Conservatism will wither without modernisation

The Conservative Party must delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society.

Give them real Conservatism. Raw right-wing meat. Lower taxes on our wealth creators, cut the NHS, bemoan Europe. Throw in the tweed, while you’re at it. At the moment, you see, they just don’t think we’re right-wing enough.

This argument is repeatedly rehearsed by Tory malcontents, who think we’re letting UKIP fill a vacuum on the right of British politics as modernisation gets us lost in mushy centrist liberalism. Post-Eastleigh, the complaining loudens. Hugo Rifkind exposes the absurdity of this "lurch to the right" fetishism rather neatly: “What planet are you on, when you think Cameron’s big problem is that he isn’t enough of a traditional Conservative? Are you drunk? For most of the country, it’s a constant surprise not to see him with a shotgun under his arm”.

Quite. The rise of UKIP hides something of more significance: yes, those gay-loving, immigrant-embracing, wishy-washy Lib Dems won the by-election. Conservatives are seen as more right-wing than the politics of a typical voter; to be a party that wins an overall majority, surely it must transcend these simplistic political labels? Appeal to a broader range of people on the basis of values which are more universal: competency and compassion, first and foremost.

Philosophers have joined politicos in condemning the Tory modernising strategy. In this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, the eminent Professor Roger Scruton reviews Bright Blue’s latest book, Tory modernisation 2.0: the future of the Conservative Party. He lambasts modernisers for abandoning conviction to solve the Tories image problem. This strikes me as odd. The primary purpose of a political party, after all, is to win an election: becoming more popular among voters is inescapable.

But this is not the book's only objective despite Scruton’s belittling in absence of detailed scrutiny. More fundamentally, modernisers in this book are inviting deeper discussion about Conservative values that should guide our thinking and policymaking today. Scruton, though, professes we lack understanding of true Conservatism. The reality, of course, is that British Conservatism derives from several philosophies. In his essay, Scruton narrowly emphasises preservation. Here, he allies with those who seek refuge from the contemporary in UKIP, grumbling about same-sex marriage, immigration and house-building in villages. The past reveals the good life: the nuclear family surrounded by green and pleasant land. Tolkein’s Shire, really.

But the world around them has changed. Still, they try and impose the past on a quite different present: ironically then, they pursue social engineering, rightly resisted by Conservatives who are nervous of demands, from the state in particular, that people change the way they live here and now. Such romantics, nostalgic or progressive, ought to be judged sceptically by wise Conservatives.

We need not be mere reactionaries. No, Conservatism is much richer than this. Professor Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, offers a more compelling way. Drawing on an impressive range of studies into the development of human morality, he finds six moral sentiments that Conservatives share: care for others; a belief in proportionality, where reward is linked to effort; desire for liberty against oppression; loyalty for members of a group you associate with; respect for authority; and a belief in sanctity and purity. These sentiments can unite British Conservatives from differing philosophical backgrounds, albeit when some stressed more than others.

The authors of Tory modernisation 2.0 attempt to apply these values to a world where social composition and norms have changed, to ensure Conservatism remains relevant and inspiring. For example, credible solutions are offered to help parents with the cost of childcare. This is because two-earners families are increasingly and necessarily the norm. Instead of yearning for the male breadwinner family model, the book offers fresh thinking on how to tackle the poor affordability of childcare for parents who choose to work: because, for the sake of proportionality, it is right those who are doing the right thing to improve their financial circumstances are supported.

Proposals to catalyse house-building may offend reactionaries fearful of modest housing developments in their villages, but this is again about proportionality: ensuring home ownership is affordable to those who have worked and saved, palpably not the case for many at the moment, rather than simply those who have inherited wealth from their parents.

The book talks of the need to tackle rising loneliness in our society, caused predominantly by an ageing population, the cultural glorification of autonomy, and a degree of pornification of sexual relations. Legalising same-sex marriage is a fightback against this, albeit small, for the sake of loyalty and sanctity that emerge from loving relationships.

Elsewhere, the book describes a new approach to international development, asserting that the UK should look beyond its borders, to support the world’s poor, stemming from a belief in care for others and freedom from oppression. There is an action plan to support renewable energy for the sake of sustainable growth and preservation of our environment against climate change; again, this is about care for others, our future generations, and an instinct for sanctity. There is even a desire for preservation, so Scruton need not fear: ideas are proposed to maintain our world-class universities, for example.

