Can The Conservative Party Change Course While Staying In Power?

Margaret Thatcher election - 10 Downing Street - 1979

If the Conservative Party has a saviour-in-waiting, they are doing a great job of staying hidden from view

Blogger Effie Deans has some good thoughts here on how to revitalise the Conservative Party and give it the kind of purpose and sense of mission that might actually inspire people to vote Tory out of enthusiasm rather than fear of the alternative.

I don’t agree with every last letter of what she says, but we should all be able to stand behind the conclusion:

What we don’t need is someone who thinks the task is to limit the damage from Brexit. We need someone who realises that leaving the EU is a turning point that can improve life in Britain. We therefore above all else need a Brexiteer to lead the Conservative Party. We need someone who actually believes in free markets, lower taxes and smaller government rather than someone who thinks that price controls are a sensible idea because Ed Miliband gained a few percentage points when he suggested them. Don’t let’s try to steal Labour ideas, let’s come up with new Conservative ideas.

We don’t need a new leader yet, but start preparing for the time when we will need one. Find the brightest minds in the Conservative Party, give them the task of coming up with the new ideas that will break us free from the cosy establishment consensus. These must actually address the genuine worries that ordinary British people have about our country. Let no idea be forbidden. But above all else make sure we develop Conservative ideas for a new Conservative Party. When that is done find the best communicator, perhaps someone we’ve never heard of, to present these ideas. Then believing in what we stand for,  with ideas that we believe to be true and important let us take on Labour and win. That just might just give us a new turning point.

This chimes with everything I have been writing about the Conservative Party since 2013. Appeasement of the Left has gotten us absolutely nowhere. By cowering in the face of leftist moralising and making concession after concession to statist thinking, all that David Cameron and Theresa May have succeeded in doing is expanding the Overton Window of British politics further to the left.

The one area where I potentially disagree with Deans is that she believes that a conservative course correction is possible while the Tories are still in government, while I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about the prospect. Mid-term course corrections are hard enough to pull off at the best of times. Doing so in the midst of Brexit (and remember, Brexit is a process, not an event, even if we do formally leave the EU on schedule) and with no standout candidates is inviting failure.

And that’s why a fresh face for conservatism is so important, which Deans also acknowledges, to her credit:

When considering who should be the next Conservative leader it is crucial to think about ideas rather than people. Few people had heard of Tony Blair much before he was elected leader, the same was the case for David Cameron. What matters is not so much the person as what the person believes.

The major problem that the Conservative Party has faced since the election of David Cameron is that it has not had a leader who really believes in anything. Cameron was concerned mostly in how to get the Conservatives into power. He therefore did all he could to occupy the centre ground. He wanted in essence to become Tony Blair. The difference between these two is essentially trivial. Both are in reality social democrats. They believe in capitalism, but they think that its purpose is essentially to fund state spending. Neither views the goal of government is to become smaller and neither wish to lower the amount that the state spends.

Theresa May takes a similar view. Worse still despite the occasional stern face she completely lacks conviction. She just wants to manage Britain as well as possible while spending as much as possible on nice things. She didn’t even really have an opinion on the EU. She campaigned half-heartedly for Remain and then became a Brexiteer. It is because she doesn’t really believe in Conservatism that she comes up with mush and incoherence and thinks the solution to all problems is to drift to the Left and end up in the centre ground.

Yes, a thousand times yes. Nobody currently touted as a plausible immediate successor to Theresa May sets the heart racing with excitement or optimism for the future. Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson & co all suffer from exactly the same lack of conviction as Theresa May and David Cameron. Boris Johnson has slightly more charisma than the others (though this is more than outweighed by his other flaws), but none of them have shown any ability to make a clear, bold and positive case for conservatism. Moreover, they are all equally implicated in the unambitious centrism of the present government.

New blood is absolutely required, whether that is from the backbenches or junior ministerial ranks (Priti Patel? Kwasi Kwarteng? James Cleverly? Tom Tugendhat?) or form somebody not yet even in the parliamentary party. The latter is likely possible only if the Tories find themselves in opposition, though – a neophyte as Leader of the Opposition is just about tolerable; an inexperienced prime minister in challenging times is an immediate non-starter.

Despite the bitter complaining of the centrists, there is in fact nothing wrong with the entirely human desire for politicians and leaders to stand for more than the technocratic, managed decline. The challenge for the Conservative Party is to find a new message – and a messenger – to resonate with people who yearn to be inspired and called to a higher purpose than claiming entitlements form the government. And that messenger aspire to be something more than a dreary administrator of austerity, a British Comptroller of Public services.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s transformative premiership (cited approvingly by Effie Deans), however, an new incoming Conservative prime minister will have had no time to develop a new philosophy of government away from the heat of battle before assuming office. They will be plunged straight into the thick of things, and almost inevitably become a reactive rather than proactive leader through no fault of their own.

Margaret Thatcher had four years as Leader of the Opposition to think about her approach to government, and eventually entered Downing Street with a blueprint for national renewal in the form of the famous Stepping Stones report. Unless somebody has been doing some equally radical thinking away from the spotlight in our present decade, it is hard to see a new conservative leader coming to power with anything like as transformative an agenda ready to go – particularly as the challenges we face today, while very different to those of 1979, are every bit as serious.

Can this ideological and national renewal be attempted while the Tories are still in government, without giving Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party at least a brief (and potentially disastrous) spell in power? I fervently hope so.

But for the life of me, I don’t see how.

 

Theresa May

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The Centrist Persecution Complex

Tony Blair

Discredited centrists, locked out of power and influence for the first time in decades, mount a crisis PR campaign to salvage their reputation

It reached a peak immediately after the surprise victory for Team Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, with weepy centrists tearfully quoting W. B. Yeats to each other (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world“) and huddling in fear of the oncoming fascist terror, as though Britain had been suddenly stripped of all decency and reason overnight.

But truthfully, the Lamentation of the Centrists began the moment that Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely bid for the Labour Party leadership started picking up steam in the summer of 2015. It began when a cohort of bland, unremarkable political nothings (to call them technocrats would bestow an undeserved suggestion of expertise and competence) suddenly realised that the comfortable, predictable career progression and access to power they took for granted was in jeopardy, and all because some obscure, dusty old backbencher with these strange things called “principles” and “political convictions” was generating widespread grassroots enthusiasm.

Since these events, any suggestion or development which threatens to marginally expand the narrow Overton Window of British politics has been greeted by the centrists of both parties as a disaster waiting to happen. Back when Ed Miliband proposed energy price to limit consumer utility bill increases, the Tories treated it like a 1970s-style demand for socialist renationalisation of industry, which was made all the more ironic since Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party then actually proposed the renationalisation of industry in their 2017 manifesto while Theresa May’s Tories now think that price controls are a wonderful idea.

The window of political possibilities has thus been expanding, but primarily in a leftward direction, since the present-day Conservative Party lacks anybody willing or able to make a robust, inspiring and unapologetic argument for right-wing policies. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has single-handedly proved to a sceptical political and media establishment that having a coherent political ideology and policies which naturally flow from it can still be attractive to voters, particularly when communicated clearly and unapologetically.

And this has the centrists scared. What once looked like a temporary, aberrant blip on the horizon and was later nervously dismissed as a brief interruption to their natural right to rule is now starting to look like a permanent, existential threat. And predictably enough, something of a desperate fightback is now underway.

Of course, being centrists, they cannot help but belittle and condescend to the millions of people who grew tired of their self-serving shtick and started looking elsewhere for political inspiration, even as they seek to win back their favour. Thus we are told over and over again that the centrists are the wise adults in the room, the mature grownups who see the world as it is rather than as they wish it were and choose their dismal policies accordingly, while we partisan hotheads on the left and right are being immature and unrealistic by daring to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not”.

The centrists sometimes go on to argue that theirs is also a coherent political ideology, and that their political “beliefs” should not be dismissed simply because they do not hew towards one extreme or another. This is most often brought up in response to my remarking that a leftist sees a river and demands that a bridge be built across it at any cost, the conservative sees the same river and says that a new bridge would be expensive and unnecessary, but a centrist compromises and builds half a bridge halfway across the river and congratulates himself on his pragmatism.

Their defence against this charge is false – true centrism is absolutely not an ideology or worldview of its own, since in a strict sense it merely defines the midpoint between two more polarised political worldviews. When one side manages to push the centre of political gravity left or right, the centre will move with it, maintaining an equidistant position. This is the definition of reactionary opportunism, not principle.

But in another sense, the whining “centrists” are absolutely right. They do indeed have a unique and defined worldview, it just happens to be more of an establishment worldview than a truly centrist one. For a long time, the two terms were interchangeable since Labour and the Conservatives had staked out very predictable and largely static positions since the dawn of the New Labour government. Today’s so-called “centrist” politicians therefore tend to be those people who personally benefit (and/or advocate for those who benefit) from the current status quo, the pathetic tug of war between a not-very-conservative Tory Party and what was until recently a Blairite “sons of Thatcher” Labour Party.

And nobody can say that the United Kingdom as a whole has not prospered, materially at least, under the aegis of the centrists, particularly to look at London or the regeneration of other major British cities. But at the same time, other places have been hollowed out. Regional cities, market towns and suburban commuterville have often become scruffy, more deprived and less pleasant, characterised by vacated high street shop units rather than vegan hipster taco bars.

My own hometown of Harlow, Essex has been very hard hit in recent years, with nearly all the large employers either moving out or significantly downscaling, and the opening of a new retail area only causing businesses to migrate from the other end of the town centre, leaving it a wasteland of charity shops, second hand stores and a few Eastern European mini-marts. Meanwhile, firms which once offered entry-level office work and the possibility of advancement have been replaced by vast distribution centres which offer minimum wage warehouse work and no career progression.

If the centrists even noticed the hollowing out of large parts of the country on their watch, they had over a decade to show that they cared by coming up with new policy prescriptions to make Britain better equipped to face the challenges of globalisation, automation, outsourcing and localised mass immigration. But no sympathy was forthcoming, let alone concrete solutions. And now, with Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the establishment is being forced to pay in a lump for pretending to care about the entire country while looking out only for very specific segments of society.

Naturally, the centrists do not see it this way. In their alternative narrative, they are the victims. The likes of Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Sir Nicholas Soames and Anna Soubry probably imagine themselves as Cicero banished from Rome, stellar public servants unfairly cast from favour by an unreasonable mob whose passions will eventually cool and allow them to resume their rightful position in charge of the nation’s affairs.

A new piece by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman perfectly encapsulates this sense of self-entitled grievance, beginning with the headline “Are you now, or have you ever been, a centrist?”, actually likening their plight to the victims of the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s (modesty and a sense of perspective are not the centrist’s forte).

