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Why old-fashioned Tories turn to porn Was Neil Parish's behaviour an act of pure nihilism?

Not safe for work (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Not safe for work (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)


May 5, 2022   5 mins

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.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

What I still don’t understand about this story is the bit about “watching porn in public”.
Yes, he was in public. But was his phone-screen also?
Are the contents of every MPs phone visible to others every time they look at it? To which others?

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 years ago

There’s nothing pro-growth about the Conservative Party. It has spent the last two years deliberately crushing small business and is wrecking the economy with big government and oppressive regulations particularly concerning energy.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I had to suspend my disbelief when I read this headline. Does Mary Harrington really believe that Labour leaders and supporters don’t do porn?

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

The article is specifically about old-school Tory values and how they’re devoured by capitalism/gowth fetishism, illustrated by the particular case of a Tory MP. There’s no obligation to bring in the Labour Party.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Precisely, the late Jack Dromey for example.*

(*Died January, 2022.)

Al M
Al M
2 years ago

I don’t think she does believe that and she certainly doesn’t say so. I suspect their reasons for turning to it, assuming that they do, would be quite different and would definitely not involve tractors as a precursor.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

I’ve just started reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, out of curiosity really. Its a better book than I expected, and shot through with a very serious morality about sexual relations between men and women. Its ironic that a book which is now mostly remembered for the obscenity trial, is anything but obscene, certainly compared to what is laughingly called “adult” content now.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

But this might actually be the problem – what was once considered obscene is no longer, because, just maybe, we have (or at least most of us in the West) have become coarsened by this constant feeding of “adult” content. I have always found this term “adult content” bewildering because mostly it contains the sort of stuff that an adolescent boy (and perhaps some girls) would find titillating.

Last edited 2 years ago by Linda Hutchinson
F Long
F Long
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash




Last edited 1 year ago by F Long
Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago
Reply to  F Long

Thank you – that’s a fine quotation!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“
 turn to porn”? (From the headline).

I think porn has turned to society. And it drips down into everything. One may “turn” to drugs, but one may click on porn – and be accused of having “turned” to it. Porn has gained a sheen of respectability in modern pop videos: that kids watch. (That Cardi B nonsense, for example, merely heralded a new explicitness to come, no doubt). And nobody of importance ventures to say anything about that. What a ghastly world we live in now.

“And he did so in public view”. Spoken like Mary Whitehouse! Well, at least that’s something. No stone must be left unturned in the indictment.

Tony Price
Tony Price
2 years ago

Just as contentious, ir seems to me, is the fact that he was looking at tractor sites in the House, presumably while at ‘work’ taking the Queen’s shilling. Why are MPs allowed phones at all in the Chamber?

opn
opn
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Price

He was apparently waiting to pass through the voting lobby.

Last edited 2 years ago by opn
aaron david
aaron david
2 years ago

In the States, at least, one of the issues that lead directly to Trump realigning the conservative half of politics (and causing quite the reaction on the other half) was that the Republican “leaders” had completely lost their ability to see what the party base was seeing. They had led themselves into what sounds like a similar place that the Tory leadership is now occupying. And that is not a good space to be in.
Now, I am not a Tory, nor an Englishman even, but it seems that Brexit was one more sign of how the western world was realigning itself, and how the political leaders were being left behind. That is what it was on this side of the Atlantic, and I am sure that the same forces, the failure of Globalization hinted at in this piece is a good example of which, are still churning, still need to be taken account of.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
2 years ago

Great article. The whole thing is sad more than outrageous. Sex and farming are both doomed to lose their subtlety and innocence to the march of technology. Dominators will rule in the field and the bed.

Fragmentary Gadabout
Fragmentary Gadabout
2 years ago

I mean it *might* have happened because of this convoluted, florid, over-intellectualised explanation.
Or maybe he just had urges that every man has since the beginning of time – the noonday daemons of medieval monks – and didn’t have the self-discipline to control them.
But probably not, the conclusions of some pretenious cod-literary criticsm essay must be a better explanation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Fragmentary Gadabout
Al M
Al M
2 years ago

Very entertaining essay as ever. But surely Satan’s rectangle should be banned from the chamber? Would have saved Mr Parish from making a chump of himself, that’s for sure. Not as good as Ron Davis ‘observing badgers’, but still a great moment of madness.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
2 years ago

He foolishly got caught. All MP’s and for that matter, humans, intrinsically know when they are doing something that should not be done at particular moments outside of of the confines of your home. If anything, his Sin was to not be careful enough to hide his addiction. If the value of his actual work(I don’t claim to know if he is worthy of re-election or not) is worth sacking him or not, then sack away!

rob monks
rob monks
2 years ago

You are discussing UK but it could soon be Australia as we imitate both US and UK trends: As usual entertaining and insightful.
.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’ marketsgoing to the gymbeautyclassical architecturetalking about England before the Norman ConquestGreek and Roman literaturegardeningsex dimorphismpunctualityobjectivityenjoying 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. yes, well put. this is all lacking commonsense too.

Jim R
Jim R
2 years ago

Perhaps he stumbled on a new breed of ‘dominators’ who wear pant suits and have learned far more severe (and permanent) forms of domination and humiliation than whips and handcuffs. There’s nothing sexual about such things though, right? And only men have such dark impulses to destroy other people, just for the sport of it, right?

Max Price
Max Price
2 years ago

He’d be addicted porn.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

O for the Bacchanalian days of Ancient Rome. They would find our* prurient, neurotic obsession with pornography laughable in the extreme.

(* The product of a Semitic, desert death cult, now known as Christianity.)

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC