Peter Franklin

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

June 19, 2019

“It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others, and to forget his own.”

Look up those words online and you’ll find them ascribed to Cicero (though you’d be a fool to take that as read). Whoever said it was being a tad harsh. Finding fault in others, rather than ourselves, is a peculiarly human quality.

We’re all in denial about our own faults – which is why those of others provide such a welcome distraction. All the more so, if their faults also happen to be our faults. In such a situation we can surface our flaws while also displacing them. How therapeutic!

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For Left-leaning readers of The Guardian and the New Statesman there’s some therapy to be found in a pair of essays about the ramshackle state of conservatism. I’m not saying that the authors (Andy Beckett for the Graun and Robert Saunders for the Staggers) are fools for finding fault on the Right – there’s a lot to be found there. Nevertheless, their essays are more interesting for what they inadvertently reveal about the state of the Left.

Here’s the nub of Saunders’ argument:

“British Conservatism has broken with three of its most important traditions. It has stopped thinking; it has stopped ‘conserving’; and it has lost its suspicion of ideology. Historically, the Conservative Party has been a party of ideas, but not of ideology.”

Beckett’s argument is not dissimilar, though he tackles American conservatism alongside its British counterpart (conservatism everywhere else is pretty much ignored). Like Saunders, he sees the conservative movement as intellectually moribund. Talking about free market think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic, he observes that they have “grown old together” and that their “answer to every problem has remained essentially unchanged: lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government.”

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Well, yes – it would do, because that’s what they believe in. If you look at corresponding think tanks on the centre-Left, their answer to every problem has also remained essentially unchanged: higher taxes, more regulation, bigger government. Still, it can’t be denied that this is not a golden age of conservative thought. Saunders, a historian, draws a contrast with previous, more intellectually fertile eras – such as the Tory response to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945; and, a generation later, the first stirrings of the Thatcher revolution.

Clearly, there’s nothing so momentous going on today. But then there doesn’t have to be. In the 1940s, conservatism had to be reinvented for the era of the universal welfare state. In the 1970s, with the post-war settlement coming undone, there was another great transition underway – this time to neoliberalism. Today, the failings of neoliberalism are plain for all to see, but a transition to something else is nowhere in sight.

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Beckett talks about a “revival of the radical left”, but what does this actually entail? Intellectually, the most interesting ideas on the Left in the UK and US depend on outlandish scenarios: the end of scarcity (Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism); a complete decarbonisation of the national economy in the space of just 10 years (the Green New Deal); reversing the roles of monetary and fiscal policy, so that central banks issue governments with all the money they need and taxation is used to control inflation (Modern Monetary Theory). These are fascinating speculations as to what might be possible several decades hence. But as a basis for escaping neoliberalism in the here-and-now, sci-fi socialism is a non-starter.

If the intellectual Right has nodded off, it’s because the intellectual Left is in dreamland.

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The last time the Left mounted a semi-serious challenge to the status quo was in the 1990s, under the leadership of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. That, however, was about reforming neoliberalism not replacing it, which was why the conservative rethink at the time was so half-hearted. Compared to 1945, it took the Tories twice as long to recover from the defeat of 1997.

But is Saunders right to claim that the Conservative Party has “produced no significant thinker in decades”? It rather depends on one’s definition of ‘significant.’ If one sets the bar at the speeches and pamphlets produced by Tory thinkers like David Willetts and Oliver Letwin in the 1997-2010 period, then I’d challenge anyone to name a Labour Party thinker of recent decades that could be seen as more significant. Only the heterodox Blue Labour school of thought comes anywhere near.

Saunders does give ‘Red Toryism‘ a fleeting mention and there’s a quick hit on David Cameron’s ‘Big Society‘ from Beckett. It’s sadly true that, to quote Beckett, “these visions of renewals have melted away” (as did Theresa May’s attempt in 2017). However, it’s important that we see these failures for what they are – not intellectual, but political. The culture and practice of contemporary politics is dominated by style not substance, presentation not content. The comms guru is king, not the policy wonk – and certainly not the public intellectual. Ideas like the Big Society did not fail as ideas – but because the people with actual power only ever used (and then discarded) them as gimmicks.

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Those who insist that Conservative Party never properly modernised are wrong. The Tories have not only modernised, they’ve post-modernised – and that’s the problem. They’ve adopted a style of politics in which there is no reality, only narrative. In this world, to communicate an idea is functionally equivalent to implementing it – to have it talked about is the same thing as getting it done.

Okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat – there is a level of government where gesture is set into motion, even if it doesn’t happen with much force. However, it is hard to exaggerate the extent to which the centre of power is concerned first and foremost with immediate impressions.

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The hollowing out of our political culture is not an exclusively Right-wing phenomenon. Indeed, the modern masters of spin were Bill ‘I feel your pain’ Clinton and Tony ‘pretty straight sort of guy’ Blair. The rest of the political spectrum followed where they led. One need look no further for an explanation for the dumbing down of our politics.

However, because it applies left, right and centre, it doesn’t suit a narrative of specifically conservative intellectual decline. Beckett and Saunders therefore look elsewhere for causal factors that they seem to attach to the Right alone.

For instance, Saunders believes that the Conservative Party has lost its “sense of history”:

“As the historian Kit Kowol argues, ‘Conservatives once used the past to imagine the future. Today, they are trapped by the only history many of them now know: the Second World War.’ The result is a cartoonish morality tale that privileges resolve over reflection, in which ‘every leader becomes either a Chamberlain or a Churchill, foreign policy a question of appeasement or intervention, and all difficulties capable of being overcome with a dose of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’.”

But isn’t there a Left-liberal equivalent? For instance, in crediting the EU with maintaining the peace in Europe – as if Germany might invade Alsace-Lorraine again. Or what about the dodgy parallels drawn between 21st-century populism and the 1930s? If you want Tories to stop banging on about Churchill, then perhaps lefties could stop using deadly-serious words like “fascist” and “Nazi” with such careless abandon.

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Winston Churchill is not the only Tory icon, of course – there’s Margaret Thatcher too. Saunders compares the Conservative Party to an “ageing Eighties tribute band, [flubbing] wearily through the same tired playlist, barely noticing that the stadiums are empty, the hairstyles ludicrous and the fans long departed.” Ouch! There’s more than a little truth to that, but it still leaves the Tories 10 years ahead of the Seventies leftism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. A sure sign of our inability to move on from the neoliberal era is that the Right has regressed to its heyday and the Left to before it even began.

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If nostalgia is not an exclusively Right-wing political vice, what about what Beckett calls the “modern conservative media bubble.” There’s Fox News in America, Tory tabloids in the UK – and all manner of online echo chambers. The Right’s capacity to insulate itself from inconvenient truths and challenging viewpoints can’t be good for its intellectual health.

And yet there’s a Left-wing media bubble too – and one that extends a long way into public broadcasting, academia and most of the cultural establishment. With a safe space that big, it’s easier for Left-wingers and liberals to shut themselves off from contrary opinions than it is for conservatives.

But what about Brexit? Theresa May’s is the fourth Conservative premiership to be destroyed by the Europe issue. Isn’t this evidence of a specifically Right-wing dysfunction – one that’s all set to consume the next Tory Prime Minister too.

Has the party taken leave of its senses? A movement that was all about resistance to revolutionary change is now ready to rush headlong into the unknown of a no deal Brexit. How is any of that conservative? Saunders puts it this way:

“A political tradition that once sought chiefly to conserve now resembles an apocalyptic cult, ready to torch Britain’s trade relations, parliamentary institutions and even the Union itself in order to build the New Jerusalem on their ashes.”

But hang on – who are the real revolutionaries here? Committing ourselves to a European project of ever-closer union, a single currency, loss of control over national borders, enforced austerity and the prospect of further integration within a system of laws very different from our own represents a profound discontinuity in our development as a nation. The electorate was asked whether it wished to remain within such an enterprise and more people said no than yes.

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Let’s not pretend the choice was ever between business as usual and disruptive change. The choice was always between two disruptions – either to our national sovereignty or to our trading relationships with our closest neighbours. This isn’t a dilemma that the Conservative Party chose for itself, but one it was presented with. Indeed, it is presented to us all – including the Left. By enforcing the so-called ‘four freedoms’, the European project guarantees the continuity of neoliberalism and punishes entire nations for attempting to choose a different path. Now that there is no more avoiding the issue, the Labour Party also finds itself torn apart by the dilemma.

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So, yet again, we see that intellectual crisis of the Right is a crisis for politics as a whole. The only way forward is not to focus on how badly the other side is dealing with it, but to look closer to home.

That advice applies to conservatives too, of course. As well as listening to what the likes of Andy Beckett and Robert Saunders might have to say about the crisis of the Right – they also ought to analyse what conservatives say about the crisis of the Left. As I said at the outset, we all project our deepest, unacknowledged insecurities upon others – therefore the faults we see in our enemies are the most honest guide to our own.

In this respect, the most interesting thing about conservative accounts of what ails the other side is the idea that the contemporary Left is alienating, indeed betraying, its traditional sources of support.

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That’s not wrong, but the contemporary Right is doing exactly the same – above all by allowing the dream of a property-owning democracy to die, and standing by while vested interests suck the life out of the productive economy.

As things stand, the traditional parties of Left and Right are locked in a stalemate – while haemorrhaging support to parties of protest.

Neither side will recover until they start seeing their own faults first.