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Thirteen wasted years
Can the New Conservatives offer any hope?
There’s a catchphrase on Twitter, ‘13 years of Tory government’ or sometimes just ‘13 years’, tweeted with a sense of resignation over each new revelation about the state of the nation. There have been Conservatives in Downing Street since May 2010 and in that time almost all the country’s institutions have moved sharply to the left, in part because of legislation like the Equality Act (2010) which the Tories have not even attempted to repeal. The Government seems unable to do anything about issues its natural supporters care about – such as law and order – and in other instances – especially immigration – actively conspire against their voters’ wishes.
Most attention-grabbing, although far less materially pressing than the house price inflation which they’ve also failed to address, is the spread of a radical worldview from the United States, one which upholds a blank slate theory of human nature, supports a utopian vision of equality of outcomes, and holds a Manichean view of race.
This radicalisation was starkly illustrated by the recent case of a teenage girl who was told by her teacher that her opinion of gender binaries was ‘despicable’. As Douglas Murray pointed out at the time, ‘Every year of her life has been lived under a Conservative government.’
This the Tory establishment seems completely unconcerned with. For some Conservatives, such a worldview shouldn’t be challenged by ‘starting culture wars’, while others proudly proclaim themselves as woke — suggesting they either do believe in those ideas, or don’t understand what the word means, both of which makes you wonder how they ended up as Tory MPs (let alone PM).
Not so Danny Kruger, the Devizes MP who has no such conscientious objection about fighting a culture war. As he says in his new book, Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation: ‘The culture war… is a religious conflict about the right gods to worship. As such, it is more than a series of skirmishes for the tokens of identity, for flags and statues and the history curriculum. It is a battle for the strongholds of society itself, and for the future we are creating, or destroying, for our children.’
Kruger is considered one of the most influential Tory backbenchers, recently featuring in the New Statesman’s top 50 Right-wing power list, where he was described as being ‘at the heart of an influential strain of Tory thinking: post-liberalism. These Tories, who dominated the National Conservatism conference in May, yearn for a return to faith (both in God and Britain), stable families, household economics and local attachments. If Britain is to thrive again, Westminster must support the institution of marriage, the formation of families, and combating evils such as hardcore pornography.’
In a profile for the same magazine Kruger told Will Lloyd that ‘The moral condition of England is worse, by which I mean morale, not just virtue. People’s well-being and happiness has decreased… We’re sadder, lonelier and more anxious.’ Asked whether this was partly the fault of the Conservatives, Kruger agreed: ‘We have left the country less united, less happy and less conservative.’
He thinks that too many Conservative MPs ‘feel that the culture wars are an annoying distraction’ and is not bothered if things are ‘a good look.’ He describes George Osborne as a ‘very able Whig’ and Cameron as ‘too easily beguiled by the easy narrative of progress and liberalism’, while Boris Johnson had ‘a real reluctance to alienate people he might be having dinner with’.
The ideas of the ‘New Conservative’ group of which Kruger is a member definitely do alienate a lot of dinner party guests, in particular the argument about children raised by two married biological parents, made by Kruger and his ally Miriam Cates. This is certainly backed up by all the available social science data, although how the state encourages that in a compassionate way is a harder path to negotiate; yet even this statement of the obvious inspires a great deal of anger and resistance in a way that economic issues do not (as a general rule, the closer a political argument relates to people’s reproductive system, the more fraught and emotional).
Kruger’s book doesn’t go into policy details, rather it is a short reflection on the philosophy of the Burkean movement within a party that has long been an alliance of liberals and conservatives. That alliance worked quite well for a while, but has come under greater strain as liberalism itself has gone into decline.
Kruger’s answer is a society based on covenants, the covenant being something willingly embraced and sacred, ‘built not on reason but on love’ and ‘artificial brotherhood’. (Like the fictive kinship of Ibn Khaldun.)
While liberalism tends to be transactional, he writes that ‘A covenant is a way of expressing and formalising the love – unconditional, unstinting, permanent – that can exist between people who are unrelated by blood. The foundational social covenant is marriage, the union of two unrelated people that forms the nucleus of a new blood relationship, a family. Other covenants, less obvious and discrete, work in the same way.’
Outside of the family, the community — parish — and the nation are similarly built on a covenant: ‘In each of these covenants, something real is acknowledged: an elemental and important thing is honoured, made safe and put to a social purpose. The goal of the marriage covenant is to make sex safe — to reduce its capacity to wreck relationships and produce unwanted babies — making it the foundation of a family. The covenant of place, the local arrangement of civil society, honours the land, and makes on a patch of earth a community that regulates and, through local economic activity, sustains itself. And the covenant of statehood, in Burke’s phrase, “makes power gentle, and obedience liberal”: it tames the fact of violence, the capacity of the strong to dominate the weak, and so creates a nation, which is something not merely to fear but to be loyal to, even to fight and die for.”’
Just as families are made by marriage, human communities ‘are made by the covenants of civil society, the formal and informal institutions and associations through which the people of a neighbourhood achieve agency and belonging. Nations, meanwhile, are formed by the covenant of statehood, the mysterious complex of powers, ceremonies and institutions in which a people recognise, authorise and confess allegiance to their country.
‘And the cost of nationhood, aside from the compulsions of tax-paying and law-abiding that are expected of the citizen, is deference to the past, and to the historic culture of these islands: within the natural constraints of a culture that does not go in much for boasting and flag-waving, and with full tolerance and respect for the many different cultures represented in our population, we need a more self- confident civic nationalism in public life.’
These covenants can only be successfully maintained if backed up by social norms. A society can be tolerant of difference, of unorthodox lifestyles and beliefs, and still have normative behaviour, and Kruger believes we should ‘design public policy around a social model that works best for most people. Instead of structuring society around the life of a young singleton, we should organise for the conservative normative: for the married family with dependent children, with elderly parents and community obligations. We should do so not because everyone is like this or because this is the only good model of living, but because a society organised in this way will be better for everyone, including those who, by choice or circumstance, do not fit the normative pattern.’ This is certainly not what happened under the Cameron-Osborne regime and its various successors.
‘Man is a social animal, but society is a centrifuge: relationships, whether in families or communities, that are not held together by strong adhesive fall apart in time. The adhesive must be cultural and practical. We need to remind ourselves constantly, through ritual, respect and the telling of stories, why families matter. And we need to invest, through policy, in the material conditions of family life. We need to restore the economy to the oikos.’
Where many even small-c conservatives might disagree comes down to definition. Post-liberals tend to be lukewarm towards individualism but ‘individualism’ is arguably the best thing humanity has invented — and invented in England.
The development of contractual relationships heralded the end of feudalism and its replacement by a free market in land, labour and – crucially – relationships (a social revolution which made the West different.)
This is the origin of liberalism and liberalism, developing around the North Sea in the 17th century and finding its most fertile soil in the British American colonies, proved undoubtedly successful at making its citizens happier, richer and more successful than rivals.
The contractual system of liberalism began to trouble conservatives with the industrial revolution and the immense squalor and poverty that resulted; Thomas Carlyle was one of many to lament how the poor were treated worse than in the medieval period, although there was a certain amount of romanticising (rural poverty tends to be even worse, we just don’t read about it).
The result of this widespread anxiety was a combination of social reform — often against alcohol and sexual licence — and laws aimed at protecting workers and providing welfare. But the social glue also held together because the institutions Kruger cherishes — families, religious communities and the nation — were very strong in Victorian Britain.
Today all those things are weak, as is liberalism itself. Liberalism arose out of Christianity — not just the individualism that arose in the West but a desire to remove sectarianism from politics — and it’s hard to see how it can survive its decline, because tolerance is just so unnatural to our species. The Left today, including many who define themselves as liberals, lacks the characteristics traditionally associated with liberalism, including a moral grounding in Christianity, support for freedom of speech and association, and social norms based on reverence for the home, family and nation. Moral anarchy, in contrast, is inevitably going to be followed by moral tyranny, as we’ve seen since 2013.
Today’s form of anchorless sort-of liberalism also makes people deeply unhappy, discernible in the rising anxiety rates among adolescents. Entomologist E.O. Wilson famously quipped about Marxism that it was a ‘good ideology, wrong species’, something that could equally be applied to modern progressivism.
Humans, after all, are hyper-social by the standards of other mammals, hugely reliant on cultural and social norms. Small-c conservatives want to make certain lifestyles ‘normative’ while accepting and accommodating those who don’t conform. Progressives, in contrast, actively promote ‘transgressive’ lifestyles and beliefs, even as the transgressive becomes dominant and intolerant. Yet social norms aimed at promoting Kruger’s covenants of marriage, parish and nation probably do make people happier, and he quotes the New Zealand politician Norman Kirk who said that what a human being needs is ‘somewhere to live, something to do, and someone to love’.
Today’s party conference will most likely be the last the Conservatives enjoy in power for some time. Next year may prove a 1997 moment or even a Canadian-style annihilation, and what emerges for the Tory party after is unclear — but the New Conservatives will be worth watching. Who knows, we might even get a Tory government one day.