Conservatism – selling out to the new right

I began this blog eight years ago in a mood of optimism. Obama’s ‘yes we can’. Maybe we could find common ground across the political divide, enough to take agendas of enterprise, economic growth, internationalism and social justice forward together. We knew of the new right’s machinations, but didn’t foresee how their path to power might work out. And how conservatism would be re-interpreted, and buy into the politics and the moral neutrality of post-truth. To take a few examples:

# Referenda: the idea seems to be abroad in some circles that referenda results are for all time. Referenda if used at all, and they are too easily manipulated (by money and media) to have any significant role in any serious democracy, must be reversible, in the way that parliamentary legislation is reversible. It is extraordinary and irrational to think otherwise. And against conservative tradition…

# Conservative vs radical: it is no less remarkable how the Tory party has moved so far right without realising it, mirroring the Barclay brothers Daily Telegraph agenda and adopting the manners and demeanour of the Paul Dacre Daily Mail. We could indict the Conservatives under the trade descriptions act. (Tory – from the old Gaelic toraidhe, meaning outlaw. Altogether a better description.) The old Tory party, going back to Macmillan, Heath, even Thatcher, believed in the great British unwritten constitution, the wheels turned slowly, radical change and revolution were disdained. We have now arguably the biggest leap in the dark outside of wartime in two hundred years.

I am now the conservative. I’m not sure I like my new role too much – there’s too much in the world to be radical about.

# Economic forecasts from outlier economists such as Patrick Minford, given press and media coverage as if mainstream. Compare the wiser counsels of the FT and the Economist. Curious now how many rely on the Telegraph City pages: that’s a subject in itself.

# Assumptions that post-Brexit we will dispense with the ECJ – the European Court of Justice – and still achieve some kind of trade deal. Set up a separate quasi-judicial body? Are the EU for a moment likely to acquiesce in that?

# ‘Recent’ poll data suggesting wide support for a hard Brexit – quoted as fact in the media (including The Week) – when the data dates back to April and has been wilfully misinterpreted.

# Finally – diversion away from the issues which should be engaging us. Not least the tragedy (see recent reporting in The Times, and all power to them ) almost on our doorstep in Libya. 700,000 migrants camped and waiting. This is a crisis for all Europeans, and one so far which the EU, 28 countries with clamorous electorates, has simply failed to come to terms with.

Here in the UK we are obsessed by Brexit, preferring to close our borders physically, morally and politically. Rather, we should be in there, facing up to the crisis, putting forward proposals. Advocates within Europe, within the EU.

Suggestions, for example, for a wall across southern Libya, or funding repatriations… maybe or maybe not viable … but where are we?

Sidelined, irrelevant.

Dare we be optimistic?

We’ve few political role models in this day and age, people who’ve been through it all, and suffered all the slings and arrows, and opprobrium, but somehow now stand above the fray – and we listen to them. In Tony Benn’s case we might not agree. But we listened. Michael Heseltine is another, and I often agree.

John Major – we wonder how he stuck it out.  As for Chris Patten, after losing his seat in 1992, he escaped. And one hell of an escape – to be governor-general of Hong Kong in its last years as a colony. He’s now written a biography, ‘First Confession: A Sort of Memoir’.

There’s a phrase, a summary of his life and aspiration, which I love, his ‘immoderate defence of liberal order [as] a counter to the violence of narrow identity’.

‘Immoderate defence’ – there needs to be, there can be, no holding back.

To quote Jonathan Fenby in the FT Weekend, Patten ‘ is aghast at Britain’s decision to leave the European Union’. He ‘worries about a prime minister who “seems to doubt whether you can be both a British citizen and a citizen of the world” – both of which he clearly sees himself as being’.

‘His greatest admiration is reserved for …John Major, who shouldered the problems of the Thatcher inheritance… and “on one issue after another has been shown to have taken the right decisions and to have been on the right side”’.

Too often we hedge, prevaricate, tread gently… worry we’re going too much out on a limb in opposing Brexit. Witness all the Tory MP s who supported, and still support, remaining in the EU.  There’s a uniquely Tory hypocrisy about all this.

Patten is another kind of Tory. I’d love to have his comments on the recent election. We could with Brexit and especially a hard Brexit be seeing the biggest shift in British politics since the war. But, Fenby speculates, and I think Patten might just agree, that ‘the die may not be cast’. And here he picks up on the optimism I’ve felt, and spoken about, in the weeks since the election.

Optimism – being optimistic has worried me.  Terrible things shave happened since 8th June, but the post-referendum certainties have been shaken. Events could yet, in Fenby’s words, ‘lead to a more reasonable path than appeared likely a year ago’.

Macron, the likely re-election of Merkel, the (still tentative) rolling back of the populist tide in Europe, positive signs from mainland European economies….

Trump on the other hand is still there as a terrible reminder of how asinine politics has become in the USA. So too May, Davis, Johnson, Gove, Fox…

But I’ve long argued that that there are no certainties in politics. (Or life!) Policy goals are all too often for the birds. Apparent sea changes forget that there are tides and seasons.  Where we can have more influence is the direction of travel.

God knows where Corbyn would take us if elected. Into a frenzy of nationalisation and anti-global action… or a frenzy of rhetoric. I think we’d survive a short spell of Corbyn, whether he pushes to the extremes or no. I don’t have that confidence about Brexit – there’s a will to destroy our prosperity and reputation, and a seeking of finalities which won’t easily be pulled back.

I think the direction of travel has shifted in the last month.  We have some small cause for greater optimism. But there remains a mighty struggle ahead.