The Conservative Party cannot be simplistically nostalgic and unbending, persistently stomping on the brake pedal. It needs to delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society: this is the paramount purpose of modernisation. If not, and Scruton’s UKIPness prevails, Conservatism will wither.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue

Jonathan Haidt speaking on the "moral roots of liberals and conservatives".

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead

Press coverage of the referendum was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts.

The pound plummeted, the Prime Minister resigned, stock markets plunged and the UK began to unravel, as did the post-1945 world order. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Isis were celebrating the Brexit vote but that didn’t stop our disgraceful national press from crowing. “Take a bow, Britain!” the Daily Mail declared. “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, ADIEU”, the Sun quipped in a headline. The Daily Telegraph proclaimed the “birth of a new Britain”.

They and others – the Express, the Morning Star, several of the Sunday papers – were claiming victory: a victory achieved after a relentless campaign of lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union that long pre-dated the referendum. Indeed, it was a campaign that began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Boris Johnson, who had been fired by the Times for making up a quotation, was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Brussels.

Johnson did not invent Euroscepticism but he took it to new levels. A brilliant caricaturist, he made his name by mocking, lampooning and ridiculing the EU. He wrote stories headlined “Brussels recruits sniffers to ensure that Euro-manure smells the same”, “Threat to British pink sausages” and “Snails are fish, says EU”. He wrote about plans to standardise condom sizes and ban prawn cocktail flavour crisps. He set up Jacques Delors, who was then the European Commission president, as a bogeyman and claimed credit for persuading Denmark to reject the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 with a Sunday Telegraph splash – “Delors plan to rule Europe” – that was seized on by the Nej campaign.

To Johnson, it was all a bit of a jape. “[I] was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive ­effect on the Tory party – and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power,” he told the BBC years later.

That many of Johnson’s stories bore scant relation to the truth did not matter. They were colourful and fun. The Telegraph and right-wing Tories loved them. So did other Fleet Street editors, who found the standard Brussels fare tedious and began to press their own correspondents to follow suit. I know this because I became the Brussels correspondent of the Times in 1999 and suffered the consequences.

Soon, a Europe of scheming bureaucrats plotting to rob Britain of its ancient liberties, or British prime ministers fighting gallant rearguard actions against an increasingly powerful superstate, or absurd directives on banana shapes, became the only narratives that many papers were interested in. They were narratives that exploited our innate nationalism, distrust of foreigners and sense of superiority. They were narratives so strong that our political leaders mostly chose to play along with them.

The EU is arrogant, bureaucratic, wasteful and meddlesome. It desperately needs reforming. But post-Boris, its great achievements – cementing peace, uniting the continent, creating the world’s largest single market, enabling its citizens to travel and live anywhere they choose, busting mono­polies, improving the environment – have gone largely unreported. Similarly ignored is that Britain has many natural allies in Europe and has enjoyed some significant successes: competition policy, free trade, eastward enlargement. The French now regard the EU as a plot to impose Anglo-Saxon economics on the continent. True, we lost the argument on the euro and the Schengen Agreement, but we won opt-outs.

With a few honourable exceptions – such as the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian – the referendum coverage was merely a supercharged version of what had gone before. It was led by the biggest broadsheet (the Telegraph), the biggest mid-­market paper (the Mail) and the biggest tabloid (the Sun). And it was based on myths: that we pay £350m a week to Brussels, that we can continue to enjoy access to the single market without freedom of movement, that millions of Turks are heading our way because their country is about to join the EU, that immigrants are destroying the NHS rather than keeping it going.

The coverage was designed to inflame xenophobia and our worst “Little England” instincts. Loughborough University found that 82 per cent of all referendum stories, adjusted for newspaper circulations, were negative. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers don’t matter any more but they do when just 635,000 votes for Remain ­instead of Leave would have averted this national catastrophe. They do when the press is a primary source of information for millions of Brits. They do when most of our papers have relentlessly portrayed the EU as the monster of Johnson’s fertile imagination, not just for a few months, but for more than two decades.

The referendum was a chance for our national press, particularly the tabloid press, to restore its standing after the phone-hacking scandal and to prove its continuing worth to the British people. Sadly, most newspapers chose wilfully to deceive, mislead and inflame. They decided to follow Johnson’s lead by peddling lies and phoney patriotism. They helped him to hoodwink the millions of poorer, less-educated Britons – those who will be the first to suffer from Brexit’s consequences – into voting against their own interests.

Johnson campaigned against a myth of his own creation, with the result that a mendacious pundit, one who achieved prominence by writing entertaining but dangerous nonsense, is the odds-on favourite to be our next prime minister.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies