so with less than 37% of the popular vote. The Conservatives were therefore the least unpopular and least distrusted. Of course, they have a mandate because – they won the election – and we should all respect that result. But the election was not won on a wave of enthusiasm, but rather on a gentle ripple of complacency. Yet it is this notion of complacency that is most significant in explaining the outcome of the 2015 election.
There are many forms of conservatism, and not all of these are represented by the Conservative Party in its current form. Yet the election strategy of the Conservatives, undoubtedly assisted by the bumbling incompetence of their Labour opponents, found a constituency big enough to win. This constituency is conservative, but it is not consciously so. It is not active and it is not articulate. It is rather a form of conservatism that is dispositional, quiet and reactive. Most often this form of conservatism is inchoate and it is most certainly complacent.
Complacency is often taken to be negative. We criticise someone for their complacency, for their apparent refusal to think or act beyond an established norm. But without these norms we would not be able to act at all. We need regularity, consistency and stability in order to make our lives possible. We cannot survive in a world that is constantly changing and in flux. We need to be able to take most of the things around us for granted. In short, we need a degree of complacency.
There is in this country a general lack of interest in politics outside of elections or periods of crisis. Politics is what others do, and we are quite happy to have it that way. What is much more important is what is closest to us: our family, our home, our friends and our community. When we have to make political judgements we do so according to the perceived consequences for these things that are most important to us. We know that the only possible world is the one we find ourselves in and we know that we only ever get one chance at living. What matters to us, then, is what is here and now.
This view of conservatism clearly has links to the conservative tradition. We can think of Edmund Burke’s little platoons, those institutions and networks that are closest to us and which form the basic building blocks for any coherent society. We can also point to Michael Oakeshott and his sense of conservatism as being about the savouring of the familiar and not being based on ideas and principles. For Oakeshott, politics has no end, but is simply about the art of governing, of the continual need for a steady hand on the tiller.
I have this image of the voting public as a grazing herd. They are ruminating slowly and peacefully; concerned only with what is close to them. They may be briefly roused by some noise or sudden movement, they will react to this, perhaps moving slightly or maybe seeing that there was nothing to concern them, and so they settle down again to their grazing. They do not see that much about their lives is wrong, and most certainly see no reason to reflect on their lot. They wish to remain content and complacent just as they are.
So at election time we can be roused from our familiar lives and we might notice that there is something happening. We might see this as of great consequence, or we might find it annoying. But it is something ‘out there’ beyond the herd and it is distracting rather than the true focus of our attention.
This is a conservative disposition, but it is a quiet and reactive way. It is not articulated as conservative, or political in any way. We are merely preserving those things that are close to us and doing so in manner that bespeaks our complacency.
I would argue that in 2015 the Conservatives recognised this, consciously or otherwise, and played a negative campaign based on the effects of being unsettled. They stressed the risk of change and of Labour and the Scottish nationalist Party being in cahoots at the expense of the English. Labour, however, ran a campaign (which was equally negative) based on exceptionalism. They focused on the minority at the bottom and argued that the minority at the top should be made to pay. But in doing so, they excluded the majority. Labour forgot how most of us live, while the Conservatives spoke directly to that complacent part of us.
This does not mean that the majority of the British public would self-identify as conservative. The majority would most likely not wish to self-identify as anything: politics, remember is what others do, not us. We are instead too concerned with what is just around us and so long as this can be sustained we are happy simply to carry on grazing. The politicians most likely to win, therefore, are those best able to satisfy us that not much needs to change.
PETER KING is Reader in Social Thought at De Montfort University. His most recent books are Keeping Things Close: An Essay on the Conservative Disposition and Here and Now: Some Thoughts on the World and How We Find it, both published by Arktos in 2015