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.
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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