Lewis writes:

Yes, we’ve been here before. The word “neoliberal” migrated from describing a particular kind of political ideology to a catch-all for anything vaguely capitalist the speaker didn’t like.

[..] “Centrist” is now doing a similar job. In the way it is used by the Labour left, the world is divided into three categories: them, Actual Nazis, and everyone else, who is a centrist.

Boo hoo. How sad that the denizens of centristland, who for years maintained their vice-like grip on power by smearing everybody else as a dangerous extremist, now find themselves being criticised, sometimes unfairly. I can’t possibly imagine what that must feel like.

None of this is to say that there is not a time for more centrist, technocratic leadership. There undoubtedly is. When times are good, threats are few and both society and the economy are in a reasonably satisfactory steady-state then choosing politicians and leaders without much of an ideological compass but the pragmatic ability to get things done can be absolutely the right choice. The problem only comes when the centrists and technocrats outstay their welcome, lingering on with their cautious and unambitious  approach in the face of impending danger or disruption.

One could certainly argue that early New Labour acquitted this “steady state” management job fairly well, inheriting the Thatcher economic transformation and reaping its benefits through studious inaction rather than torpedoing Britain with an immediate return to 90 percent top tax rates. But it is also clear that Blairite and Brownite Labour then went wrong by maintaining their cautious, plodding approach in the face of globalisation, spiking immigration from the new accession EU countries and the 2008 crash and recession.

It should now be clear to all that this is no longer a time for centrist, technocratic leadership. The challenges we face on the domestic, foreign and national security fronts – reviving the economy and ensuring that more Brits are equipped to prosper in it, asserting British influence on the world stage and tackling the evil ideology of Islamist terror – will not be solved by tweaking the dials or turning the tiller half a degree in a particular direction. Far more radical and ambitious government is required to meet these challenges.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not have a ready-made answer for what this new governing agenda should be. Conservatives in particular have a real challenge to come up with a policy mix which does not simply ape Labour’s go-to solution of waving a magic wand and creating a new government programme to deal with every single social or economic ill. But just as the need for the Thatcher government’s monetarism and supply-side policies was realised by only a few people in the 1960s and 70s, so the answer to our present difficulties may presently be seen as equally marginal and controversial. As Lincoln once said, the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

I am often gently mocked or criticised by friends and readers for being too negative about contemporary politicians, as though by objecting to the various shades of beige offered by Labour and the Conservatives I am somehow setting my standards unreasonably high. I strenuously disagree. Would somebody in the early 1970s have been unreasonable to be disillusioned with both Labour and the Conservatives? Hardly. The Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments were all wedded to the same failing post-war consensus which was slowly dragging Britain toward terminal national decline. Rejecting the statist politics of the 1970s was absolutely the right thing to do – the dogmas of the immediate post-war years were inadequate to the stormy seventies. And so it is now, when the dogmas which served some people so well in the nineties and early 21st century are being rejected by a majority of the country.

And this is what the centrists just don’t get. They seem to think that everything was ticking along just fine until this awful populist revolution came and ruined their perfect existence. They hold this belief because from their perspective everything was fine – a continual upward trajectory in terms of wealth, living standards, career and leisure opportunities. Though they furiously deny the charge, many centrists possess the ability to simply forget about the parts of the country and all the people who have been hurting, stagnating and not seeing their concerns reflected in our electoral politics, and having thus exempted themselves from the need to show empathy they view both Corbynism and Brexit as movements based on pure irrationality.

One might have hoped that a brief period in the political wilderness – two years in the case of the Labour centrists and now just over one year in terms of the pro-EU establishment – might have taught the centrists some humility or instilled a modicum of respect for those people who are now finally beginning to make their voices heard. But of course we have seen the exact opposite – disbelief that these people dare to seek to influence the politics of their own country followed by a dismissal of their ideas and often a seething hatred of what they stand for. And still the centrists might have gotten away with this elitism, were it not for the fact that they are incapable of keeping their contempt for the people to themselves. On the contrary, they feel compelled to continually remind the rest of the country just how backward, stupid, communist, racist or evil they consider us to be.

The centrists may win some victories yet. The almighty mess being made of the Brexit negotiations by the UK government may, if things go badly, allow the centrists to prance around screeching “I told you so!” as though flawed execution and lack of planning somehow discredit Brexit as an idea. And Jeremy Corbyn may yet be turfed out of the Labour leadership if the centrists get their act together and rally around a single candidate, particularly if they can find a Emmanuel Macron-type character, an empty suit who can stalk around on stage roaring empty platitudes to get people fired up.

But the centrists have now been exposed. Rather than the wise, measured and pragmatic types who chart an intellectual course between two political extremes that they pretend to be, they have been revealed as unimaginative and thoroughly self-interested defenders of the status quo.

And all their overwrought and exaggerated complaints about evil populists, “things falling apart”, having their opportunity to “live, work and love in Europe” cruelly ripped away or being the supposed victims of a McCarthyite purge will not save them from the judgment of the people.

 

Tony Blair - Open Britain - centrism

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Centrism Is The New Extremism

Owen Jones - Brexit - Hardline Remainers - Extremism

For many years, the most angry and bitter invective in our political discourse hailed from the far Left and Right. But now it is the supposedly rational and pragmatic centrists who are becoming unhinged and increasingly uncivilised.

Like the stopped clock which still tells the correct time twice a day, once in awhile Owen Jones has a passing moment of clarity and perception and utters a statement with which a normal person can actually agree.

Today is one of those days. Noting that he is taking increasing amounts of flak not from hard Brexiteers but from hardcore ideological Remainers, Owen Jones noted on Twitter that “centrism – online at least – is at risk of becoming an angry, bitter, intolerant cult. Does that concern its proponents at all?”

Jones follows up by noting that “a certain type of Hard Remainer online have become angry, bitter, intolerant, and determined to root out the impure on their own side”:

Slow hand clap.

Jones isn’t wrong, and while one might legitimately question whether he is the best person to be accusing others of being angry and bitter, he makes a fair point – there is a very real and growing rage building among the pro-EU centre-left, a rage which is spilling over and causing people to say all manner of outlandish things.

In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum there was a sort of stunned silence from the Remain camp. Many arch-Remainers were also the same establishment centre-left figures who found themselves banished to the margins of the Labour Party by the Jeremy Corbyn ascendancy back in 2015. To be cast from power and influence within their own party and then to feel Britain’s EU membership – which has become emblematic of their perception of themselves and the country as enlightened, progressive internationalists – slip through their fingers only a year later was more than many centrists could bear. At first.

But it did not take long for shock to turn into anger and defiant resolve. Harnessing huge amounts of denial (“the referendum was only advisory”, “the Leave campaign had a monopoly on lies and so the result should be invalidated”) many centre-leftists, realising that their entire worldview was not only under attack but on the verge of defeat, stirred themselves into action.

We saw this with the court case brought by Gina Miller, in which the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Parliament must have a say on the final Brexit deal negotiate by the government. We saw it too in the flourishing of groups and social media accounts dedicated not to making the best of Brexit now that the country had voted for it, but rather trying to overrule that vote and remain in the EU at all costs.

I noted this phenomenon myself a few weeks ago, admitting that we Brexiteers had underestimated the ability of the pro-EU, centrist establishment to launch a reactionary hissy fit several orders of magnitude bigger than the anti-establishment backlashes which led to Brexit in Britain and President Trump in America:

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Effectively overruling the establishment’s carefully laid out plan for our lives was always going to generate a huge backlash, from powerful and well-connected people with the ability to make traditional grassroots anti-establishment backlashes look like a cake sale at the Women’s Institute.

Perhaps we forgot this fact because we Brexiteers and defenders of nation state democracy were so used to being part of a backlash ourselves – the backlash against the establishment – that we didn’t give enough credence to the fact that globalists, disinterested “citizens of the world” and other assorted types are equally as invested in their worldview as we are in ours, and in a far stronger position to defend it from attack.

And now that they have experienced repudiation at the ballot box, the establishment’s ability to turn howls of outrage into a full-on filibuster of democratically-made decisions is stronger than many of us planned for.

We are definitely witnessing an ossifying or hardening of positions among many Remainers. Before the EU referendum last year, some of these people could occasionally be found admitting that the European Union was not perfect and urgently needed reform, and even that membership had some downsides (even if outweighed by the positives).

You won’t find arch-Remainers talking like this in the press or on social media any more. Now that the prospect of Brexit looms, the EU is perfect and irreproachable, and Brexiteers aren’t just misguided but actively evil for casting Britain into the abyss. (Well, to be fair, many hardcore Remainers always asserted that Brexiteers were evil racists, but they now do so with increased frequency and venom).

The Guardian recently published a piece by Will Hutton, who declared that Brexit is “our generation’s Dunkirk”, as though tactical retreat in the midst of an existential world war is in any way comparable to the peaceful, diplomatically negotiated departure from a supranational political union.

In a spittle-flecked fury, Hutton wails:

Last week, Labour peer Lord Adonis compared leaving the EU as a mistake analogous to appeasement. He is right. Brexiters Davis, Fox and Johnson are from the same anti-modern, delusional world view that produced the strategic foreign policy mistakes of the 1930s and the emasculation of the mixed-economy, state-led approach that underpinned the economic success of 1931-50.

Then, at least, we had underlying strengths, representing the opposite of their philosophy, upon which to fall back on. Brexit is our generation’s Dunkirk, but with no flotilla of small boats and no underlying economic strength to come to the rescue. It’s just defeat.

Now this blog has no time for Liam Fox or Boris Johnson, but even if Theresa May’s government drops the ball completely on Brexit the economic ramifications (bad though they may be) will still fall several degrees short of colossal military failure and impending invasion. To compare Brexit to Dunkirk or to Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement is wild hyperbole of the first order.

But this is what you now have to look and sound like to be accepted into the Remainer / centrist tribe – at least on social media, where nuance and restraint have never been in great supply. Just as the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics doles out “victimhood points” and social status depending on the number of ways that a person can describe themselves as oppressed, the Cult of the EU demands ever more flamboyant declarations of love for the European, furious denunciations of those who disagree and pledges of extreme measures to be taken to stop Brexit at all costs. Because being pro-EU is bound up so tightly in the centrist psyche, Brexit is making many establishment centrists behave like any other identity group that feels under attack, blindly lashing out and playing the role of the victim.

And so in many ways it was inevitable that arch-Remainers would be suspicious of the likes of Owen Jones, and seek to publicly denounce him. Back in 2015, when the EU was turning the screws on Greece and effectively subverting Greek democracy, Jones came close to openly advocating for Brexit. Of course, like many others (most notably Ian Dunt, who had virtually nothing good to say about the European Union until he realised that the EU referendum could boost his profile if only he switched sides) Jones eventually returned to the fold, taking the wishful thinking Varoufakis position that we should remain in the EU in order to reform it.

But like all extremist movements, the hardcore ideological Remainers have long memories and no statute of limitations when it comes to heresy. Owen Jones once expressed doubts about Our Beloved EU, Fount of All Good Things. And he compounded this thoughtcrime by accepting the reality of Brexit rather than raging against it, even penning a lengthy account entitled “Why I’m a remainer who accepts the EU referendum result”. Therefore he must be punished and cast out. As Jones notes, “the Hard Remainers want to overturn the EU referendum and regard the likes of me as traitors and impure for wanting a soft Brexit instead.”

The centrists of old – back when they were free and easy, on the ascendancy, certain that their basic worldview was coming to fruition and would perpetuate itself forever – had a reasonable degree of tolerance for differing opinions. That’s why the likes of Ken Clarke could fit (ideologically at least) under the same political umbrella as someone like Tony Blair, Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna. A few honest differences on a few political points were expected and allowed, since everybody was pulling in the same basic direction. But no longer. Cast out of power, hardcore centrists increasingly use a person’s attitude toward Brexit as an acid test to determine whether they are Good or Bad.

Where will this end? Well, certain excitable centrist MPs and their media cheerleaders seem to be itching to set up a new political party, first with the sole objective of stopping Brexit and remaining in the European Union, and once that deed is accomplished to turn into some kind of new centrist party, a shelter from Theresa May’s authoritarianism and Jeremy Corbyn’s unabashed socialism.

I wrote an entire blog post yesterday about why this idea is idiotic and will never come to fruition. But what would such a party look like, if the normal constraints of British electoral politics were magically removed and a new “centrist” party formed?

By definition it would be full of extremists – the kind of people whose fanatical devotion to the European Union is such that it overrides their previous party loyalties and makes them willing to jump into bed with other people who might have quite different ideas about the optimal size and function of the state, spending priorities, social issues or a million and one other policies.

Such a party would be full of EU-worshipping zealots who would pay any price and bear any burden to thwart Brexit – ironic, since many of them complain about so-called Brexit extremism. But more than that, it would be full of deluded souls who think that if only Brexit can be stopped, everything would just go back to how it was before David Cameron called the referendum; that the anti-establishment backlash which helped to deliver Brexit would simply melt away as people shrugged their shoulders and accepted being overruled by their social betters.

This is delusional. The reason that Blairite and Cameronite centrism lies discarded in the gutter right now is because its most ardent practitioners were content with a system which rewarded people like themselves while leaving millions of others in dead-end jobs or left on the welfare trash heap with little realistic prospect for self-betterment – and because they were openly, snarlingly contemptuous of anybody who dared point this out or raise an objection. Centrism is discredited because it inspired successive British governments to effectively outsource whole swathes of governance and policymaking to the European Union, with MPs and ministers enjoying the trappings of power despite having vested many of their responsibilities in a supranational government even less accountable or responsive to the popular will than Westminster.

A new political party (or government) full of centrist extremists, bitter and vengeful at having been temporarily dethroned, would immediately seek to roll Britain back to 2015 (or 2010, depending on whether they are centre-left or centre-right extremists). But the British people have moved on. A majority want to get on with Brexit even if they voted to Remain in the referendum. They want to move forward, not backward.

But despite being totally impractical and doomed to failure, expect to hear more talk of a new, dedicated anti-Brexit party. Expect to hear more overwrought headlines and tweets comparing Brexit to such and such atrocity or genocide. The rage continues to grow among the dispossessed centrists, and they have a vastly bigger platform to air their grievances than those on the ideological Left or Right.

You see, these people have never lost before. They are accustomed to winning, and do not know how to behave in the face of defeat. Since 1997, whichever party was in power, Labour or Conservative, the centrists’ worldview inched ever closer to fruition. And if that consensus failed to deliver for millions of Britons – those at the sharp end of globalisation or those who simply care a lot about democracy and constitutional matters – then so be it. They got theirs, and that’s all that mattered.

Thank goodness that this cosy centrist consensus has finally been broken, and that these arrogant, selfish and overrated people will have to take their failed and discredited ideology to battle in the political arena along with the rest of us, rather than continuing to win by default.

 

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Bitter Remainers Dream Of A Single Issue Anti-Brexit Political Party

EU Referendum - Brexit - Despair

Still firmly stuck in the “denial” stage of the grieving process, some bitter Remainers are now pinning their hopes on a new political party with the sole aim of thwarting Brexit

A number of overexcitable Remainers seem to be getting carried away with the idea that a brand new political party, dedicated solely to the purpose of thwarting Brexit, might be the answer to their prayers.

We first saw this idea floated in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh, who did a masterful job of suppressing everything he knows about the British political system to convince himself that the idea might actually have merit:

A new political grouping has been in fitful gestation since Britain voted to leave the EU. Uncomfortable in their own parties, a few Conservative and Labour politicians have probed the idea in discreet settings. Donors are primed with start-up capital. Tony Blair has improvised a role as a curator of these forces, and at times as their frontman. An electorate that has withheld a decisive win from any party since his own days as prime minister is plainly open to some disruptive entrant to the market. If it shows promise, Liberal Democrat MPs might subsume themselves into it rather than stagger on as a futile dozen.

For all this, the breakthrough never comes — and not because Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system stymies the new. The project never gets that far. The trouble begins earlier. To avoid caricature as pro-European monomaniacs, and to let their restless energies roam, the people involved aspire to stand for something broad: political moderation in an age of extremes. This requires them to have policies, or at least first principles, across the full spectrum of government business. But each time a putative party settles its view on, say, fiscal policy or healthcare, it will alienate some of its original and potential supporters. It also loses definition. Before the project has a single achievement to its name, it is bogged down in matters of internal theology. It becomes a paradox: a fissiparous political party with no MPs.

Ganesh concludes with a well-rehearsed yet tone-deaf paean to the kind of bland, managerialist centrism which sparked this anti-establishment backlash in the first place:

A wider manifesto for moderate government might emerge, but only over time and as a consequence, not a cause, of the movement’s success. To design an entire worldview upfront is to wallow in detail before any political momentum has been established. And to lose friends in the process.

And yet the foolish idea is now gaining traction, with journalist (and ex-Chief of Staff to Brexit Secretary David Davis) James Chapman promoting the idea, as the Guardian excitedly reports:

A former chief of staff to David Davis has said Brexit is a catastrophe that must be stopped and called on centrist MPs to form a new party.

James Chapman, who worked for the Brexit secretary for a year as the Department for Exiting the European Union was set up, suggested the new party should be called the Democrats and claimed some “very interesting people” wanted to be involved.

[..] Chapman, who previously worked for George Osborne, said anti-Brexit MPs such as Anna Soubry, Grant Shapps and Mark Harper had more in common with party opponents such as Rachel Reeves and Vince Cable than “Owen Paterson et al”.

Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the delicious irony of a political party explicitly founded to overturn the results of a democratic referendum – and all in order to ensure that Britain remains a part of a supranational political union whose very purpose is to undermine nation state democracy – calling themselves the Democrats. This utterly shameless tactic is taken straight from the Karl Rove playbook, with Remainers projecting their own flaws onto their opponents while claiming the virtues of Brexiteers (commitment to democracy) as their own.

Nevertheless, Janan Ganesh and James Chapman both seemingly believe that the best way to overturn the result of the EU referendum and thwart Brexit is for pro-Europeans to band together and campaign only on that single issue, in the name of moderation and to avoid deadly infighting by introducing other ideological squabbles to the debate. But the problem with this thinking is that by definition, only those disaffected MPs who feel most strongly about stopping Brexit would join such a party, and they tend to be the swivel-eyed euro-federalists or dim but enthusiastic EU cheerleaders.

What the Remainers forget is that while the Leave campaign may only have won the referendum 52% to 48%, many of the 48% also have no real love for the EU. Even in my own North London constituency of Hampstead & Kilburn, one of the most defiantly Remain-voting constituencies in the entire country, I have spoken to numerous people who voted Remain either grudgingly or out of alarm at the apocalyptic stories spun by Britain Stronger in Europe.

Arch-Remainers have tended to assume – wrongly – that the full 48% who voted to Remain in the EU did so because they share the same fanatical devotion to the European Union as themselves, but this is not the case. Many people strongly bought into the Leave campaign’s argument about sovereignty and self-determination, but voted Remain because they prioritised short-term economic security over long-term democratic security. And one cannot entirely blame them for doing so – I fully admit that I am something of an outlier with my unfashionable, somewhat fanatical obsession with constitutional issues.

So how would a British public which was probably much more than 52% hostile to the EU at the time of the referendum react to the formation of a new political party created with the expressed intention of overturning the referendum result? Janan Ganesh clearly thinks that such a party would be greeted like liberators, come to rescue benighted Britain from the evil clutches of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. I’m not so sure.

While as a country we may be increasingly confused about what “British values” really mean, most of us would still point to the importance we attach to “fair play” being a defining national trait. And I think that the British people would take one look at a bunch of establishment arch-Remainers (led by Tony Blair, no less) attempting to undo the referendum result as a grave insult and a brazen power grab.

The New Party campaigners also totally overlook the dynamics of individual constituency races in favour of national polling. Even assuming that a new political party got off the ground (I’m not holding my breath) it would face exactly the same challenges as the SDP back in the 1980s, squeezed between a rock and a hard place as Labour and the Conservatives refused to stand aside.

Even Owen Jones sees through the scam:

And what then would be the point of such a party with (at best) only a handful of fanatical europhile MPs in Parliament? Even if Theresa May’s government falls before the next scheduled general election, the chances are that Brexit will either be concluded by this point or more likely that negotiations will be so far advanced (perhaps with a negotiation extended) that it is no longer possible to undo without accepting revised membership on harsh new terms (no budget rebate, mandatory joining of both Schengen and the Euro) that an overwhelming number of Britons would find unacceptable.

The whole idea is a complete non-starter, the futile fantasy of an establishment class which still believes that it can simply circumvent or nullify democratic outcomes rather than doing the hard work of convincing people and winning them over to their side. A year on from the referendum and the tantrum continues with no sign of abatement.

Having said that, by all means let them try. Lord knows that the Conservative Party would be an immeasurably better entity without the likes of Anna Soubry and Grant Shapps.

 

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Embracing ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ Will Not Make The Rootless Tories More Popular

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Compassionate conservatism barely won David Cameron a majority government in 2015, even against the hapless Ed Miliband. Rebooting the flawed concept, especially against Jeremy Corbyn’s turbo-charged ultra-compassionate socialism, means fighting the Left on their own terms and is doomed to failure

Despite its complete and utter failure to deliver a solid electoral victory for the conservatives, or to meaningfully detoxify the Conservative Party’s “nasty party” image, the woolly, nebulous and thoroughly unhelpful concept of “compassionate conservatism” refuses to die.

Following Theresa May’s abject failure in the 2017 general election – losing the Conservative Party their majority by failing to counter the appeal of a marauding socialist who actually has principles, stands for them unapologetically and convinces more and more people of their value – all manner of ideologically limp Wet Tories are now coming out of the woodwork to proclaim that the only way for conservatism to survive is to meet Jeremy Corbyn half way.

These appeasers of the Left (I won’t call them pragmatists because that kinder term suggests a kind of nobility and wisdom for which there is very little evidence) seem to sincerely believe that staying in power means accepting vast swathes of the Left’s argument about the welfare state, wealth redistribution and fiscal restraint. They would have the rest of us believe that conservatives face inevitable defeat unless the Tories compete with Labour to be the loudest cheerleaders of the bloated public sector.

Charlie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, is only the latest to advance this defeatist theory, writing in Conservative Home:

Step one to victory is to conquer the idea that the Conservatives are on the side of the rich. Every Conservative I know is in politics because we care about the vulnerable and the least well off. At the election, we failed to explain to people how our values offer the best for people and their families.

Conservatism is at its best when we communicate a vision of Britain as a land of opportunity, aspiration and success. A place where anyone, whatever their background, can achieve and succeed. Where they can climb the ladder of life. A country where people can get jobs, a home to call their own and achieve their full potential. Where Government gives people a hand-up, not handouts – and hard work brings rewards.

Our caring conservative tradition is also central to all that we are. This is why we must showcase our values as the party of compassion. The conservatism that seeks to protect people from the worst excesses of the system.

Protecting people, and being the party of compassion, matters every bit as the land of opportunity. This means standing up against rogue landlords, overcharging utility companies, loan sharks, tax dodgers, and unscrupulous employers.

And yet rather than proposing that the Conservatives do what Margaret Thatcher did to the hard left in the 1980s – namely, steamrollering over their socialist squeals, failed dogmas and entrenched special interests to speak directly to the people and sell them an alternative vision of Britain’s future – Charlie Elphicke proposes instead that we prance around humming The Red Flag and hoping to convince enough wavering voters that we are little more than the Labour Party with a brain and a calculator.

Elphicke proposes capitulation to the false leftist narrative that it is in any way “compassionate” to redistribute wealth and income from those who earned it in order to better fund a welfare machine which encourages dependency and helplessness more than self-sufficiency. Elphicke – though he would never say so out loud – effectively accepts the idea that we should give a man a fish, and then another fish, and then another one until the barrel is empty, rather than teaching people to fish for themselves.

Elphicke continues:

I’ve spoken to colleagues from across the country who were asked by people on the doorstep what our manifesto offered for them. They struggled to find positive things to say.

Now I’ve heard people say we didn’t have a “retail offer.” But, you know, we’re not selling soap powder here. We are about caring for people and changing lives. We failed to explain how we would do that – and so people didn’t know.

It’s not difficult to think how we could have done so much more to support traditionally Conservative motorists, aspirant home owners, small business people, and the elderly. Or how we could have reached out to families and younger people with lifelong learning, greater help for carers, and more support to get on the housing ladder.

We should have showcased our record of action, too, because it is pretty incredible. We brought Britain back from the brink. We have delivered record employment, a strong economy, a powerful recovery from Labour’s crash, along with pumping vast amounts of cash into the NHS. Our failure to highlight our record cost us heavily.

Many of these observations are correct, but the conclusion which Elphicke draws from them are depressingly wide of the mark.

Yes, the Tories did an abysmal job of standing up for their record. At a time when the Labour Party manifesto offered an series of calculated bribes catering even to firmly middle class voters, the Tories went to battle with their mindless slogan of “strong and stable”, and a deafening silence when it came to defending their limited efforts at fiscal restraint since 2010.

But Charlie Elphicke’s vision of “caring conservatism” is not the solution. Rather than standing up to the politics of Me Me Me or turning away from the notion of bribing voters with cynical manifesto pledges, Elphicke merely proposes that the Tories start using the same playbook. Even the term “caring conservatism” should raise the hackles of any self-respecting conservative, suggesting as it does the idea of government as an omnipresent, watchful auxiliary parent, charged with wiping our noses and keeping us safe at the expense of our freedom and individuality.

Worse still, to even talk of “compassionate” or “caring” conservatism is to concede that ordinary, vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel or lacking in compassion. It suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with our worldview and our politics, and that only by being born again and accepting the “compassionate” modifier do we become semi-respectable people with whom it is just about acceptable to associate in public.

This is incredibly counterproductive. Economically speaking, conservatism at its best means government getting out of the way so that people can succeed according to their merits, and providing a limited but dependable safety net for those in real need by not lavishing unnecessary benefits on over half of the population who are arbitrarily declared “vulnerable” and in dubious need of government assistance. The point that conservatives should be screaming from the rafters is that real conservatism would do more for the truly needy, by rolling back a benefits culture which sees as much as 50% of taxpayers becoming net dependants on the state and compensating for that rollback by lowering general taxation and restructuring the welfare state so as to provide something more than grim subsistence for those who need to use it.

You don’t see Labour MPs or activists describing themselves as “sane Labour” or “grown-up Labour”, effectively conceding that the more statist, big-government policies of their party base are somehow insane or childish (even though they are). They own their left-wingery and proclaim it proudly, not apologetically. Centrist Tories or “compassionate conservatives”, meanwhile, come across as ashamed of their own party and apologetic for their own beliefs, and seem determined to tack as closely to Corbyn’s party as possible before the cognitive dissonance becomes too unbearable.

This is a contest that conservatives can never win. In the race to be more paternalistic, more restrictive of behaviour and more redistributive of wealth, the Tories will lose to Labour every day of the week. And with Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party it won’t even be close.

Look, I get the superficial appeal of Charlie Elphicke’s proposal. It offers a quick and easy route to staying in power, where rather than having to do the hard work of challenging voter assumptions and telling the electorate difficult but authentic truths, instead we can just act a bit more like the Labour Party and stay in government forever. But it won’t work.

If the 2017 general election taught us anything, it is that an entire generation of young voters have grown up experiencing all of the wealth, liberty and opportunity which Thatcherism helped secure for them before they were even born, but that these same people have been taught to despise the very things – capitalism, free markets, a less activist state – which made our material wealth possible in the first place.

Corbyn’s cohort of young admirers literally share memes on social media using smartphones and personal computers which were only put in reach of ordinary people thanks to the free market they are busy disparaging, and they do so without a shred of irony because throughout their young lives, nobody has dared to forcefully defend Margaret Thatcher’s legacy or to suggest that real “compassion” means more than blindly firehosing taxpayer money at every social problem and expecting positive results.

An entire generation has grown up (and older voters gone over two decades) without really hearing a stirring argument in favour of smaller-government, pro-market policies from any senior politician. Even most Conservative MPs have preferred to talk about mitigating the “damage” done by the market, or as Elphicke puts it, “protect[ing] people from the worst excesses of the system” rather than explaining how “the system” is a good thing, not to mention a hell of a lot better than socialism.

Neither has there been an adequate effort on the part of Conservatives to rebut the Left’s cynical and dishonest attempt to portray every failure of regulation, every act of crony corporatism as a failure of capitalism itself. Here, Charlie Elphicke’s idea of a “rapid rebuttal” unit actually has real merit. Too often we cower and equivocate whenever the Left trot out their Capitalist Bogeyman of the Day – be it Philip Green or “the bankers” – rather than pushing back and explaining that criminal acts or regulatory failure does not discredit the economic system which has delivered more wealth and prosperity to more people than any other in human history.

But all of this needs to be done under the overall aegis of a vision of conservatism as a force which liberates people and sets them free rather than one which coddles them.

Sure, the Conservative Party might eke out another few general election victories (or at least 2017-style non-defeats) by playing up the “caring conservatism” angle and chasing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ever further to the left. But any such battles won will come at the expense of losing the wider war. If the Conservative Party is to be nothing more than the Labour Party with a modicum more economic sense then really, what’s the point in even bothering? A succession of such Conservative prime ministers, having totally forsaken their own raison d’être, could be in office for years yet never really in power. Theresa May in perpetuity.

The Thatcherite revolution was made possible partly because years of stultifying, socialist post-war consensus led Britain to a crisis point, teetering on the brink of irreversible national decline. In 1979, the Conservative Party took advantage of that crisis to discredit the status quo and present their alternative offering as both beneficial, necessary and inevitable, shifting the Overton Window of British politics firmly to the right. And while there were negative side effects which should not be overlooked or minimised – particularly outside the southeast – the Thatcherite medicine worked.

We are at another such crisis point today, this time brought about through the confluence of Brexit, the unmitigated side-effects of globalisation, an economic recovery which has been intangible for too many people, an over-centralised Westminster government and a terminally unreformed public sector. Labour are already moving to take advantage of this crisis and shift the Overton Window back to the left. And they are succeeding – ideas which were fringe absurdities twenty years ago, like wage councils and the renationalisation of industry, are now stunningly back on the agenda, while the man who promotes them is a few false moves by Theresa May away from 10 Downing Street.

Conservatives cannot afford to squander this opportunity, to allow the current political crisis (or state of flux) to be used by Labour to drag Britain further to the left without even putting up a fight for the small-government, conservative values which once saved this country. And breathing life back into the corpse of compassionate conservatism will only aid the Left in their endeavour. It will be a huge signal to our ideological foes that we accept the premise of their argument (compassion = a bigger state and more redistribution) and only encourage them to expand their demands move further and further to the left themselves.

It is ludicrous that we even find ourselves in this position. Jeremy Corbyn was twenty points down in the opinion polls until Theresa May launched her disastrous and thoroughly un-conservative general election campaign, and now he is within striking distance of 10 Downing Street. Red Conservatism or Blue Labour, a la Nick Timothy and his disciples, doesn’t work. If people want swivel-eyed socialism they’ll pick the real deal over the off-brand equivalent, every single time.

Corbynites believe that conservatives are evil, heartless, amoral “Tory Scum”. We will not suddenly win their friendship, or their respect, by deferring to them on a few specific issues or taking the sharp edge off our message of economic freedom, individual liberty and a smaller, more efficient state. No appeasement is possible or desirable. The only thing to be done is to get out and win the argument in public, to have a million difficult conversations with people who are currently quite sympathetic to the Corbyn worldview because of our shameful failure to adequately preach our own values.

The alternative – if we insist on reanimating the corpse of compassionate conservatism – is to doom ourselves to more centrist malaise at best, and a truly frightening Jeremy Corbyn socialist government at worst.

 

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Top Image: The Spectator

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