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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser