Editor’s Note: The triumph of the know-nothing Right

What Edmund Burke called “just prejudice” has been replaced by the unjust prejudice of an ideological and anti-intellectual right-wing political and media culture. 

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In 1975 Paul Johnson published a provocative New Statesman piece in which he lamented the “disintegration of Labour’s intellectual left”. A former NS editor, Johnson was moving right and would become an ardent Thatcherite and pro-Tory polemicist. But in 1975 he knew change was coming and believed that “without a struggle, with complacency, almost with eagerness”, the Labour left had delivered itself, “body, mind and soul, into the arms of the trade union movement”. He went on: “Part of the price [the Labour left] has paid for its alliance with the trade union bosses has been the enforced adoption of a resolutely anti-intellectual stance.” Anyone who demurred was “an elitist”. “Elitist,” Johnson wrote, “has become the prime term of abuse on the syndicalist Left.” He was alarmed by the anti-intellectualism of a movement that had once embraced intellectuals. It was the triumph of the “know-nothing Left” and Labour’s wilderness years were upon it.

Today the right is, similarly, in the grip of a brutalising anti-intellectualism, with expertise traduced and Remainers scorned as “elitist”. What Edmund Burke called “just prejudice”, the accumulated wisdom of past generations, has been replaced by the unjust prejudice of a hyper-partisan, ideological and anti-intellectual right-wing political and media culture. The leader of the new know-nothing right is Boris Johnson, and he’s likely to be our next prime minister.

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I was asked recently by Fraser Nelson to write the Spectator Diary. The magazine had published a dozen pieces on what it called the “Scruton Affair” (see our readers’ editor’s report for context, 3 May) and this was an exercise in mischief-making. And yet, I almost accepted the invitation because it offered an opportunity to address Spectator readers from the inside, plus Nelson had been kind about us: “The Statesman is an excellent magazine, never better due to Jason Cowley’s editorship,” he tweeted. Which felt a bit like being patted affectionately on the head by the school bully after he’s just punched you in the stomach.

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Is the Spectator part of the know-nothing right, as Gerry Hassan, a Scottish writer, and Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books, have suggested? I don’t think so. It has good books pages and some fine columnists – Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Charles Moore, Alex Massie, Roger Alton – but it isn’t offering intellectual leadership and it is guilty of indulging what Mishra calls the “frat boy right” (including climate change deniers), whose chief purpose is to goad liberals. And why doesn’t it challenge more rigorously rather than indulge the idiocies of Boris Johnson, its former editor?

I began reading the Spectator in 1989, the summer of my graduation, when I used to spend long afternoons in Harlow library reading the kind of magazines public libraries can no longer afford to stock. What I liked about the Spectator – this was long before its embrace of right-wing identity politics – was how nearly every piece had a family resemblance, which was something to do, I think, with tone, temperament and sensibility. I remember some pieces from that period: Peregrine Worsthorne’s account of being sacked by Andrew Knight over a breakfast of two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast at Claridge’s; Dominic Lawson’s interview with Nicholas Ridley, which resulted in the latter’s resignation from the cabinet; Jock Bruce-Gardyne’s hauntingly unsentimental account of discovering that he had a brain tumour he knew would kill him – something about his fingers missing the keys as he typed. And there was an item by Charles Moore on Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover”, a poem that never ceases to move me. (Last week Moore wrote an exquisite column about his recently deceased father that reminded me of what is still good about the Spectator.)

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Nowadays the political writers I admire most – Orwell, Burke, John Gray, David Brooks, Michael Sandel – are border stalkers, neither of the left nor right but unpredictable in their positions, non-ideological and sceptical of all utopian schemes. But these are hyper-partisan times: the conservative mind in Britain, as Robert Saunders writes in our cover essay this week, is closing and ideology has replaced ideas. The Conservative leadership contenders pontificate about a no deal Brexit. They talk nonchalantly of proroguing parliament, of slashing corporation and income taxes, of rolling back government, and so on.

With the exception of Rory Stewart, a scholarly eccentric, and Jesse Norman, a biographer of Burke who is not even in the contest but acts as if he is, they have nothing to say about the urgent need to remoralise our politics. And they don’t seem to be particularly conservative: they seldom speak about tradition, institutional wisdom, community, culture, social justice, or the cohesion and harmony of the kingdom. What obsesses them is freedom in the abstract. The cant phrase “one nation” is used, but of which nation do they speak? England? Scotland? The (dis)United Kingdom?

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In America and France, by contrast, the mood is different, and, despite Trumpism, there is something of a conservative revival taking place, away from the big parties. In the US, American Affairs, a quarterly journal whose editor Julius Krein visited our offices this week, and the Niskanen Center, a think tank, are just two of the many serious institutions that are attempting to challenge the hegemony of the libertarian right while also opening up new possibilities for conservatism. But, in this country, the Conservative Party is bereft of ideas. Its mind is closing. It is losing the will to conserve. Moderates are being hounded or deselected. The know-nothings are dominant. And Boris Johnson is heading for Downing Street.

Jason Cowley has been shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize for journalism

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 appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind