May 5, 2022

A great deal of discussion following the resignation of porn-watching Conservative MP Neil Parish has concerned sexism in Parliament, where the working culture is apparently a hotbed of pervy remarks, “noisy sex” in offices, “sex pest MPs” and vomit-spattered champagne parties.

But to me the resonant detail was less the pornography than the tractor. The search term “Dominator” is apparently a class of combine harvester, as well as having more lubricious connotations. This one word slid Parish sideways in a single click from the preoccupations of an old-fashioned Tory to the full-spectrum violence and nihilism of today’s culture of universal pornification.

And he did so in public view, scrolling pornography in the House of Commons — an act as obviously, flagrantly, socially unacceptable as walking out of your front door naked from the waist down. Ascribing behaviour this bizarre to so banal an impulse as sexism doesn’t add up.

Parish called it a “moment of madness”, but psychologists have long recognised that impulsive actions can be revealing. And if you were to read it as a cry of despair, Parish’s act would make eloquent sense — not just for him as an individual, but for those last surviving fragments of conservatism that still somehow cling on in the modern Conservative Party.

For Parish exemplifies a type of conservatism which is homeless. It is incompatible with the Tory Party today and is unrepresented in the increasingly influential “dissident Right”. For inasmuch as there is energy on the Right, it is in this febrile movement, which fizzes with energy — but is wholly estranged from the modern Tory Party, whose aggregate actions (accidentally or otherwise) look more like part of the problem than the solution.

Consider, for example, the current tussle over regulating imported Canadian beef. Canadian officials are pushing for a deal that would oblige us to accept hormone-treated meat, a practice banned by the EU in 1989 and that studies have shown uses carcinogenic chemicals. This is, for Boris Johnson, a difficult circle to square since, much like the once-again radioactive immigration debate, hormone beef pits the Party’s longstanding commitment to “free trade” (ie growth) against what’s left of the Party’s desire to conserve anything at all, including Britain’s increasingly strained and miserable (and hitherto loyally Tory) rural economy.

The online Right, meanwhile, is so internationally ebullient it’s making the New York Times anxious: it was described as ‘reactionary chic’ by Michelle Goldberg. Unlike the cringy Young Tories of old, this youthful New Right is (according to Vanity Fair) “quietly edgy and cool” in increasingly prominent circles. And it has plenty to say about farming, food standards and animal welfare.

In one of its subcultures, the distinctly fascism-tinged health movement that calls itself “raw egg nationalism”, Benjamin Braddock denounces globalisation in terms indistinguishable from a late-Nineties left-wing green activist. The “large-scale low-quality mindset” of global market capitalism, he argues, results in a “corrupted toxic food supply” that poisons both the earth and the humans who consume its products:

“Our farmers must now compete with the third world in a race to the bottom. We import farmed fish grown in sewage tanks in China and call it progress. Our free trade deals impose legal requirements on our trading partners to throw upon their doors to multinationals like Monsanto”.

And here we get to the heart of Neil Parish’s dilemma. For his party isn’t just running out of ideas. They’re running out of ways to square conservatism and growth, without making life worse for their core constituencies — and especially for the kind of rural true-blues Neil Parish both exemplifies and represents.

For most of the modern era, the Conservatives have styled themselves as the party of order, heritage and prosperity. In practice, though, their role has been to make sure the “creative destruction” of heritage that fuelled rising prosperity took place somewhere other than Tory heartlands (for example among the working class, or overseas) while the prosperity accrued to the true blue.

In the very first essay I wrote for UnHerd, just before Covid sent the world mad, I accused the Tories of sacrificing conservatism in its entirety on this altar of economic growth. And to my eye, this remains largely true today. The difficulty is that there’s very little of the cultural, ecological and economic family silver left to sell. (Privatising the Passport Office, Boris? Really?). And having run out of places to externalise its costs, the Tories are turning on the amenities and social fabric enjoyed by Tory voters themselves, in the rural British heartlands.

In this, they are more aligned than not with the progressive consensus. To illustrate, consider a by no means exhaustive list of things I’ve seen condemned lately as “problematic” or as having “shades of fascism”: farmers’ markets, going to the gym, beauty, classical architecture, talking about England before the Norman Conquest, Greek and Roman literature, gardening, sex dimorphism, punctuality, objectivity, enjoying the natural world, and mums. In other words: the stuff most ordinary people, and all ordinary conservatives, believed until about five minutes ago made life worth living.

A non-problematic world, then, must have whatever the opposite of these things is. That suggests a world that’s childless, touch-less, and relativistic, that embraces ultra-processed food, de-materialised occupations, artificial surroundings and transient, possession-less renting, and in cultural terms swims in a formless meme-soup where embodiment, memory, beauty and the natural world are your political enemies.

To capture the support of adherents to “reactionary chic”, the modern Tory Party would have to oppose this (frankly not very appealing) vision. But recent policy decisions suggest they’re at best ambivalent. They’re hopelessly confused on families and decent housing, vacillating between shoving young people into overpriced urban shoeboxes, and forcing hectares of identikit box-homes onto greenfield sites typically converted from Tory-voting farmland.

As regards literal conservation, they make faint noises about environmental subsidies for farmers. But Johnson’s government has also done its best to leave water companies free to disgorge sewage into rivers, and is sidling toward un-banning EU-banned pesticides.

Meanwhile, the Brexit so triumphantly delivered by Johnson’s administration is proving (to say the least) a frightening time for British farmers. Many smaller landowners, confronted with uncertainty over post-Brexit subsidies, are selling up, accelerating a long-term trend toward consolidation in UK farming.

Where does this leave an ageing conservative such as Neil Parish? A look at his voting record suggests him to be about as close as it’s possible to get to old-school, country Toryism: tough on welfare spending and immigration, opposed to gay marriage and EU membership, with a longstanding interest in animal welfare issues and rural affairs. So there’s an eloquent irony in his searching for tractors and ending up clicking pornography in a “moment of madness”.

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han described capitalism — in other words, the Tories’ sainted value of “growth” — as “aggravating the pornographication of society by making everything a commodity and putting it on display”. Parish’s stumble from “Dominator” tractors to who knows what more titillating form of domination is evocative of the hopeless dilemma faced by such old-fashioned Tories. For a political stance capable of squaring growth with conserving anything at all is now radically untenable. Especially in farming.

Did Neil Parish resolved the quandary for himself by committing professional suicide? As bleak as it sounds, perhaps Parish’s watching of pornography in Parliament could be read as an act of pure nihilism, from someone who has grasped that a long-successful political compromise has reached the end of the line, and that the party which once defended his tribe is now devouring it. It is a gesture strongly resonant of the one now being made in droves by the farmers selling up as a consequence of Tory assent to prioritising the commodifying demands of growth over the unshakeably material nature of land-based livelihoods.

And nor does Parish have an obvious home in the “reactionary chic” subculture now busy celebrating all those problematic things like farmers’ markets, beauty, classical literature, procreation and so on (along with, in some cases, a side order of fascist aesthetics). This movement may be “edgy and cool”, and it may produce strange and sometimes agricultural fruit, from the ‘Doomer Optimist’ neo-homesteaders preparing for collapse in the USA, to the far-right “Anastasian” back-to-the-land movement in Germany.

But such experimental forms of reactionary futurism also flourish largely in the iridescent, dematerialised, borderless digital maelstrom that’s now mostly replaced the politics of places, constituencies and the material world. And there’s little room in this reality for an old-fashioned Tory with a Labrador and a family farm.

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