The Battle For British Conservatism: Should The Tories Be Ideological?

Tories vision is not optimistic about the future but small mean and nasty - Jon Ashworth MP - Conservatives

Some say that it is not the job of conservatives to think big or be ideological – but in a period of discontinuity such as this, being ideological and ambitious is exactly what conservatives must do

My interest was piqued recently by a Philip Collins column in the Times, in which Collins argues for pragmatic conservatism over idealistic conservatism, and chastises Brexit-supporting conservatives in particular for supposedly putting adventurism and ideology over the cautious stability which ought to flow from the conservative worldview.

Collins makes some interesting points, beginning with his conception of the differing roles of Britain’s two main political parties:

The electorate selects a Labour government to push the nation down the road of progress. That effort inevitably leads to an excess of public spending and too great a faith in the capacity of the state to improve the lot of the people. Much good gets done along the way but the temperature gauge of the British people is so attuned that, once spending starts to spiral, they call on the Conservative Party to tidy up. The whole point of the Conservatives, the absolute raison d’être of Tory government, is to provide sound money and solid competence, unburdened by too much radical belief.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. Over the course of both short and medium-term timeframes one can witness this phenomenon in action, from the pivot away from New Labour in 2010 as a short-term correction by an electorate in search of economic competence, and on a longer-term macro level the big swings from pre-war government to Attlee’s post-war socialism followed by a Thatcherite rollback of the post-war consensus.

(Of course, one can also argue the opposite – that the 1979 and 1983 Conservative governments were a deeply ideological monetarist reaction against the managed decline wrought by Keynesian economics and the socialist mixed economy. But while I fully agree that these were very ideological movements on the inside, I must also concede that they came to power not because the British people suddenly bought into a particularly individualistic mindset but rather because the people knew that the Tories were delivering strong, necessary dose of needed medicine).

But it is when Collins applies this same thinking to the European Union and the question of Brexit, though, where I really take issue with his argument:

But the issue of Europe, alas, pricks Conservatives into believing things. Suddenly, all the errors of the left, which the right exists to correct, are being committed by the Conservative Party. The usual conservative view is risk-averse and frightened of grands projets by their sheer complexity and by the low capacity of the state to administer them. The true conservative, who is not a reactionary in thrall to the past, is also not a radical excited by a better tomorrow. He or she instead makes a fetish of the present. Better not to risk change for fear it will be worse than what we have. The caution and the complacency can be infuriating but it is a fool who sees no wisdom in the position.

Where are these conservatives today? Can you name a single one? Who is the person who holds the quintessentially conservative view, which is that the EU is a bit of a mess for which no affection can really be mustered but who thinks that leaving is really not worth the candle? The process of leaving, thinks the historical conservative, is just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother. To attempt the most complex administrative task that the British state has undertaken since the conduct of the Second World War is just a profoundly unconservative thing to do.

This, to me, seems a rather glib analysis. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union for slightly more than four decades. This is but a blip in the very long history of our country, and certainly an aberration in comparison to the independent course we charted before joining the EEC in 1973. To say that remaining in the European Union is the conservative option is to apply an exceedingly narrow temporal window in determining whether the “natural” state of being to which conservatives should naturally gravitate should be the status quo, or what existed for centuries up until forty years ago.

Collins would be aided in his argument that the EU represents the “new normal” if there were any other examples elsewhere in the world of nations voluntarily creating supranational governments to sit above their own courts and legislatures, cheered on at every stage by their citizens. But of course there are no such examples. The people of Canada, Mexico and the United States do not clamour to form an ever-closer union of their own, let alone one which includes central America (the equivalent of the European Union’s continual eastward expansion). Nor would the citizens of, say, Canada, tolerate the idea of a supranational court and legislature in Mexico City setting an ever-wider range of social, trade and foreign policy.

In other words, it seems clear that the European Union is the historical aberration, not Brexit. The EU is an anachronistic relic borne of a time when the world was divided into a few major international blocs. It is a solution to a problem which no longer exists, and while international cooperation is more important than ever, EU-based cooperation has conspicuously failed to live up to the challenges of our time, from the self-inflicted euro crisis to the great migration crisis. And given that EU membership represents such a narrow slice of our history, it seems clear to me that the conservative position is one which advocates a calm, orderly and pragmatic Brexit (probably of the kind which I and other members of the Leave Alliance campaigned, namely a phased exit from the EU via EFTA/EEA in order to avoid undue disruption to trade and economic links).

Also concerning is Collins’ assertion that Brexit is “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. He seems to wilfully ignore the fact that the Conservatives are also traditionally the party of patriotism and the robust, self-confident defence of national integrity (the clue is in the name Conservative and Unionist Party). While conservatism may often mean cautious pragmatism in terms of domestic policy (which admittedly has sometimes needed to be disrupted by Labour’s progressivism to advance the social good) it has never meant timidity or a lack of faith in Britain’s ability to act and defend our interests on the world stage. Collins seems to equate natural conservative caution with a necessary lack of ambition, but I do not consider these one and the same thing at all.

And then Collins really loses me with this:

Britain feels very different from the glorious summer of 2012 when Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the Olympics was a paean to British culture that had spanned the world and to British institutions that had stood the toughest test of all, the test of time. In the distant past five years ago, it was an easy nation to be proud of. Boyle’s was a conservative vision of Britain, which the Tory party has thrown by the wayside.

I’m sorry, but this is balderdash. Prior to his career in journalism Philip Collins was speechwriter to Tony Blair, so his proclivities are very much of the centre-left. And while parts of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics might be said to be rooted loosely in conservatism, the part which most people remember is the bizarre open-air Mass in praise of the NHS and socialised healthcare.

(It is telling, too, how many of those on the left and centre-left almost seemed to discover patriotism for the first time back in 2012 while watching hundreds of actors in nurse costumes prance around a huge stadium pushing hospital beds and wheelchairs).

An all-singing, all-dancing Rite of Spring in worship of the National Health Service is not conservative in nature. In fact, its emphasis on uniformity, collective endeavour, equality of outcome and dependency on government is about the most un-conservative spectacle one can think of. The fact that it took a rather gaudy homage to that most socialist of socialist institutions to evoke feelings of patriotism in some on the Left shows that this was very much a leftist moment, not a conservative one – and in my opinion also shows that the same argument that EU membership is too new to fall under the protective umbrella of conservatism also applies to the NHS.

So should conservatives believe in anything, or should they be the timid, pragmatic and unambitious party of technocrats and fixers who are called in once in awhile to clear up the mess caused by an over-zealous Labour Party? I think this is where we need to be very clear about our meanings. It may absolutely be the case that most of the British public never see the conservative worldview and resulting policies in terms of an inspiring, coherent story. We may always be seen as the fixers. But that does not mean that we can get away without having a story to motivate and guide us, even if this remains largely internal.

Remember: British politics has now entered a period of discontinuity (as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) in which people have increasingly become dissatisfied with the previous Cameron-Blairite centrist, pro-EU political settlement and are demanding something new, something which addresses the unique challenges we face as a nation in 2017. This cannot be done without first diagnosing these challenges, understanding where they are interlinked, and then devising a set of mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle them.

We saw the same thing in 1977, when the influential Stepping Stones report (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it anytime soon) provided a blueprint which Margaret Thatcher then took to Downing Street and started implementing in 1979. The Thatcher government did not save Britain from inexorable national decline by conceding that reversing years of state ownership of industry and tackling the over-powerful trades union was “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. On the contrary, the Conservative Party of 1979 was forced to accept that discontinuity had to be met by new and previously unthinkable policies, just as the idea of leaving the EU remains unthinkable to so many within the political class today.

Believing in nothing and playing the role of the calm technocrat is all very well when times are good, when society and the economy are in steady-state and there are no urgent or existential challenges to be addressed. In such times, the Conservative Party is very welcome to play the tedious but necessary role of fixer. Unfortunately, we live in rather more interesting times which require inspired and often disruptively innovative policymaking rather than the usual government painting by numbers.

I can understand why this scares people like Philip Collins. The last time it was incumbent upon the Tories to be truly ideological, in 1979, they ended up remaking the country (and together with America, the world) and stamped a new political settlement on Britain which even now has not been fully rolled back. It is therefore natural, if a little cynical, that he now counsels the Tories to think small, to “keep their senses” and throw their arms around the status quo. The alternative must be terrifying to contemplate.

The last thing that the guardians of the current, fraying political consensus want is for conservatives to come up with an ambitious, ideologically coherent new internal narrative and then remake the country anew all over again.

And that is precisely why we must do it.

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The Boris Resurgence

For most politicians, being accidentally suspended several metres above the ground on a zipwire whilst trying to promote the Olympic Games taking place in your city would be considered a negative occurence.

But despite having an internet meme modelled after him, Mayor of London Boris Johnson seems to be riding high in the polls and in the general public estimation.

Boris Johnson uses NASA’s “skycrane” concept to land on the surfact of Mars.
Image from http://dangleboris.wordpress.com

As Conservative Home notes:

Johnson is in a unique position: he is a national figure, an elected British politician with a large individual mandate, and does not have the pressure of constituency surgeries and whips, and so on. He is therefore able, in the style of American politicians (think Mitt Romney’s recent trip to London), to take a foreign trip and build his foreign policy credibility. His perceived rivals for the leadership (the Independent today gives the odds on Johnson, Gove, Osborne, Hammond, Hague and Davis) are not able to do that; they would either be on government business, or would slip under the radar.

A source tells the Times: “Frankly, Boris is one of the few people who could deliver this … his contact with sovereign wealth funds and big business leaders, as well as his draw as a political personality, is a key selling point for a lot of these people”.

These points are all very true. And given the strong leadership vacuum currently being left by the hapless David Cameron (though let’s wait to see what kind of Olympic bounce he might receive in the opinion polls) and the coalition strife being formented by Cameron’s decision to put off the government’s plans to modernise the House of Lords, a future Boris Johnson leadership challenge is certainly on the cards.

Cameron should take note – even if it results in the occasional misstep or gaffe, people appreciate authenticity and conviction most of all. Agree or disagree with him, Boris Johnson has both of these qualities. If they do lurk within David Cameron, he has yet to show them so far.

SEMI PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

Pamela Haag, writing at Slate, has had enough of the “mommy” prefix being applied to everything from jeans to porn to jobs to blogs. In an interesting piece, she goes on to argue that the effect of these mommy-isms is to diminish the work or activities outside motherhood that women engage in.

The Economist ponders the recent death of author Gore Vidal and laments that it marks the passing of an age when politics was less…dumbed down. Recalling Vidal’s famous televised altercation with William F. Buckley Jr., they note: “It is hard to imagine men like Vidal and Buckley, two snobbish East Coast intellectuals with lockjaw patrician accents, being invited onto prime-time television now to opine on the hot-button issues of the day. Vidal’s death earlier this week, at age 86, marks not only the loss of a provocative novelist and political thinker, but also the demise of a brand of public discourse. It seems there is no longer a place for the erudite and witty public intellectual in America. Instead of learned allusions to classical literature, public figures, including the president of the United States, are now expected to drop their G’s and speak knowledgeably about the cast of The Jersey Shore”. Indeed.

 

BRITISH POLITICS

NPR gazes at Britain from across the pond and raises an eyebrow at the marked uptick in explicit British patriotism that has been observed in this jubilee and Olympic year. I think that they do British national pride a disservice saying things such as: “Never before have British sports fans sung the national anthem, or flourished their (proliferating) red-white-and-blue Union flags, with such gusto. Never before have British commentators yelled so loudly at the slightest sign that their one of their countryfolk may secure a medal”. After all, national pride can be expressed in many ways, not all of which require flying a massive flag above a car dealership. But nonetheless, they do have a point. NPR go on to ponder the likely impact of this new-found patriotic expression on the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum.

A really interesting article by Damian McBride, detailing the first 24 hours of the 2007 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Surrey, and the then newly-appointed Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s reaction to it. Lord knows I am no fan of Gordon Brown’s – given a few seconds of silence in any social gathering I am liable to launch into my anti GB diatribe – but I must admit that he did have his good qualities (earnestness, attention to detail) as well as the bad. McBride notes: “At the end of those 24 hours, even before we were clear how serious the outbreak was, there was no question – whether you were a government official, a political journalist or a punter watching the TV – that the PM was in control of this crisis and was personally directing every aspect of how it would be dealt with.” This article humanises Brown, and reminds me that no matter my stark disagreements with him on policy, he worked very hard – albeit egotistically and misguidedly – in service to the country.

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

Washington “elites” are more out of touch than ever with the rest of the country, and far more tolerant of persistent mass unemployment, argues Jonathan Chait, writing in New York Magazine. For those like him, Chait writes, the great recession “…is more akin to a famine in Africa. For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy.”

Place your bets now. Mitt Romney is beginning to meet with and “audition” the various Republican contenders to take the Vice Presidential spot on his ticket. Some options are more palatable than others, but whether Romney picks a “boring”, safe candidate or takes a risk with an unconventional bold choice will say a lot about how confident his campaign is of victory, or conversely how worried they are about their prospects and are looking for another game-changer.

Charles Krauthammer was obviously watching a different foreign trip than the one the rest of us witnessed as Romney embarked on his overseas tour. Using his Washington Post column to declare the trip an unbridled success, Krauthammer has convinced himself that Romney’s undercutting of the official US position on Jerusalem and criticism of Palestinian culture were somehow smart diplomacy. Others might argue that these actions were contrary to his earlier promises (and standard convention) to avoid criticising US policy while a presidential candidate on foreign soil, and that regardless of ones views on the Middle East peace process, it might be a good idea to avoid enraging one of the two sides before you have even won election.

Bravo, Bradley!

Three cheers for British cyclist and four-time Olympic Gold medallist Bradley Wiggins, who celebrated his follow-on victory from the Tour de France by knocking back a few drinks at a rooftop bar somewhere in the City of London, according to The Telegraph.

They report:

The four time Olympic Gold medallist and Tour De France winner told millions of viewers after his latest win in the time trial that he was going to have a rare night off from his punishing training regime and “get drunk” to celebrate.

And just hours later – shortly after midnight – he was pictured on a rooftop bar overlooking St Paul’s cathedral in central London achieving his goal.

The 32-year-old posted two pictures of himself on Twitter with friends declaring to the world he was “getting wasted at at (sic) StPauls.”

His spelling and grammar suggested he was well on the way.

Mission accomplished, in every sense of the word! And what well-deserved drinks they were, after Wiggins provided Team GB with their second gold medal of the 2012 Olympics.

Here’s hoping that we add significantly to that tally over the next few days.

The Best Thing Of 2012

I know that it is only the first day of August, but I am supremely confident that nothing will surpass this story reported by ITV News.

Apparently the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was at an Olympic event in Victoria Park, trying out a zipwire ride, when it malfunctioned and he became stuck, suspended some distance above the ground:

Boris Johnson flies the flag for Britain. Image from ITV News.

He spent several minutes in this indecorous pose, to the amusement of the crowds, apparently shouting “Get me a rope, get me a ladder!” until he was able to be winched to safety.

London Mayor Boris Johnson dangles above the ground before being rescued. Image from ITV News

I more or less support Boris Johnson’s mayoralty of London (he’s a zillion times better than “Red” Ken Livingstone, anyway), and while it is a little mean-spirited to laugh at another person’s misfortune, I seriously think that this may have made my political year.