The Battle For British Conservatism: Stop Using Brexit As A Proxy War

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With Theresa May and the Tories technically in office but barely in power, it is more important than ever for conservatives to have a no-holds-barred debate about what they really stand for and what vision for Britain they want the Conservative Party to advance. In addition to my own past and future ruminations on this subject, Semi-Partisan Politics will seek to include the best thinking and writing on the subject from elsewhere, beginning with this incisive contribution from blogger The Sparrow.

The Daily Mail reports that judges may prevent Britain deporting immigrants sleeping rough on the streets of London. A legal challenge is being brought against a Home Office policy which deports immigrants sleeping rough, on the basis that by failing to support themselves after moving to the UK their rights under freedom of movement are forfeit.

Leaving aside the merits of either side of that argument, the story is emblematic of a schism within conservatism. On one side sit social conservatives, who believe that tradition, established cultural norms and a sense of continuity with the past are of value. On the other, free marketeers believe that the greatest good can be achieved by permitting the market to develop solutions to people’s needs, with minimal government interference.

To illustrate, consider a social conservative and a free market conservative take on this story. The free marketeer might say: let them sleep rough – winter will drive them into rentals, the market will find a solution at a suitable price point for them, and in the meantime who am I to criticise someone seeking to reduce his overheads while getting started in a new country?

The social conservative, though, might say: no, that’s not how we do things in this country. It’s not the done thing to save money on housing by creating a tent city in Central London. Mass rough sleeping is squalid, threatening, unhealthy and potentially dangerous. If they cannot live as we live, then they should not be permitted to stay here fouling up the city for people who are doing the right thing.

The social conservative is willing to use the power of social and moral pressure, and if necessary the state, to enforce social norms some of which may run counter to the needs or pressures of the market. From the free-market conservative point of view, the social conservative risks impeding the fluidity of the market, restraining its marvellous problem-solving powers, and does so in the name of social values that may be arbitrary, often seem to have little basis in reason, and yet are clung to with a devotion quite at odds with the free market view of man as a rational actor.

Conversely, the free-market conservative may consider disrupting established social norms or ways of life to be a price worth paying for allowing market forces to flow and find equilibrium. From the social conservative point of view, this might be viewed as a kind of crass vandalism, that reduces all of life to its commercial or economic value and remains wilfully blind to those aspects of life that cannot readily be assigned a number.

For the most part, in party political terms, the natural home of both social conservatives and free marketeers has for some time been the Conservative Party. But these two types of conservative are at odds with one another, or at least not obviously in alignment, on most of the hot-button issues currently in play: from globalisation, immigration, multiculturalism and housebuilding to social questions such as gender issues and the rise of Islam. I am not seeing any sort of intra-conservative debate that recognises the existence of such an ideological fault line. (If I just need a better reading list, I would be grateful to anyone who can improve mine.)

For a number of years, these two kinds of conservatives have maintained a truce and semblance of unity based on the fact that both sides can agree – for different and sometimes contradictory reasons – that state spending should be restrained and ideally reduced. The remainder of Tory policies have been hashed out between the two sides as various kinds of compromise  – or, as in the case of Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP versus George Osborne at the Treasury, an increasingly bitter turf war. But trying to sweep it under the carpet is not good enough any more. When one of the few clear positive points of agreement is ‘government should spend less on stuff’ is it any wonder the Conservatives are so easily caricatured by the Left as heartless stealers of the meagre crumbs from the tables of the poor?

Besides, if Osborne vs Duncan Smith was a minor skirmish in the ongoing tussle between social and free market conservatism, the Brexit vote has triggered conservative ideological Armageddon. Conservatives from both sides of the schism wanted to leave the European Union for profoundly different reasons, and in the narratives of – say – Daniel Hannan and Andrea Leadsom you can see the two sides, both passionate and both in search of entirely different and in many ways mutually contradictory outcomes.

Enough of this fudge. The Conservatives need to have it out. One might ask the free market conservatives: how much social and cultural disruption is acceptable in the name of opening up markets? If (say) robotisation decimates employment across entire sectors, are we cool with that? And if so, and you still call yourself a conservative, what precisely do you consider yourself to be conserving?

To the social conservatives, one might ask: to what extent is it important and necessary to restrain markets in order to preserve social goods? Is it worth – for example – deploying protectionist measures to shore up industries that are part of the fabric of the country and culture, even if in doing so we actually damp down innovation and growth overall? Or: you may talk about clamping down on immigration, out of a concern that the native culture is at risk of being overwhelmed. But the Tories have always been for pragmatism over woolly idealism; how then can you call yourself a Tory when you are pushing for a poorer and less dynamic country, all in the name of something nebulous called ‘a way of life’?

What is worth conserving? Do we care about traditions? Does that extend to traditional social or moral views? How much social disruption is acceptable in the name of the markets? When it happens, who bears it, and is that distribution of social cost politically sustainable? Conservatives need to be having these arguments out in the open. And don’t give me that guff about preserving unity while in government. Backstabbing one another over Brexit and cribbing policy from Ed Miliband is not preserving unity.

Social and free market conservatives have rubbed along well enough for some time, mostly by horse-trading or ignoring one another. But Brexit has ended that: there’s suddenly just too much at stake. The ideological fudge has become a bitter paralysis, and it is actively harming the national interest.

So for the Tories the choice is stark. Carry on treating our departure from the EU as party political psychodrama or, y’know, actually debate the principles informing your vision. Air the differences that have been swept under the rug for so long. A good healthy argument might even result in some fresh ideas, and God knows the Tories could do with a few of those.

The Sparrow is a former left-winger who let the side down badly by voting for David Cameron and Brexit and is now politically on the lam. She blogs about identity politics and the crisis in contemporary political culture at sparrowsandnightingales.wordpress.com.

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The Virtue-Signalling Left Find Their Ideal Spokesman: A Five Year Old Girl

This five-year-old girl actually makes a better case for Corbynism than many writers at the Guardian, Left Foot Forward or LabourList. Someone give her a weekly column and a podcast!

A few years ago, US comedian Bill Maher brought to our attention a 14-year-old wannabe conservative talk radio host called Caiden Cowger, who had so thoroughly absorbed Republican talking points and mastered the Rush Limbaugh speaking style that to watch him at work was both hilarious and unnervingly realistic.

At the time, Bill Maher made this rather potent observation:

If a fourteen year old can deliver your message, it’s not because he’s gifted, it’s because intellectually you are a child.

[..] When fourteen year old boys sound exactly like you do, and can produce radio shows and books and speeches that sound exactly like yours, maybe you should rethink the shit that’s coming out of your mouth.

Remember the Republican debates we had this year? They applauded for the idea of letting a sick man without insurance die. Herman Cain got cheers for saying he’d electrify the border fence. They booed a gay man serving his country in the military. No wonder fourteen year old boys can do your act, you act exactly like fourteen year old boys. There’s no ideology here. It’s just about being a dick.

Well, now it is the turn of the British Left to produce a young child capable of ventriloquising their entire political philosophy.

Meet Brooke Blair, a five-year-old girl who has been trained by her (undoubtedly) sanctimonious, Corbynite parents to screech about inequality, use the poor as ideological weapons and advocate for ever-more government spending funded through the munificence of the Magic Money Tree.

It’s worth reproducing Brooke Blair’s diatribe in full:

Look. My name is Brooke Blair and I’m five years old. I’ve got something to say to you Theresa May.

Yesterday night I was out on the streets and I saw hundreds and millions of homeless people. I saw one with floppy ears, I saw loads.

You should be out there, Theresa May. You should be [giving] biscuits, hot chocolate, sandwiches and building houses.

Look. I’m only five years old, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m saving up money, and there’ll never be enough. You’ve got the pot of money – spend some and help people. Yes, that’s what you’ve got to do.

Because we’ve had lots of wars in this country and I do not like that Theresa May. I’m very angry!

So yesterday night a middle class, five year old girl was out on the streets (dodging the bombs and sniper fire from our many ongoing wars), keeping the company of “millions” of homeless people? Righty-ho. And we know that this is a true story because of the rich detail Blair provides, like the fact that one of them had “floppy ears” – are we sure she isn’t confusing the homeless with rabbits?

Naturally, the video has gone viral, borne aloft on a cloud of smug, self-satisfied leftist clicks and shares, all delighting in the fact that this “brave” five-year-old has apparently socked it to our cruel and inhumane prime minister. And what’s not to like, from a leftist standpoint? If you believe that the state should be involved in everything and meddle in all our lives, why shouldn’t the prime minister herself be tasked with roaming the streets at night, handing out cash, biscuits and building materials to homeless people?

Throughout the one-minute video you can just hear the pinch-faced, hectoring, virtue signalling, metro-left parents articulating their own political views through their daughter. Perhaps the only honest part is when Brooke Blair declares “and I do not like Theresa May!” That much I believe. And why would she? This girl is clearly being raised by her parents to blindly and unthinkingly hate the Evil Tor-ees and look to government as the answer to every single problem, rather than one day judging for herself which political philosophy best addresses the opportunities and challenges faced by society.

Of course, Brooke Blair’s parents are free to raise her however they want. And if they want to produce a little Owen Jones Mark II then that is entirely their business. But I would be careful, if I were them. Children have a tendency to rebel against the dogmas and beliefs imposed on them at a young age, so in a decade’s time we could quite possibly be welcoming Brooke Blair into the conservative movement, where there will always be a “safe space” for people who have renounced their former socialist ways.

But for now, the British Left should rejoice. The Labour Party may be imploding, its MPs more interested in stabbing their leader in the back than actually opposing a government which is becoming pretty left-wing anyway, but at least there are five-year olds on YouTube and seven-year-olds with handmade signs who are making the case for socialism every bit as eloquently as the adults ever could.

Jeremy Corbyn can sit out the next few rounds and complete the ongoing shadow cabinet reshuffle at his leisure. Brooke Blair will take it from here.

 

Postscript: Those actually interested in alleviating the problem of homelessness rather than simply broadcasting their trendy lefty compassion credentials to the world may consider donating to Shelter or the excellent Big Issue Foundation.

 

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