Somehow, in the space of one month, the political Right seems to have gone from #Tories4Corbyn mania to acute Corbynphobia, switching positions in direct proportion to Corbyn’s rise in the opinion polls and his proximity to clinching the Labour leadership election.
The latest to lose his nerve is Allister Heath, who writes very well and sensibly about most things, but seems to have lost both perspective and ambition in his latest piece for the Telegraph.
For in truth, small-C conservatives and believers in small government and individual liberty have very little to fear from Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. But the fact that notes of panic are creeping in – even among stalwarts such as Allister Heath – reveals a deeper malaise within British conservatism, one which needs to be quickly identified and rooted out.
Heath begins well enough:
Britain needs as many pro-capitalist parties as it can get. For a brief period in the mid-1990s, it had at least three: the Tories, a reformed Labour Party under Tony Blair which appeared ready to embrace markets for the first time, and the Liberal Democrats, who at the time were still pretty centrist.
It seemed as if the free-market counter-revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, had finally killed off socialism. The choice from now on would be between a particular brand of capitalism, with varying degrees of intervention, but nobody would any longer suggest ending the economic system that has created so much wealth for humanity over the past 250 years.
So far, so true. Yes, indeed there was a large degree of consensus from the mid-1990s through the early New Labour era, and yes, this consensus broadly accepted free markets and the fact that people could become filthy rich, so long as they paid their taxes. But there was also a consensus among all parties that the European Union was a great and benevolent institution, and that we should happily cede ever more sovereignty to Brussels in the service of some “common European” good.
And there was a cross-party consensus that unlimited immigration from the European Union was a good thing, and that anyone who dissented or sought to highlight the problems of mass immigration must be a backwards, little-Englander xenophobe. So the consensus that Allister Heath speaks of so wistfully was in fact not always such a great thing.
In fact, it was during this time when the current political class – the SpAdocracy – really solidified their grip on power. Routes from manual occupations into Labour Party politics via the trade union movement had dried up, and new armies of identikit, PPE-educated special advisers were rewarded for their service to the first generation of New Labour ministers with safe seats of their own to contest. These people valued the acquisition and keeping of power above all, and were willing to follow any focus group and pander to any special interest group in order to secure their votes and their money.
I suppose you can look back on this time, as Heath does, and see it as a golden period of acceptance of free market norms and the wisdom of capitalism. But you can equally look at is as the time when a political class with no experience of real life became ascendant, when the priorities of the political class from both parties asserted themselves violently over low-paid workers, and the field of political debate shrank down to the size of a pin head. So no, if you were not like Heath, it was not necessarily the best of times.
And then it gets worse:
It would therefore be a disaster for Britain were Jeremy Corbyn to become leader of the Labour Party. He is an unreconstructed socialist and an early 1980s-style Labour Party would have a disastrous effect on opinion, even if Mr Corbyn himself never even got close to winning an election.
It would become acceptable again to call for nationalising vast swathes of industry, for massively hiking tax and for demonising business. The centre-ground would move inexorably towards a more statist position. How would the Tories react if Mr Corbyn were to call for a minimum wage of £10 or £12 by 2020, against their £9? Or if he called for the nationalisation of electricity or rail companies?
It would also become far harder for them to reform trade unions: instead of being opposed by a relatively sensible centre-left party, a Corbynite Labour Party would herald a return to the ultra-confrontational 1980s. Class war, extreme language and nonsensical positions would all be back. Mr Corbyn may help the Tories win the next election – but he would poison the political debate and ensure that rabid, economically illiterate ideas dominated the airwaves. A Corbyn-led Labour Party would be a disaster for the pro-capitalist cause.
What’s really disturbing here is that Allister Heath wants it to be “unacceptable” to call for certain things in our political debate. Not toxic far-right or far-left policies like violent revolution, eugenics or ethnic cleansing, but relatively dull left-wing orthodoxy like the nationalisation of utilities and infrastructure, or increased taxation of the rich.
All of Corbyn’s views may be wrong, but why should it be unacceptable for an elected politician to utter them in the year 2015? Why can we no longer have the debate? It sounds for all the world like Allister Heath believes he can create a universal love and acceptance of capitalism just by pretending that alternative viewpoints do not exist. But they do.
Many millions of people don’t see anything wrong with a big, active welfare state and public services which consume up to half of our national output. They’re wrong, but does Allister Heath seriously think that they will quietly go away if only we ignore them hard enough? How well did that work when the British political establishment furiously ignored the concerns about Europe and immigration?
When Allister Heath says that a Corbyn-led Labour Party would “poison the political debate”, what he means is that we would finally be able to discuss – and hopefully prove wrong again – various policies which were considered perfectly mainstream only a few decades ago, but which he now wants to permanently banish without doing the hard work of refuting them through boisterous public debate.
Jeremy Corbyn has strong, deeply held socialist views and is unapologetic in his defence of them. This is a good thing – Corbyn is wrong on nearly everything, but a significant minority of other Britons share his views to a greater or lesser extent, and deserve to finally have someone able to articulate them forcefully in the public debate after having been marginalised for so long by our centrist politics.
If British conservatism was confident in itself – if it believed it really had the right answers to today’s problems – it would welcome passionate and ideological debate from anywhere else on the political spectrum, particularly the “far” left.
Every time Jeremy Corbyn opens his mouth to rail against market forces, conservatives would have a gold-plated opportunity to extol the virtues of capitalism and individual freedom, explaining that Corbyn’s hated capitalism has done far more to lift people out of poverty and destitution than any amount of state planning or national ownership ever has, and ever will. In many ways, Corbyn is a walking billboard for conservatism.
But British conservatism, for the most part, is not confident, despite the Tories having won their first outright majority since 1992. George Osborne in particular is so timid and so lacking in conservative principles that he continually drags the party to the centre, adopting flagship Labour Party ideas like the national living wage. And a large body of conservative thought is so cowed and afraid of speaking out in favour of a small, non-interventionist state that they cheer him for his political genius in doing so.
The Corbynphobia currently roiling sections of the Conservative Party and right wing press is therefore a tacit admission of weakness, a grudging acknowledgement that since the Conservative Party already effectively supports a big, intrusive and overactive government, they could be vulnerable to a party led by someone willing to pull out all of the stops and do Big Government properly.
If the Conservative Party really still believed in national sovereignty, a strong defence, smaller government, less regulation and helping people to improve their own circumstances, they would look at the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the return of political ideology and see it as license to start espousing their own philosophy instead of continually apologising for their beliefs.
That so many conservatives are desperate to stick to the centre ground and view Jeremy Corbyn as a clear and present threat to Britain says a lot more about the soft Right than it does about the Labour leadership candidate.