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Whatever happened to Theresa May’s politics of the “common good”?

Many in her inner circle were disdainful of libertarian free market dogmas. 

When I interviewed Theresa May in February she quoted – or rather, more accurately, paraphrased – Edmund Burke. This piqued my interest. Before meeting May in Downing Street, I’d had several wide-ranging conversations with her joint chief-of-staff Nick Timothy about attempts being made inside No 10 to remake Conservatism for our age of upheaval. Timothy, Will Tanner and others who had gathered around May were disdainful of libertarian free market dogmas.

They wanted to create a national popular politics that would attract the working classes in large numbers. These “post-liberal” Mayites weren’t sympathetic to socialism. But their politics was more communitarian than the insouciant liberalism espoused by the Cameroons.

I carried the spirit of my conversations with Timothy into the Prime Minister’s office and, to her credit, she made a decent attempt at articulating a new Conservative politics of the “common good”. At one point, I asked what kind of conservative she was. She looked bewildered. “I’m a Conservative,” she replied, as if no more needed to be said. But it did, it really did, as we discovered during the election campaign.

Searching for purpose

The Conservative party conference in Manchester was generally considered to have been a disaster. The general election result and the rise of Corbynism have spooked the Tories. I kept meeting MPs who were ravaged by doubt: what is our purpose, they asked, what are we for?

Anxiety creates opportunity, however, and behind the scenes and at fringe events, there was some serious thinking being done. The most stimulating event I attended was organised by Dean Godson’s Policy Exchange and it asked: “Is the intellectual momentum all with the left?”

The speakers were the philosopher Roger Scruton, the former Prospect editor David Goodhart, the MPs George Freeman and Nicky Morgan, as well as the ubiquitous Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has the gift of making people smile as soon as he opens his mouth and who seems to be enjoying his new-found fame.

Of the speakers, only Rees-Mogg expressed admiration for Jeremy Corbyn. He said that a “golden thread” of principle ran through everything the Labour leader said. The Tories, by contrast, had become “complacent”. They believed that socialism had been “defeated” and that the consensus – “Thatcherism tempered by Blairism” – was enduring. This would not do. Rees-Mogg wanted a politics of principle, which for him amounted to a hard Brexit, unrestrained free market economics and social conservatism (he did not mention his position on abortion).

Only Scruton – after some high-flown romantic disquisitions on the legitimacy of representative democracy – seemed prepared to acknowledge that something fundamentally was wrong with capitalism. He appealed for a patriotic and cultural conservatism that reached out to “ordinary people” but also “qualified” capitalism. 

Courting controversy

The last time I’d seen Scruton was one recent morning in a ticket queue at Kemble station in Gloucestershire. I was surprised to hear him ask for an OAP’s concession. I’d always considered Scruton to be a young fogey and now here he was as a fully-fledged pensioner. It occurred to me that I’d not actually spoken to him in person since interviewing him in his rooms at Albany, in London’s Piccadilly, when I worked on the Times in the late Nineties.

His politics were not mine, but as a student I used to read him – his books on the history of western philosophy, aesthetics, and the metaphysics and ethics of Kant – and he was an interesting editor of the Salisbury Review, which became notorious when it published an article by a Bradford headmaster called Ray Honeyford who was alarmed by multiculturalism and the ghettoisation of Asian Muslim children. The controversy forced Honeyford, who was accused of racism, into early retirement. In hindsight, he understood that educating children to embrace cultural and linguistic separation would undermine social cohesion.

A nation adrift

Clive James wrote recently about seeing the American comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello die on stage in Sydney in the 1950s. “The two stars, who had done this sketch 1,000 times, produced their lines with fluency for the first five minutes, but after that the silence got to them and they lost control of their tongues, their breathing… The fear they projected is with me yet, but they were pros, so they didn’t run. It would have been better if they had, because this was their primary material. What happened when they reached their secondary material is not to be described. I saw a man in tears. It was Costello.”

I was present for Theresa May’s speech in Manchester and it was poignant to watch her struggle: you could say she died up there on that stage. May is a pro and she did not run. But I think I saw fear in her eyes as her voice dried up and her words fragmented. A year earlier, in Birmingham, she had been so dominant, as during her triumphalist speech she denounced both the libertarian right and the socialist left and took aim at deracinated cosmopolitans. A year later, she seemed terribly lost.

The day before her big speech I watched as May was rushed like a fugitive from her car and into the Hilton hotel at Deansgate. She was preternaturally pale and seemed haunted, even hunted. She was not enjoying this. She was enduring it – out of ambition but also out of a stubborn sense of duty, admirable in its way. I wrote in the summer that hers had become the masochism premiership. Now, in the autumn, she seems to have no greater purpose than to occupy the crease and take the blows. It is joyless. And this joylessness is affecting not only her fractured party but the morale of the nation, which feels leaderless and adrift. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist