The Lefties it's OK to love

In this week's NS, the left told us which Tories they love. But is that love reciprocated?

The NS has a cover story: Which Tories is it OK to love? I love my other half, and he's a Tory, but I don't think that's the point of the article. And despite all those pop songs that urge "you gotta love you-self, bay-bee", I don't count either. I shall read the views of the Left-of-centre Great And Good with interest.

Anyway as an act of symmetry, because I love symmetry, I thought I'd return the favour. Which people of the Left do Tories love?

I lack the magazine's institutional reach, so my own "research" didn't involve ringing round the Establishment. Thank God for Twitter, eh! Below are the responses from random twittering Tories, along with my own choices, which are the top three.

George Orwell. Obvious really, but it's not only his prescient warning about totalitarianism that make me a fan. I go back to his essay on politics and the English language -once a month at least, and shudder anew each time I read his instructions about clarity, because despite my best efforts I continue to break them. An essential read for anyone who wants to communicate well, or to deconstruct the communications of those who prefer obfuscation (I've just broken one of his rules). Besides, which Tory doesn't vibrate with recognition at this:

Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse.

When I read that, I'm like that scene in When Harry Met Sally. Yes that one. Yes that's a metaphor. Almost.

Frank Field. Also obvious, I know, but equally deserved. From his fight against Militant in the 80s (in a profile of him in the Independent in 1993, he said his nightmare is "sitting in a smoke-filled room confronted by rows of staring eyes and faces contorted by hatred") to his common-sense advocacy of welfare reform, Field is one of those politicians whose reach extends beyond his actual words: he gives permission for debates to occur, which the elite would often prefer to leave undiscussed. In this sense, he's a gatekeeper: if Frank Field thinks it's acceptable to discuss the human implications of social security policy, then it's OK for the rest of us to air our views too.

Tom Harris. Like Field, Harris refuses to parrot the banalities of the age, which are nearly all to do with a horror of expressing judgement about lifestyles. For this sin, his party has previously overlooked one of its most skilled communicators: if there were any sense in the political ordering, Harris would already be leader of the Scottish Labour party, and not only a candidate for that position. (I only hope that having a Tory declare his political love doesn't do him any harm.) Sometimes it's useful to ask yourself a question: which political opponent would I least like to stand against in an election? Harris is at the top of my list, because he's honest, good-humoured, and kind. One of the good guys.

Here are some responses from Tory Twitterers, one or two of which might surprise you (they did me):

@torypride nominated John Cryer and Gisela Stuart, for their work on the European Referendum Campaign. @botzarelli suggested Dennis Skinner: "disagree with almost everything but he's uncompromising and takes role of MP seriously". I agree. Skinner deserves recognition for his unwavering commitment to the centrality of class as a predictor of outcome, a legitimate hypothesis to which we Conservatives have never quite been able to provide a proper response (there is occasionally a downside to resisting ideology). This thought reminds me of the admiration I have for Nick Cohen, who writes often about class, the forgotten discriminant, as well as tackling head-on both the horrors of clerical fascism and the hypocrisy of those who defend it.

@blondpidge suggested Tony Benn, "because he's a man of great principle". I'm aware of this widespread feeling about Mr Benn. Since we're writing about love, I'll admit only that I share neither the fascination nor the adulation. I prefer him to Caroline Lucas, is about as strong as I'd put it.

Since it's good to learn something new every day, I was pleased to read about Sir Roger Douglas, nominated by @Stuart_Barrow, who also reminded me of how much we owe Chris Smith. As Stuart puts it, we owe Lord Smith a lot for taking a stand and coming out "decades before some on our side grew a spine".

Finally, and I wonder if this will please him, big Twitter Tory-love goes out to John Prescott, from @jwgsharp, who writes that despite disagreeing with the politics, Prescott's "background, strong beliefs", and the fact that he "sent his kids to the school allocated to them. No banging on about Comps and sending to selective or private school", all impress him.

Reading the list again, there's something obvious to see, I think. Regardless of our affiliation, we have attraction to people who articulate the truth as they see it, as clearly as they can, and who hold fast to their principles regardless of the vagaries of political fashion, or how unpopular this leaves them in the meantime.

They are also largely politicians who don't learn how to speak in an inhuman manner, because they're so sure of their principles that they're immune to the fear of "gaffes" (stupid, stupid word) that afflict the less-certain or more career-minded.

Tony Blair, by the way, wasn't suggested by anyone.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle