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17 November 2023

Conservatism’s cult of common sense

The Tories’ set the terms of British politics – to the common expense of all.

By Samuel Earle

During Alice’s adventures in Through the Looking Glass, she meets Humpty Dumpty, a haughty egg that bamboozles her with nonsensical questions. He seizes a book from her hands and then – without knowing how to read it – declares: “Well, there’s glory for you!” Alice doesn’t recognise the expression, but Humpty Dumpty explains that it means “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you”. When Alice points out that “glory” actually means something else, Humpty Dumpty won’t hear it. “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less,” he states. “The question is,” Alice responds, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Through the looking glass in Britain, the Conservatives have all the power of Humpty Dumpty: words can mean whatever they want them to mean. Emboldened by the right-wing press, they set the terms of British politics – what counts as patriotic, what counts as prejudice, what counts as sound government policy. Perhaps nothing better reflects their definitional power than their hold on one treasured term in particular: “common sense”. This phrase, long a feature of the party’s playbook, has now been elevated to a quasi-ministry, to be led by the veteran Tory MP Esther McVey – a “plain-speaking northerner”, in the words of a colleague. McVey, now a former GB News presenter, has become Britain’s “minister for common sense”.

“The Prime Minister asked me to join his government to help bring about the common-sense changes the country needs,” McVey said in a statement for GB News on Wednesday (15 November), as she resigned from her position with the channel. “I don’t think it is a coincidence that when the prime minister looked for a champion for common sense he selected someone from GB News – the home of common sense.” GB News is also the home of Ofcom breaches: there are currently 12 ongoing investigations into the channel, which launched in 2021 and lets various Conservative MPs cosplay as news anchors, along with four confirmed transgressions of the regulator’s impartiality rules. Partly in response to this negative attention, GB News terminated its contract with the “anti-woke cleric” Calvin Robinson, whose popular show Calvin’s Common Sense Crusade frequently drifted towards conspiracy theories, such as scepticism about vaccines and references to the post-Covid “great reset”. Apparently it included too much “common sense” even for GB News.

McVey’s brief will reportedly consist of rescuing Whitehall from the spread of woke ideas. But even before the plague of wokeness arrived on Britain’s shores, and even before the word “woke” existed, Conservatives positioned themselves as common-sense crusaders. In 2001, its leader William Hague called for a “common-sense revolution”. Ten years later, as the Tories pursued austerity, Britain’s future foreign secretary David Cameron declared: “Let this be our message – common sense for the common good.” Boris Johnson, now an anchor at GB News, often invoked the term as prime minister, even declaring that “common sense” was the “single greatest weapon” against coronavirus (a claim that sits uneasily next to the allegation that he wanted to inject himself with Covid live on television to prove its harmlessness).

In the summer of 2020, a group of Tory backbenchers launched the “Common Sense Group”, trumpeting a new finding that 84 per cent of the public agree with the statement: “We need to restore some common sense in this country.” Liz Truss was declared their “common-sense champion” later that year, and, during her successful (of sorts) campaign for the leadership in 2022, Truss was endorsed by Suella Braverman as “a champion for common-sense conservative values”. Rishi Sunak also described his approach as “common-sense Thatcherism” (pressing all the Tories’ buttons at once) and, in a four-minute video on Britain’s supposedly “out of control” immigration, warned “that basic human decency must be accompanied by hard-headed common sense.”

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[See also: Why the Tory right keeps losing]

So, what does common sense mean? Just what Conservatives choose it to mean: deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda; crashing the economy; enriching their chums; letting Covid “rip”; slashing the public safety net so that poverty and homelessness soar; and so on. In the Tories’ self-image, none of this is ideological: only the left are guided by “ideas”. Conservatives simply draw from Britain’s customs, traditions and – of course – good old-fashioned “common sense”. Despite “common sense” being profoundly abstract, “common sense” rhetorically grounds Conservative thought in the everyday and appeals to a band of politicians who, as I have written before, rarely have much “common” about them – a thread that ties the likes of Sunak, Johnson and Cameron to the “common man”, while casting their opponents as out-of-touch elites/loony lefties and conveniently eliding all economic divides. The party’s current obsession with curtailing trans rights belongs to the same strategy. “We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be,” Rishi Sunak said in his conference speech, as he ignored the cost-of-living crisis entirely. “They can’t. A man is a man and a woman is a woman – that’s just common sense.”

The Conservatives’ prizing of common sense reveals their populist impulse. The concept’s faux-humility and anti-intellectualism – implying that Conservatives share the views of ordinary people without needing to elucidate what they are – stages an imaginary consensus, to which the Tories are uniquely attuned. As I have suggested elsewhere, when Michael Gove called on the British public to ignore all the economists cautioning against Leave during the Brexit referendum – “I’m asking them to trust themselves” – he was not betraying the Tory tradition but continuing it. “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts,” the former prime minister Lord Salisbury said in 1877. “They all require to have their strong wine diluted by a large mixture of common sense.”

But it says something about Conservatism’s slipperiness as an ideology that the source of its populism also contains the seed of its elitism. When instinct is elevated over expertise, the quality of governing becomes ineffable: the key is not hard work, training or knowledge, but something more elusive. Hence one of the most controversial components of Conservatism: the idea that some people are born to rule. Tories make this claim out loud today, but it was revealing that, when David Cameron was asked why he wanted to be prime minister, he replied: “Because I think I’d be good at it.” It isn’t hard to imagine what might have given Cameron – a third-generation (or sixth-generation, on his mother’s side) Etonian, the great-great-grandson of slave owners, with distant relatives and family friends in both the Conservative Party and the royal palace – that impression. Charles Moore, the former editor of the Telegraph and Spectator, once explained to me the underlying logic with disarming directness, and it’s worth quoting in full:

“A lot of people of a Conservative cast of mind would tend to see the relevant qualities of leadership as being inherited in a genetic way. The upper classes would compare it with animal breeding, like racehorses or hounds. The studbook of thoroughbred horses goes back to the 18th century – they all descend from the Darley Arabian in the early 1700s, I think – and you can trace every single horse all the way back there, otherwise they are not thoroughbred. In their mind there would be something like that for the people in which the right qualities, both by nature and nurture, are encouraged… Even now, they think about it more than you might imagine. In some ways it’s reinforced by modern science because of what we’ve learned about genes, so there’s something there, and there’s something in the way of thinking of Conservative people.”

Leaving aside Moore’s unsettling reference to genetics and “modern science”, which might not speak for all Tories, the cult of “common sense” and born-to-rule ideas aren’t only imposed from above: they resonate with a certain national sensibility, a hostility to ideas and intellectualism, a resistance to political doctrines, a deference to tradition. The notion that the English are a plain-speaking people goes back a long way. “We belong,” the Economist wrote in April 1848, “to a race which, if it cannot boast the flowing fancy of one of its neighbours [the Irish] nor the brilliant esprit of the other [the French], has an ample compensation in the solid, slow, reflective, phlegmatic temperament which has saved us from so many errors, spared us so many experiments and purchased for us so many real, though uncomplete and unsystematic blessings.” This notion contributed to the Labour Party not including the word “socialist” in its name, unlike workers’ movements elsewhere in Europe in the late 19th century. It also cultivates the glamour of backwardness and ironic self-deprecation that envelopes Britain’s anachronistic democracy: no written constitution, an unelected upper chamber, a tax-funded monarchy – what are we like!?

This sensibility isn’t all bad. There is a romance in the cobwebs of Britain’s institutions. Few other places in the world offer their citizens such a reassuringly timeless identity, the chance to cast oneself back to the dawn of time, confident that, as Vera Lynn once sang, “There’ll Always Be an England”. For citizen and tourist alike, it is hard not to feel small next to the agedness and anachronism of it all. Perhaps it has even brought some practical blessings. George Steiner, the German-Jewish literary critic who lived in Cambridge, described Britain as a “land blessed with a powerful mediocrity of mind. It has saved you from communism and it has saved you from fascism. In the end you don’t care enough about ideas to suffer their consequences.” But if there was once something to this, today Britain suffers only the consequences of this contrivance: the Conservatives’ fundamental unseriousness in government – their self-interest anchored only by an amorphous “common sense”, free from any formal checks and balances – has delivered 13 calamitous years for all but some wealthy donors and solipsistic homeowners.

In 2010, shortly before the Conservatives returned to power, George Osborne warned Labour that “when people ask the famous question ‘are you better off than you were five years ago?’, this will be the first election in modern British history when the answer from the government must be no”. Since then, the Conservatives have led Britain into three such elections, and seem certain to make it four. The Tories have triumphed – at Britain’s common expense. In Through the Looking Glass, when Alice states that “the question is whether you can make words mean so many different things”, Humpty Dumpty nonsensically replies: “The question is which is to be master, that’s all.” Now there’s glory for you.

[See also: Clemens Meyer’s lessons from history]

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