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What the Tories need in their next leader

Prime Minister Theresa May. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Prime Minister Theresa May. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

October 1, 2018   5 mins

The psychological differences in political movements interest me more than ideological critiques (which is why I prefer to read a novel than a textbook). What does it mean to be a Labour supporter – what in your ‘story about yourself’ could matter so much that you’d be willing publicly to identify with Corbyn?

I’ve had a go at dissecting the Labour soul before, so it seems only fair to apply the same scalpel to the Tory id. Why am I (and millions of you) Conservative? We could argue that it’s important to control inflation and public spending on the one hand, while maximising personal liberty on the other. Those priorities map to Britain’s Conservative Party, more or less, and so they determine our vote.

That wouldn’t be a lie, but neither is it the (whole) truth. The truth is more about disposition: Toryishness feeds an addiction to something I want. Every movement has a defining politico-psychological sin. What is the Conservatives’?

Conservatism isn’t ideological, no matter how many actors-pretending-to-be-teachers crawl on to Liverpool podiums, heave themselves on to their hind legs, and squawk about neo-liberal wars on the poor. I’m a Tory for anti-ideological reasons: I will vote for whichever candidate and party is best placed to defeat socialism. Is that an addiction? I don’t think so. Conservatives shouldn’t – mustn’t – abandon the war against socialism.

Tory history is long and punctuated with reforms that hit the country like a meteor from the heavens, both in the scale of their impact and because they’re so unexpected (Conservatives? Reforming?). Think about Peel and Catholic emancipation, or Peel again, and the Corn Laws. Think about Thatcher, whose (hugely subsidised) right-to-buy policy was among the single largest transfers of wealth from the middle to the working classes. But this isn’t an addiction (as the post-Thatcher party proves only too well).

Modern Conservatism also inherits Disraeli’s paternalism. There’s a reason every generation of every party’s leadership – Left and Right – lays claim to Disraeli’s One Nation mantle, and not only because he worried about the impact of industrialisation on ‘community fabric’, making him one of Britain’s earliest SJWs. And not only because the coalition of working- and middle-class interests Disraeli fashioned has been the Tories’ most powerful ‘secret’ weapon in that ongoing war against the utopians.

No. One Nation is potent because to adopt it as a guiding principle is to reject the sectarianism on display from Labour since Blair was banished by Brown. You can govern in the interests of Britain or you can govern as the plaything of McCluskey and Stop The War. You most certainly cannot do both.

But the Tory mission is at risk, and for a reason that transcends specific policies. We’ll get to a solution for this in a moment, because it’s linked to our defining sin. What is Conservatism, stripped of all that history? Conservatism as disposition, not as a manifesto commitment. It is a sense of loss.

When I get on the 26 bus to traverse the Hackney Road, and no one else is thinking in English: I feel loss. When I have to interrupt a conversation in Turkish conducted on the shopkeeper’s mobile phone, a shopkeeper who neither speaks to me nor makes eye contact while I buy the cats their tuna fish: I feel loss. When I read about the diminished size of our military, or when I shrivel to my minimal physical volume in a tube carriage stuffed beyond capacity: I feel loss.

Such a sense is uniquely Tory, I think, and as alien to George Osborne as it is to Jonathan Portes, which is why urban liberals, of whichever party, dismiss such sentiment as ‘nativism’. They’re wrong, calamitously so for liberalism – the feeling that we’ve lost something good which we once took for granted – is nothing to do with dislike of individuals. I don’t want to return to the 1950s, however much I yearn for more civilized public transport; but I would like back something of the ‘common sense of belonging’, an attribute of cultures that are more homogeneous than Britain in 2018.

A heightened sense of loss has its uses. It blocks reckless reform (“What if this new paradise you seek to build, comrade, what if it’s not worth the crushed bones and smashed dreams, and ultimately leaves us, you know, less happy?”)

But the near-tangible air of loss which colours the Tory soul has toxic electoral consequences: the sense that we’re looking backwards to a Britain which has gone prevents the party from speaking to the people, and being heard by those people – the Britons whose families arrived here in the waves of immigration since the Second World War – whose support is required to protect the anti-socialist mission into the future.

I say: “I regret the loss of homogeneity in the town where I live.” A black neighbour might hear: “You wish my family hadn’t moved here.” I say: “One Nation is my guiding political principle.” A colleague whose grandmother was born in the Indian subcontinent might hear: “That’s just cover for nativist prejudice, mate, turning a blind eye to institutional injustice.” This is a problem for Conservatism that won’t go away without positive action.

So take some. The party that had the first Jewish leader, the first female Prime Minister, the second female Prime Minister: such a party knows how effective the right leader can be in changing perceptions of our movement. So the next Tory leader, and the next British Prime Minister, should have a non-white ethnic heritage.

I’m not talking about tokenism, still less about positive discrimination, which remains discriminatory, unfair and wrong, whatever adjective is applied to it. No Tory association would select candidates as talentless as Dawn Butler and Diane Abbot, for example, still less put them in the shadow cabinet.

Choosing a non-white leader would be a tactical response to the problem of the anti-Tory cultural hegemony. Conservatives used to ‘own’ institutions; now we are those same institutions’ top political target. Too many Corbynite lecturers and BBC dramatists and Church of England vicars whisper in the ears of their audiences that Tories are backward-looking, nativist, illiberal towards people who don’t look like modern Britain. I don’t believe this to be true. But it is the narrative reality.

Politics is downstream from culture. The culture has it that Tories have a problem with newer Britons. Our addiction to nostalgia makes this caricature hard to shake off. This is translating into a political headache which increases the probability of the worst and most socialist administration the country would ever have seen.

So defy nostalgia, and elect a leader who makes that defiance clear. Change the political narrative about Conservatives and modern Britain, and not only would Corbyn’s rancid pack of sectarian haters be crushed; some of the ‘upstream’ damage in our institutions to the long-term health of the centre-Right would be unwound.

As I write, news is breaking that Shaun Bailey has been selected by London Tories as our candidate against Sadiq Kahn. That won’t be an easy fight, but the election just got interesting, and a large part of Khan’s campaign strategy – the narrative he would tell about his Tory opponent – just vanished into thin air. (The attacks on Bailey from Labour will be disgusting – the odious Emma Dent Coad MP already referred to him as a “token ghetto boy”, a phrase racist enough for all but a Corbynite to be expelled from public life. The Left’s hatred of black Tories, like its hatred of gay Tories, is instructive.)

Now imagine what Sajid Javid could do to Jeremy Corbyn in a general election. Colour-blind meritocratic Tory instincts about candidate selection have led to a parliamentary talent pool that could destroy Labour’s inimical narrative about our party with a glance. We will not be defined by our sense of loss. Look at the sky; the air is fizzing: one of those rare Tory meteors may be about to hit the earth.

Graeme Archer is a statistician and writer.


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