“Tonight the world’s eyes are on Washington,” declared Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis recently, referring to the abortion debate currently going through America’s Supreme Court. No doubt, in the dark forests of the Ituri, Twa hunters paused their age-old stalking of game to deliberate on Mississippi’s new legislation; in the glittering skyscrapers of Shanghai and Guangzhou, the Chinese economy ground to a halt as industrialists awaited Amy Coney Barrett’s contentious deliberation; high in the mountains of Bolivia, peasant farmers abandoned their timeless struggle with the frigid Andean soil, huddling in their villages to confer on what this could all mean for America’s women.
Obviously this is a fantasy, like most British political commentary. It is Britain’s political comment class alone who are so destructively enamoured of the political theatre of a distant foreign country that American news crowds out our own in the battle for attention. Yet this colonised mindset is only true of a specific shade of American politics: an identitarian left-liberal strand tailor-made for our mid-Atlantic Twitter class.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Londoners rioted in protest against policing in Minnesota, and our increasingly deranged discourse is directly cut-and-pasted from US models. But the twists and tangles of American conservative politics are more or less unknown territory in our own semi-digested imperial province.
A clear example of this dynamic can be found in the rise of what some term America’s New Right, well-documented in a critical but fair and accurate portrayal by the Left-wing New Republic’s Sam Adler-Bell. An uneasy alliance of state-capitalist National Conservatives, post-liberals and Catholic Integralists, the New Right “wants to see Republicans abandon their fealty to free-market dogmas, embrace traditional Christianity, and use the levers of state power to wage the culture war for keeps”.
Like younger conservatives in Britain, a young New Right writer quoted by Adler-Bell observes that “we have to think of ourselves as counter-revolutionaries or restorationists who are overthrowing the regime”, as the conservatism of their elders has simply failed in its essential task: “there’s not a lot left to conserve in the contemporary state of things. There are things that need to be destroyed and rebuilt.”
The parallels with Britain are clear. In America, the conservative establishment has “ossified into a decadent, self-dealing oligarchy” that has adopted “the moral heresies of so-called wokeness and [clings] to the rotted corpse of the Reaganite consensus”. The conservative old guard “‘just want to run the greatest hits of 1984 over and over again”.
Surveying our own Conservative scene, we see the same dismal picture: the potential challengers to Boris’s rapidly waning authority include Rishi Sunak, a free marketeer crippled under the weight of his Treasury Brain, and Liz Truss, gleefully capering around in one of the Army’s remaining tanks in homage to Thatcher, keeping alive a Tory cargo cult that should have died decades ago. The Tories possess the single electoral benefit of not being the Labour Party: but they have no coherent vision of the good, and offer little to any forward-thinking conservative.
Why is this the case, given the total Americanisation of British politics? Why do the intellectual currents revolutionising the American Right here remain a mere object of curiosity to an idiosyncratic minority of conservative thinkers?
It is hard not to think that Thatcherism has played a major role in the intellectual debilitation of the British Right: the ideas that most animate the party faithful are the same ones put into practice, overwhelmingly disastrously, forty years ago. The free-market think tanks which cluster around CCHQ are still trying to realise the fever-dreams of fin-de-siècle Vienna intellectuals. The Tory party remains trapped in the long 20th century, weighed down by corporate boomers and their lobbyist hirelings. Indeed, the paucity of Conservative Party thought today is such that there is more value in adapting Marxist analysis to Tory ends than in reading anything excreted from the party ecosystem.
As a result, Conservative MPs whine about ‘wokeness’ on Twitter instead of using their parliamentary majority to repeal the raft of New Labour legislation that foisted a Blairite shadow government on the country; the dense web of state-funded quangos, NGOs and bureaucrats that sets the tone of British political discourse and frustrates Tory policy at every turn. No wonder Tories win elections and yet are amazed they can’t change Britain’s political culture: they waste their energy fighting the symptoms while subsidising the causes.
In Britain, the obvious target of an equivalent conservative counter-revolution would be against the destructive innovations of New Labour, whose zombie ideology, rejected by voters a decade ago, still commands the cultural heights. This is what the purported “culture war” means, at heart, which explains the horror expressed by every ageing broadsheet commentator who claims that revoking legislation brought in ten years ago is an assault on the venerable British Constitution comparable only to fascism.
A swift path to victory is possible, not least by halting the overproduction of downwardly mobile elites New Labour embedded into British society like a retreating army laying delayed-action bombs. Even Blair himself, rising flowing of mane and leathery of skin from his political tomb once again, recognises the problem of his own deranged political children, without accepting any of the blame.
But the Tories ultimately don’t want to win the culture war. Instead, they’ll keep it grinding on until the last boomer dies in the last nursing home, as long as it keeps the shires blue for another decade. A ruthlessly efficient machine for winning and holding power, the Conservative Party simply has no idea what to do with power once it has it, and thrusts it at its enemies like a hot brick.
The fundamental problem facing the Conservatives is this: largely as a result of its own policies it will soon run out of voters. Younger voters, millennials and zoomers, are not aliens with strange and inexplicable desires: they want their own homes, secure jobs, good pay and the ability to form families.
The Labour Party, at its best, offers much of this. But it also offers much else that is terrible, including an unhinged identity politics repellent to ordinary voters even in the America of its birth, let alone in the very different cultural and demographic context of an Early Modern kingdom in northwestern Europe. Given the choice between boring, effective socialism and American-imported identity politics, it will always choose the latter. There is simply no way forward with the Labour Party that currently exists; its front bench is effectively a mindless golem swayed by the Twitter fads of the moment.
Much of the energy of the young New Right, like that of the millennial socialist Left, derives from online debate on social media, which has radicalised politics away from an ailing and effectively dead centre. For both factions, it is an intra-elite competition, aiming to seize control of sclerotic party structures to win the support of the masses for their respective revolutionary projects. Like millennial socialism, the New Right represents the political battlegrounds of the near future: both share revolutionary dissatisfaction with the status quo, and both share the desire to win the coming ideological battle. The Nineties Third Way is dead, and whatever replaces it will shape the coming decades.
Whatever the angst about it from ageing commentators, in Britain, as in America, all younger conservatives are shaped and influenced by the discourse of the online Right, just as younger Leftists are shaped by the internecine squabbles and identity fundamentalism of the online Left. In Britain, however, our ruling Conservatives seek to quash the only intellectually interesting expression of youthful conservative thought through their campaign against online anonymity: they may be incapable of preventing Islamists stabbing MPs to death, but they’ll pull out all the stops to stop you complaining about it online.
As in Britain, in America the proponents of the new conservatism of the common good are largely Catholic, though they less often display the convert’s zeal that characterises their more pugnacious American equivalents. In Britain, this tendency largely adheres to Blue Labour rather than the Conservative party — a situation I have previously argued is not tenable. Theoretically, the division between the American New Right’s China-inflected state capitalism and Blue Labour’s socialist heritage is a point in favour of the British variant: we have, after all, a viable and only-recently destroyed tradition of nationalised industry and utilities, still popular with voters, that Americans do not. But alas, our post-liberals lack the killer instinct, meekly submitting their tweed-encircled necks to the culture war knife, merrily quoting Chesterton all the way to the scaffold block.
But the ultimate downfall of any Tory counter-revolution is the absence of any infrastructure for nurturing a new wave of conservative thought. In the US, as Adler-Bell notes, a lavishly-funded constellation of goodies are offered to young conservatives, from think tanks that ‘“identify, educate, and credential” a new generation of staffers and bureaucrats to the fellowships that “have long played a role in shaping the next generation of right-wing elites.” In effect, as he jokes, “all this conservative foundation money slushing around functions as a ‘welfare state’ for lacklustre writers and scholars”.
In Britain, this conservative infrastructure to bring in new blood and new ideas simply does not exist; they’d send our equivalents to Prevent. Indeed, the only money sloshed around by the Conservative apparatus is for huckster resellers of PCR tests and for a cultural and NGO blob which hates conservatism in all its forms.
The Tories profess to believe in the magic wisdom of the free market while subsidising their political enemies, and affecting perplexity at the results: their vision of the glorious past extends no further than the early 1980s. The British political Right still views the state with fear and loathing, with Tory MPs happier snuffling around for crumbs from boardroom tables than exerting the executive power granted to them by the public. The American New Right, by contrast, aims to use the power of the state, the most powerful tool available to any politician, to effect a conservative counter-revolution.
Ultimately, the Conservative party shrinks from the vast power the British constitution affords the executive, which can radically reshape Britain for the better and cement Tory rule for another generation. For all its many faults, the Labour Party does not. And when it eventually returns to government it will surely use the state’s power to bury Toryism for good, just as Blair and Brown managed to allow Tories to keep winning elections yet to keep failing at delivering the basic governance demanded by their voters.
The American New Right may well warrant some scepticism: whatever its populist leanings, its electoral manifestations are largely a project of Silicon Valley donors, after all, and the disbelief of the American Left that the country’s Right can ever be swayed from corporate capitalism may well be accurate. Yet it is surely correct about one thing: the party that learns to use the state effectively will be able to reshape the nation in its image. Perhaps we should be paying attention to America after all.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe