Like, Why Can’t British Politicians Talk Fancy No More?

Great political speeches are only possible when there are great ideas to be expressed, and great leaders to express them

After watching the semi-famous video of former Labour minister Peter Shore arguing passionately against Britain’s membership of the EEC during a 1970s Oxford Union debate, Mark Wallace of Conservative Home has realised that the quality of contemporary British political oratory is perhaps not what it once was.

Wallace observes:

What’s striking is to try to list the modern speeches by Parliamentarians which have achieved the same quality. I’ve wracked my brains and, frankly, I can’t think of any. To be quite honest, while there are many excellent MPs in today’s House of Commons, I can’t think of a single one who speaks so well. Probably the most famous good speech of recent years was delivered by Hilary Benn, in the Syria debate – but watch it back, and you’ll see that while it was effective, it was done with notes and is still seen as exceptional rather than normal.

Depressingly, most of our Parliamentarians do not seem to prize public speaking. Indeed it’s a fairly regular occurrence to see some of them apparently struggling to convincingly read out loud from a bit of paper. Many are perfectly serviceable speakers, but compare modern performances to those from 40 or 50 years ago and it seems that today’s greats are not as great, the average is somewhat worse than it was, and the worst are now really quite dire.

Indeed. In actual fact, Hilary Benn’s speech on Syria wasn’t particularly good at all – it is memorable mostly because of the dramatic circumstances of its delivery during a period of unrest over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, not the rhetorical exhortations of a man with all the charisma of a Quentin Blake illustration.

People also frequently praise the speeches of leftist politicians such as Mhairi Black (whose maiden speech in the House of Commons went drearily viral all over social media), but these speeches are also not particularly well-constructed or persuasive – they are simply very emotive, which makes them seem good in an age when feelings trump reason and reality TV has diminished our collective capacity to think.

Wallace continues:

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to value oratorical skill in our politicians. Perhaps it was the decline of the public meeting and the rise of soundbite-dominated TV campaigning that did it. Or maybe the decision not to teach school pupils how to debate left millions unduly intimidated by the idea of even trying to speak in front of an audience. There’s also a suspicion in some quarters that public speaking is somehow inherently elitist – a fallacy, given the many great orators who once arose, largely self-taught, from the union movement in particular, but a self-fulfilling belief, in that if you tell the majority of kids that only the rich and posh do speeches then you run the risk that they will believe you.

This is a clear loss to the character and effectiveness of our politics. How often do we hear people lament that politics is boring, that its main characters are bland, or that they don’t understand what it’s all about? It cannot have helped to have reduced the art and feeling in how we communicate about politics, and abandoned a means to compellingly communicate often complex concepts to mass audiences.

I am very glad that Mark Wallace and Conservative Home have woken up to the crisis in British political rhetoric. This blog has been lamenting the abysmal quality of British political speechwriting (and delivery) for years, not least here, here, here, here, here and here. Hopefully with the “bigger guns” of ConHome now trained on the problem we might force the discussion into the mainstream.

But good political rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. Contra Mark Wallace and Peggy Noonan, the internet and social media are not a guaranteed friend of good political speechwriting, heralding a coming renaissance in speechifying. While it is true that some political YouTubers are able to gather massive numbers of followers with their witty or acerbic rants, I can’t think of any high profile social media activists who communicate in a genuinely persuasive way.

Case in point: if one looks at the likes of Owen Jones on the hard left or Paul Joseph Watson on the conspiratorial/alt-right (nobody outside the extremes has much of a following), these people are good only at preaching to the converted in order to generate clicks and likes. They will hardly ever cause somebody to reconsider their own deeply held convictions unless a process of personal political transition is already underway. This also applies to the likes of The Young Turks, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and other voices in American politics, some of whom are good, but who tend not to do bipartisan outreach.

No, the art of British political speechwriting can only be revived if there is a simultaneous renaissance in British political thinking. And there are precious few signs of such a revival taking place any time soon. Right now both main parties are pretty much intellectually dead. The Labour centrists, utterly exhausted and discredited after the Blair/Brown years, are finished – and in their place is a holdover from the 1970s in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, the soft and non-threatening quasi-conservatism of Cameron/Osborne gave way to the statist paternalism of Theresa May, another throwback to the 1970s which can hardly be considered progress.

Nowhere was this dearth of visionary thinking mirrored by equally uninspired rhetoric reflected more clearly than in the EU referendum campaign. This was a highly consequential, even existential political decision for the people of Britain, and yet rather than bold speeches and compelling narratives on either side we were offered little more than glib soundbites and canned catchphrases.

As I wrote at the time:

When the history of Britain’s 2016 EU referendum comes to be written, what will we remember? Of all the particularly dramatic moments in the campaign to date, none of them have been speeches. Sure, sometimes the fact of a speech has been newsworthy, such as when an unexpected establishment figure has been wheeled out to say that Brexit will usher in the apocalypse, but the content – the oratory itself – has rarely raised hairs or stiffened spines.

In fact, proving Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous assertion that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, the media has determinedly reported almost exclusively on the latter two. Of course that is always the temptation for journalists, but our politicians have hardly given the media much to work with on the ideas front, even if they were minded to cover them.

This is a depressing state of affairs. This most important debate should be bringing out the best in our politicians and our media. We should be witnessing a straight-up fight between advocates of the democratic, independent nation state and those who ardently believe in the euro-federalist dream, adjudicated by a press corps  beholden to neither side and always willing to challenge baseless assertions rather than merely provide a “fair and balanced” platform for two partisan idiots to yell at each other for an equal amount of time.

We will not see a revival in political speechmaking in this country until British politicians actually start having ideas and advocating policies worthy of grander rhetoric. So long as there remains in place a technocratic, managerialist consensus between centre-left and centre-right (which very much remains the case and has only been partially broken by Brexit), there will be no bold new ideas in British politics, and in turn there will be no speeches worth listening to.

When even the prime minister of our country sees her role as more of a glorified Comptroller of Public Services than a world leader representing a great and consequential nation, why would we expect her speeches to be any more memorable than the platform announcements at Waterloo station? And if the prime minister’s words are so utterly uninspiring and inconsequential then why bother listening to the words of those who are not even at her level, but merely vying to replace her in that diminished role?

Our current political debates are often petty and parochial, and so are the words we use to fight them. And those issues which might potentially generate bold ideas matched by bold words tend to be furiously ignored by political leaders – look at their refusal to properly confront the Islamist threat, or the staggeringly superficial debate about Brexit.

Great political rhetoric only occurs when there are great issues at stake and great minds willing and able to tackle them. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself“, delivered as the American economy buckled under the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University, setting the United States the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches“, given after Britain’s deliverance at Dunkirk. Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall“, made at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (and ironically helping to usher in the post-Cold War world which for all its wonders also sucked much of the vitality from Western politics, together with our raison d’être).

And maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world. Perhaps this is why American political oratory has undergone a similar decline in the post-Reagan era, now that Pax Americana is drawing to an end and the uncertain new multipolar world emerges.

But one thing is certain: without conviction politics, there can be no speeches of great conviction. At best, a centrist or technocratic politician might be able to mimic the grandeur and cadences of famous speeches – as President Obama did so effectively, talking loftily of hope and change while a very different reality played out on the ground – but they will never truly achieve that perfect synergy of subject, argument and tone that is the hallmark of a great speech.

Why are there no great contemporary British political speeches? Well, try picturing one in your head, given the kind of issues we typically argue about and the politicians who represent us.

Imagine future historians studying the impact of rousing speeches about lowering corporation tax by a few percentage points or abolishing the so-called “bedroom tax”.

Imagine schoolchildren memorising the words to that famous speech opposing HS2 or supporting the renationalisation of Southern Rail.

Picture a crowd of thousands of people brought to its feet by an inspirational pledge to reduce NHS waiting times by 15 percent in the next parliament, employ 5000 extra police officers across a country of 65 million people or increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour by the year 2020.

And there’s your answer.

 

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Winter Is Coming For Conservatives Unless We Wake Up To The Socialist Threat

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The hard Left is on the march, and all the anti-Corbyn negative ads in the world will not save an ideologically bankrupt Conservative Party which cannot clearly articulate an appealing and realistic vision for Britain

Look at this email, which pinged into the inboxes of Momentum members and supporters today.

The socialists are on manoeuvres. They haven’t wasted their summer sipping limoncello on the Amalfi Coast or plotting Oxford Union-style leadership coups with their Cabinet chums. No, having drawn blood from the Conservative Party and reduced the British prime minister to a laughing stock in the June general election, Momentum and other hard-left elements of the Labour Party sense that their long-awaited victory is nearly at hand. And they are training for the battle to come.

I wrote the other day about how the Conservative Party is fiddling while the country burns and Momentum creeps up behind them. This isn’t a laughing matter. Momentum are organising, deploying the latest in voter outreach strategies imported from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in America, and – shock, horror – daring to have conversations with traditionally Tory voters rather than engaging in fruitless navel-gazing introspection as the Conservative Party is currently doing.

Much was written during the election campaign about how much slicker and better financed the Tory online campaign was than its Labour counterpart. The Conservatives spent over £1 million on negative ads on Facebook alone. But it was not an effective campaign. It was soulless, clinical and relentlessly negative. All of which might have been forgivable if it had been properly targeted. But it wasn’t. Instead, CCHQ-produced messages designed to energise the existing Tory base were thrown relentlessly in the faces of swing voters, who did not respond to shrill warnings about Corbyn’s impending socialist takeover.

As with literally everything else about the Conservative Party, the online and voter outreach campaigns were hideously overcentralised and clearly managed by some of the same gormless nepotism beneficiaries who infested Theresa May’s pre-election Cabinet.

And still this might have been survivable if the Labour Party was as terminally dysfunctional as nearly every Westminster-based journalist was confidently reporting prior to the release of the exit poll. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t. Centrist doubters sat on much of their criticism for the duration of the campaign, and following the stronger-than-expected result came crawling meekly back to the leader they once openly undermined.

A vindicated Jeremy Corbyn is bolstered in his position. And the socialist hard-left of the Labour Party has benefited from this injection of confidence, immediately pivoting toward the next general election, where they believe they can dislodge this tired and pointless Tory government and turn the clock back to 1979.

I wrote the other day about how Momentum, Jeremy Corbyn’s praetorian guard, are holding group training sessions to teach their activists the latest in voter engagement techniques, with even doddery old folk less familiar with the latest technology being inducted into the organisation’s Slack group so that they can communicate in real-time on their smartphones. And now, today’s Momentum bulletin shows that the organisation also intends to revolutionise its social media campaign activities, potentially turning each of their members into a YouTuber capable of creating viral internet videos in support of the Labour Party.

Bear in mind: while the Tories vastly outspent Labour in the online campaign war, their dismal content failed to articulate any positive vision of conservatism and probably alienated half the people who viewed it. Meanwhile, Momentum’s videos were viewed 50 million times, and by a third of all the Facebook users in Britain. That level of penetration and engagement, on a shoestring budget, is incredible.

But you can’t just put it down to a superior grasp of online campaigning by the hard Left. People watched Momentum videos and kept coming back for more because they liked what they were seeing and hearing, or were at least open to the message. They did not respond warmly to the Conservatives, who engaged nearly exclusively in fearmongering and robotic negative messaging about their opponents, but many of them did respond to the side who took enough pride in their political values and had sufficient confidence and faith in those values to make a bold public case for More Socialism. And still Momentum is not satisfied. Still they seek to improve their messaging and hone their campaigning ability.

Meanwhile, what are we conservatives doing to retool ourselves to better fight the next general election? We are creating juvenile Jacob Rees-Mogg fanclubs on Facebook, engaging in pointless speculation about a cast of future leadership contenders all alike in blandness, and spending more time trying to ingratiate ourselves with the Tory party machine in constituency and at conference than figuring out what we should actually stand for, and how we can persuade others to stand with us.

Fellow conservatives, you need to wake up and hear this message while there is still time:

The hard, Corbynite Left are gunning for us. Hard.

Unlike conservatives, they have worked out exactly what their values are.

They are not ashamed of those values, and do not apologise for them.

They are hard at work translating those values into policy.

They are proud to proclaim those values and policies in messaging which appeals to the electorate, while we sound defensive and almost ashamed of our own policies and record.

They are convinced that they are on the right side of history, while we seem to have lost faith in the principles of free market capitalism and individual liberty.

They make an unashamedly moral case for their worldview while we seem content to sit at the back and pick holes in their sums, looking like soulless technocratic bean-counters.

They have a thriving youth movement. Ours was disbanded because of a bullying scandal, and because it was basically a giant Ponzi scheme with risible promises of future candidacies dangled in front of naive young activists.

Their activists dominate university campuses, their leftist dogma reigning supreme in the lecture hall and students’ union alike, while conservatives are an endangered minority who often face ostracisation or even official censure for speaking out.

They have a national party with strong and growing constituency branches, while we have a decaying national party with withering constituency branches, ruled from Westminster by proven mediocrities.

They have a party leader who can pack a 3000-seat theatre with excited and motivated activists, while we have a party leader who was too cowardly to even debate during the election campaign, and who is so robotic that she short-circuits if she goes out in the rain without an umbrella.

But here’s the good news – this is a fight that we can win.

Regressive leftist policies of redistribution and nationalisation have brought poverty and misery in their wake everywhere that they have been tried, while the free market that we support has lifted more people out of poverty, subsistence and despair than any other economic system devised by man. There is a reason that the Left has gone very quiet about Venezuela, once their favourite case study of socialism in action.

The traditional Left/Right political divide is being augmented (if not replaced) by the Anywheres vs Somewheres dichotomy (or “open vs closed”, to use the more patronising terms). The Labour Party is marching away from its working class base of Somewheres because their self-serving parliamentary caucus is in thrall to the self-entitled demands of other Anywheres like themselves. This gives us conservatives a huge opportunity to steal their votes – after all, we stand for country, community and patriotism, the very values that the metro-left openly despises.

But we will only win this fight if we get our heads out of the sand, stop manoeuvring for status or creating stupid memes on Facebook and learn instead to boldly and unapologetically articulate conservative principles in the public sphere, without apology. Not the craven, Labour-copying principles of Theresa May’s authoritarian government. Not the paternalistic statism of Nick Timothy and the Joseph Chamberlain afficionados. Rather, we need to re-embrace the timeless principles of individual liberty, patriotism, respect for institutions, strong national defence and flourishing civic society over paternalist statism, which always come through for us when we actually have the confidence to articulate them.

And we don’t have much time. In this unpredictable age, with no majority and a number of difficult things to push through Parliament, Theresa May’s government could conceivably be toppled at any moment. Momentum and the hard Left is ready for the fight. We are not.

To use a topical Game of Thrones analogy, when the White Walkers are massing and threatening to breach the wall, it’s no good squabbling over which lacklustre, uncharismatic Cabinet minister should next occupy the Iron Throne. Now is the time to find some ideological dragonglass and fashion it into a viable electoral weapon before we are swept away by the Army of the Socialist Undead and Britain succumbs to another long winter of discontent.

Momentum have given us fair warning. They are not being secretive about their strategy and tactics. So we conservatives will have only ourselves to blame if we find ourselves undone by them.

 

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The Conservative Party Fiddles While Momentum Aggressively Courts Tory Voters

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Momentum and other leftist groups supportive of Jeremy Corbyn are using new tactics to aggressively court Tory voters. Meanwhile, lacking a compelling vision of its own, the rootless and enfeebled Conservative Party has no response

We may be in the depths of summer silly season, but it is rapidly becoming evident that the forces of the Left are using their time productively while complacent Conservatives sun themselves on generally undeserved vacations.

This week in particular there has been a flurry of activity from the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party, with Owen Jones launching a “decapitation strategy” targeted at vulnerable (and in some cases very high profile) Tory ministers and MPs defending greatly reduced majorities. At the same time, the grassroots campaign group Momentum is trialling new voter outreach tactics lifted from the Bernie Sanders campaign, aimed at getting dissatisfied voters unimpressed with the performance of Theresa May’s government to give socialism a second look.

Emma Bean at LabourList crows:

Owen Jones is joining forces with pro-Corbyn campaigning group Momentum in a push to seize the seats of several current and former Tory cabinet ministers.

The new Unseat campaign will target Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd, Justine Greening and Phillip Davies, all of whom saw their majorities slashed in the general election. Another MP, Stephen Crabb, who has been linked to an organisation which claims that homosexuality and bisexuality can be “cured”, will also face Momentum’s efforts on the doorstep.

The group seeks to create a series of “Portillo moments”, a reference to the unseating of the Tory defence secretary in the 1997 Labour landslide victory.

The Hastings seat of Rudd, the home secretary, was held by Labour as recently as 2010.

While Momentum are currently so swaggeringly confident in their shiny new US-style voter outreach strategy that they bragged about it to the New Statesman:

Momentum’s approach to canvassing, inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, attempts to create a deeper engagement between the activists and the members of the public they are speaking to. The message at the training session was ambitious – even the staunchest Tory can be convinced to vote for Labour.

Momentum’s approach to canvassing, inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, attempts to create a deeper engagement between the activists and the members of the public they are speaking to. The message at the training session was ambitious – even the staunchest Tory can be convinced to vote for Labour.

Canterbury’s swing to Labour this summer is a case in point. A previous Tory stronghold, the constituency swung to Labour by more than nine percentage points, and was won by Labour’s Rosie Duffield with 45 per cent of the vote.

One workshop attendee who canvassed in Canterbury believes this swing was because Momentum “went to every house” and that even those who seemed hostile to Momentum “still wanted to talk politics with them”.

After the result of the snap election, with Theresa May’s plans for Tory domination in tatters, Momentum announced plans to continue to campaign as though there was another snap election on the horizon. Activists and canvassers have descended on  Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat as recently as three weeks after the snap election, supported by notable Labour party figures such as Sir Keir Starmer MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry. While May has clung onto power over the summer break, the continued political turbulence adds a sense of urgency to the training session.

Ambition. A sense of urgency. Most Conservatives have probably forgotten how those sensations feel. Apparently at the end of one Momentum activist training session in Euston, all of the attendees were added to a Slack group so that they could better coordinate through the instant messaging app – even the older Momentum members who were a bit dubious about technology. What we have here is a hard left socialist group given strategic rocket boosters through the accumulated lessons of the Howard Dean and Barack Obama campaigns.

Meanwhile, what do the Tories have to show for themselves? How has the party which carries the torch (or should that be the tree) for conservative politics been spending its downtime this summer?

One might have thought that having guided her party to such catastrophic near-defeat, Theresa May would be keen to make amends by cancelling any holiday plans and visibly knuckling down, devoting every spare moment to damage control, overseeing Brexit negotiations and coming up with a conservative strategy that doesn’t involve cross-dressing in Labour’s hand-me-down clothes.

But no – the prime minister has been off hiking in Italy, where the only headline she generated in the domestic press occurred when she led guests at her five-star hotel in a rousing rendition of the British national anthem.

Disaster is staring the Conservatives in the face, but they are either too busy sipping limoncello in Italy (the prime minister), plotting their pathetic and utterly indistinguishable future leadership bids (the MPs) or having Jacob Rees-Mogg’s face tattooed onto their left buttocks (the activists) to notice the peril. The shock general election result in June should have been a wake-up call, but instead the Tories have immediately lapsed back into complacency, apparently content to be in a minority government propped up by the DUP with Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-Left Labour Party breathing down their necks.

If British conservatism (and the UK’s political system) were healthy right now, as opposed to being on life support, then this summer would have seen a wellspring of new ideas bubbling up from all quarters – promising backbench MPs, radical think tanks, grassroots conservative movements unwilling to allow the captain who already crashed the ship once to continue to set the course. But conservatism, like our political system as a whole, is not healthy, and we have seen no such ideas, no such developments.

The Conservative Party still cannot decide what it wants to be. “But wait for the party conference!”, I hear you shout. Don’t get your hopes up. Do you really think that anything positive, anything remotely useful in the small government conservative mould is going to emerge out of the Tory autumn conference in Manchester? This conference will be devoted to two things: trying to shore up Theresa May’s failed premiership, and providing a platform for a lot of chest-thumping idiocy about Brexit. There will be no bold new vision for British conservatism in the 21st century because there are no bold new thinkers. There are barely any thinkers at all, and what few there are remain consigned to the backbenches (Kwasi Kwarteng, James Cleverly) while mediocrities continue to hog the limelight.

And what of the Conservative Party’s hopeless performance with the youth vote? Has any action been taken to learn the lessons from the 2016 general election, or counter-strategies developed to rebut Jeremy Corbyn’s ludicrous false promises? Does any action look likely to be taken?

Immediately after the general election disaster I wrote:

In some ways, Jeremy Corbyn seems like a most implausible politician to court the youth vote – an old, grey haired career politician with absolutely zero interest in doing anything fashionable, sartorially or politically. But my god, he is an authentic conviction politician. And if your average voter hates overgroomed, telegenic bland politico-bots then young people clearly hate them even more. Canned soundbites don’t work on social media-savvy young people, if they work on anyone. And yet the Conservatives went into battle – largely thanks to the “genius” Lynton Crosby – with an arsenal made up almost exclusively of glib, canned soundbites in place of anything remotely authentic.

Not that authenticity alone is enough. Right wing politics are clearly hugely toxic to many young people, who would sooner die than consider voting Conservative, let alone admitting any conservative leanings to their social circle. The Tories are too closely associated with grey, uninspiring “austerity”, even though austerity is largely a myth. The Tory brand, fair or unfair, is still toxic to many people. And the parties of the left have perfectly tapped into the consumerist politics of Me Me Me by promising to firehose endless sums of money into the gaping, insatiable mouth of Britain’s public services.

It seems painfully apparent to me that we need a prominent, national vessel for the development and promotion conservative policies (and personalities) separate from the Conservative Party, which simply can no longer be trusted to make the case for its own worldview.

And as I emphasised in another piece, the same point applies to policy:

Theresa May’s team seemingly forgot that people don’t become more conservative as they get older automatically or without some prompting, and that if the Tories continually screw somebody over through their formative years, young adulthood and early middle age then they won’t magically become Tory voters when they get their first grey hair. People become more conservative as they get older because historically, sensible government policy has allowed them to become greater and greater stakeholders in society, largely through property and equity ownership. Cut off millions of young people from this ladder to prosperity and security, and the conveyor belt which gradually moves people from political Left to Right as they age will come grinding to a halt.

And on strategy:

We particularly need to work closely with conservative organisations in the United States, which face a similar uphill struggle in overcoming a historic disinterest in the youth vote but which are now starting to have some success, generated in part by their opposition to the illiberal Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics sweeping American university campuses, with its disregard for freedom of speech and toxic obsession with the politics of victimhood.

We should be sharing best practice back and forth with American conservative organisations as to how to build strong redoubts for conservatism in overwhelmingly leftist places, so that conservatism isn’t washed away altogether. Frankly, British conservatism is in such a parlous state that we need their help. And then, once things have stabilised, we can look to reclaim some of the ground we have lost among young voters.

It looks like Momentum and the Left took this idea and ran with it, and are already benefiting from adopting their new strategy. What a pity that the message has been so roundly ignored by its actual intended audience.

Conservatism decline and a slide toward irrelevance is not inevitable, but preventing it will take hard work and a capacity for self-criticism. We all dropped the ball in 2016; we all need to do better. But it is no good pushing harder in precisely the same direction, or shouting the same slogans even louder than before. “Strong and stable” doesn’t work when much of the population is dissatisfied and wants change. And at a time when many voters responded warmly to Jeremy Corbyn’s conviction politics of the Left, confounding all expectations, the Conservatives must regrow some convictions of their own.

Yet a plurality of Tories either don’t care about the crisis we face, or are simply deny its existence. They think that slapping a new coat of paint on the same rusty old banger will convince voters already tiring of seven years of Conservative government that they are buying a shiny new Tesla rather than a wobbly old Reliant Robbin. They bizarrely think that Moggmentum is the cure, or simply sticking with a failed prime minister who should never have ascended to the top job in the first place.

No, no, no. The Conservative Party needs to stop squabbling about personalities and which interchangeable Cabinet nonentity is best placed to succeed Theresa May, and decide what it actually stands for. And any conservative groups, think tanks and private individuals with an ounce of vision and charisma need to step up and push the party in the right direction, just as John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss did with their Stepping Stones Report in 1977, planting the seed of the Thatcherite recovery.

The Tories cannot make an informed decision about who should be their next leader without first deciding what kind of party they want to be – a limp and apologetic outfit which grovels and apologises for its limited principles, trying to make itself look as much like the Labour Party as possible, or a virile and ambitious party with transformative instincts, belief in individual liberty and the zeal to roll back the administrative state.

The Conservative Party conference opens in Manchester on Sunday 1st October. And rather than painting a false picture of unity, let’s actually have it out once and for all. And if a few unremarkable political careers end up getting caught up in the crossfire, so much the better. We need to clean house in terms of leadership, but more importantly in terms of ideology and basic principles.

At present, Theresa May and her rootless Tories are effectively in office but not in power. And if they do not take swift and dramatic action in the face of a resurgent leftist movement, the power could also slip away sooner than they think.

 

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Centrism Is The New Extremism

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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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Peter Hitchens Demands A Real Conservative Alternative To Jeremy Corbyn

Margaret Thatcher hologram

The current cast of characters jockeying to replace Theresa May are almost as underwhelming as the prime minister herself. British conservatives of all shades need to have a full and open debate about how best to move the Conservative Party and the country forward, and then find a future leader with the charisma to take on Jeremy Corbyn in the battle for hearts and minds

Exactly two years ago, I wrote a rather despairing piece asking “Where is the Conservative Party’s Jeremy Corbyn?” Now Peter Hitchens is rightly asking the same question, having long ago despaired at the direction of the Conservative Party and its accommodation with Blairite, centrist managerialism.

Back in August 2015 I wrote:

I want a standard bearer for the Right who actually makes me feel excited, not resigned, when I enter the polling booth. I don’t necessarily expect that person to be elected by a landslide on the first attempt, and to immediately implement their entire agenda in full. But neither do I expect – as presently happens – all of the soul-sapping compromising and watering-down of core principle to take place before the candidate even gets their name on the ballot paper.

Jeremy Corbyn has not done all of his compromising upfront – he is proud of his beliefs, and does not seek to apologise for them. And he doesn’t talk and answer questions as though he is responding to the twitches of a focus group’s instant polling dial. That’s why he is surging in the polls. That’s why previously dejected Labour activists who support Corbyn are suddenly walking a little taller again. That, I think, is why Owen Jones is walking round with such an infuriatingly wide smile on his face at the moment.

It cannot remain this way if we are to be successful in advancing the cause of smaller government and greater individual freedom and autonomy. We cannot allow the Left to monopolise inspiration and ambition, however far-fetched, while we conservatives occupy and embody the dull, managerial, technocratic and remote politics of austerity.

And conservatives will never win a real mandate for change so long as we are content to be the party of last resort, the failsafe option voters pick when all of the other choices are too wacky or offensive to contemplate.

I concluded by asking:

If David Cameron’s Conservative Party was voted out of office today, what will future historians and political commentators say about this government fifty years from now? What will be the Cameron / Osborne legacy? What edifices of stone, statute and policy will remain standing as testament to their time in office? Try to picture it clearly.

Are you happy with what you see?

Substitute Theresa May’s name for David Cameron’s, and pose the same question to yourself. Is the answer any clearer or more satisfactory than it was two years ago?

Clearly not. And now Peter Hitchens has arrived at the same conclusion, writing in the Mail on Sunday:

If (like me) you have attended any of Mr Corbyn’s overflowing campaign meetings, you will have seen the hunger – among the under-30s and the over-50s especially – for principled, grown-up politics instead of public relations pap.

Mr Corbyn reminds mature people of the days when the big parties really differed. He impresses the young because he doesn’t patronise them, and obviously believes what he says. This desire for real politics isn’t just confined to the Left. Ken Livingstone is right to call Mr Corbyn Labour’s Nigel Farage. Ukip appeals to a similar impulse.

Millions are weary of being smarmed and lied to by people who actually are not that competent or impressive, and who have been picked because they look good on TV rather than because they have ideas or character.

Indeed, ideas or character are a disadvantage. Anything resembling a clear opinion is seized upon by the media’s inquisitors, and turned in to a ‘gaffe’ or an outrage.

Actually, I dislike many of Mr Corbyn’s opinions – his belief in egalitarianism and high taxation, his enthusiasm for comprehensive schools, his readiness to talk to terrorists and his support for the EU. Oddly enough, these are all policies he shares with the Tory Party.

But I like the honest way he states them, compared with the Tories’ slippery pretence of being what they’re not.

I have indeed attended one of Jeremy Corbyn’s massive rallies, in which the Labour leader (then fighting to cling on to leadership of the party in the face of a challenge from the hapless Owen Smith) managed to pack out the vast Kilburn State theatre in North London with excited and motivated activists of every age. It was quite a remarkable sight to behold, with energy levels more like those you would see in a hard-fought US presidential primary than a dour Labour Party leadership contest.

Contrast this with the pathetically phony photo opportunities orchestrated by Theresa May’s hapless 2017 general election campaign, with a small huddle of telegenic young activists, clearly bussed in from London, holding up professionally printed placards in front of the Tory campaign bus while the prime minister grated her way through that godawful “strong and stable” stump speech. There was no authentic grassroots enthusiasm for May or her policies, to the extent that CCHQ was terrified to allow the prime minister to get into any kind of unscripted interaction with the public, let alone a televised debate.

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There may well be an appropriate time for dull managerialism and “steady as she goes” leadership, but Britain in 2017 is not it. Obviously Brexit must be handled with skill and sensitivity (not that the government has shown either of these attributes), but in every other respect Britain requires radical solutions to deep-seated problems rather than Theresa May’s brand of denial and incompetence. Whether it’s low productivity, education, the housing crisis, a failing nationalised healthcare system, dangerously pared-down national defence or a society fractured by toxic identity politics, this is a time for bold and unapologetically conservative solutions. But instead we have a weak prime minister at the head of an incoherent government, terrified of proclaiming conservative principles and desperate to move closer to the Labour Party on nearly every issue.

Hitchens goes on to describe what he sees as the ideal future Conservative leader:

My hope, most unlikely to be realised, is that a patriotic, conservative and Christian equivalent of Mr Corbyn will emerge to take him on, and will demonstrate, by his or her strength of conviction, that there is an even greater demand for that cause than there is for old-fashioned leftism. In any case, I think any thoughtful British person should be at least a little pleased to see the PR men and the special advisers and the backstairs-crawlers of British politics so wonderfully wrong-footed by a bearded old bicyclist.

Patriotic and conservative would be a good start, but I don’t think that this is specific enough. Theresa May, for example, ticks all three of Peter Hitchens’ boxes (one can make a valid argument that May represents a serious thread of conservative thought) yet is completely and utterly unequal to the role of prime minister, ideologically and temperamentally.

And as far as being Christian is concerned, Theresa May is a practicing Christian and famously the daughter of a vicar, and yet she has shown no real impulse to halt the suppression of legitimate religious expression where it comes into conflict with the free speech-averse forces of social justice and identity politics, for example. What, then, is the point of cheerleading for a Christian prime minister when they fail to defend religious freedom when in office? I would much rather have a prime minister who is secular-liberal when it comes to religion, eager to separate church (and faith) from state as far as possible while simultaneously protecting the right of British citizens to worship freely.

When it comes to choosing the ideal future Conservative prime minister, I maintain that the Tories could do far worse than select somebody who fits the profile I set out shortly before the disastrous general election back in June:

Ex armed forces (of either gender), mid to senior rank, with an illustrious overseas deployment history. Someone who exudes unapologetic patriotism yet never lapses into cheap jingoism, and whose commitment to defence, national security and veterans affairs is beyond question.

Followed up by a successful later career, possibly in the third sector or the arts but better still in the private sector, having founded a stonking great big corporation that also gives back to the community by employing ex-offenders or partnering with charities to do meaningful work in society.

A solid and consistent record (at least dating to the start of the EU referendum campaign) on Brexit, able to tell a compelling story about how Brexit – properly done – can be good for our democracy and at least neutral on the economic front.

A person who believes that until somebody comes up with a viable alternative to (or augmentation of) the democratic nation state, this institution remains the best method yet devised of ordering human affairs, and that consequently we should not needlessly undermine and vandalise it by vesting power in antidemocratic supranational organisations or pretending that we can sidle our way into a post-patriotic world by stealth rather than with the consent of the people.

Somebody who will not bargain away our civil liberties chasing the chimera of absolute security from terrorists and madmen – particularly while refusing to face down radical Islamism as an ideology to be confronted and defeated – but who will also stand up to expansionist, nonsensical definitions of human rights and an identity politics / political correctness agenda that values hurt feelings more than freedom of expression.

Somebody with the articulateness, gravitas, sincerity and quickness of thought capable of doing the near impossible in 2017: single-handedly turning the tide away from the vapid, broken politics of me, me, me. Somebody willing to ask – as John F. Kennedy once did – not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Somebody who dares to call us to a higher purpose than merely living in a country with “good public services”, deifying “Our NHS” and having the goddamn trains run on time.

Somebody who chooses for us to go to the moon (or rather its current day equivalent in terms of spectacular human achievement) “and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” (John F Kennedy).

Doubtless my idea of the ideal conservative prime minister and Peter Hitchens’ conception will differ somewhat – Hitchens is more socially conservative than I, while I see myself as more of a conservatarian with pragmatic, tempered libertarian instincts.

But these differences of opinion only make it all the more important that we have a full and open debate about the future of conservatism, and what kind of leader would be best placed to move the conservative movement and the country forward. And far better that this conversation first take place in the abstract, as a discussion of principles and ideology, so it does not immediately descend into personality-based infighting and jockeying for position among Theresa May’s likely successors.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is also vitally important that conservatives (I deliberately speak of small-C conservatives rather than the often toxic and inept Conservative Party) find a way to re-engage with a youth vote that the Tories have been shamefully quick to write off and cede to the parties of the Left. This abandonment of the youth vote is absolutely untenable going forward, and is yet another reason why the next Tory leader needs to have sufficient charisma and authenticity to cut through anti-conservative prejudices among young people that have often been baked into their consciences since they first became politically aware.

Until the Conservatives figure out who and what they actually want to be, both Peter Hitchens and I are likely to remain underwhelmed and disappointed. An urgent reckoning needs to take place in order to answer this question: Has seven years of Cameron/Osborne/May-style accommodation with centrist Blairism delivered any real tangible improvement to the trajectory of Britain, or are we largely treading water? And if the latter, is the solution to move even further to the left, as Theresa May and her political spirit animal Nick Timothy seem to want, or is it wiser and better to bring real conservative values to bear on 21st century problems?

As far as I am concerned, the choice is self-evidently clear. The Tories can stubbornly cling to their current philosophy and hope at best to remain in office but not in power for a few more years as they desperately scamper after the Labour Party in their march to the hard left, or they can renew themselves, stop apologising for their conservatism and start enacting it instead.

But in the meantime, let’s start the debate.

 

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