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What should small-c conservatives believe?
Peter Hitchens was right all along: the Tory party needs to die
There comes a stage in a man’s life when he puts aside childish beliefs and comes to realise that Peter Hitchens was right all along — the Conservative Party needs to die. Ignoring the truth of what the great seer told us, we all just held onto hope against hope that it might actually support, you know, conservative policies, and now I finally see that there’s nothing more for it.
We’ve had 12 wasted years now, even if admittedly five of those were spent in coalition, and a year and a half dealing with Covid, while another three years were spent in limbo because of Brexit; but to paraphrase Lieutenant George in Blackadder, ‘your Brexit, sir’.
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Everywhere there is a real feeling that the country is crumbling. Nothing works properly; crime is basically legal; healthcare and transport are both in a dismal state. Far more people talk about emigration. This bleak picture by Henry George sums up how I feel. I wouldn’t say this has been the worst government ever, but it’s certainly in the bottom one.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Tories are looking at a 1997-style kicking, currently somewhere in the region of 20 points behind Labour, and even if this month’s prime minister does a remarkable job ahead of the next election, I find it hard to understand why anyone would vote Conservative again; the only thing in the way of total defeat is Labour’s temptation to completely shoot themselves in the foot by having some insane debate over the definition of woman.
Part of the problem comes down to a lack of competence. Whether you agree with their politics or not, the Tories have just not proved effective, aside from Michael Gove and a couple of others. For whatever reason, probably to do with the reduced prestige of politicians, competent people aren’t entering politics in large enough numbers, who are instead going into areas like finance. The one part of the government’s Covid response which really worked was the one part they handed over to a venture capitalist to run. I wonder how many of the 2019 crop of Tory MPs fail the two-coin test?
But the deeper problem is to do with ideology, in that the party doesn’t have any. It believes in almost nothing.
At the Spectator, John Oxley recently wrote that: ‘Many on the left would be shocked by how apolitical most of the Conservative party is. There is currently no theory in conservative politics. I suspect no more than a handful of Tory MPs have ever read Burke or Hayek, unless they cropped up on a PPE reading list. They will be far more familiar with Isabel Oakeshott than Michael.
‘Factionalism within the party is driven far more by aesthetics than by ideology. One (former) MP once told me that when he asked his association why they had picked him for a safe seat, he was told “It was the lovely way you spoke about your wife at the selection”. Many MPs come to parliament without any real belief other than a view that “good things are good, and we should do more of them, and bad things are bad”. I’ve met less than half a dozen mainstream Tories who could be classed as ideologues.’
This all feels rather existential. When was the last time a Tory politician actually articulated what they believe, aside from ‘aspiration’? Aspiration is great and everything, but it’s thin gruel when you’re facing a political movement that really believes it has the answers. They’re bad answers, simplistic and deriving from a wilful denial of human nature and of what makes people happy, but they’re spoken with great confidence and authority, and that’s why younger people believe them.
A big disadvantage is that modern conservatism is, by definition, a sort of agnosticism. It’s oppositional. Progressivism offers a vision, a moral certainty; it asserts that its worldview is the correct one, and that people who disagree are fundamentally bad people; it invents and popularises morally-loaded terms with an impressive prolificacy. This is what many of us dislike about the post-new Left, but it’s attractive to vast numbers of people who fall into line.
It's why it’s a major problem that no one in the Tory party is offering any sort of statement of principles, arguing what small-c conservatives might believe.
For seventy-odd years, the party was an alliance of conservatives and liberals who disagreed on many things but wished to prevent the excesses of socialism. Within this there was an inherent conflict between three different factions: libertarians, social conservatives and moderates (known as loonies, shits and wets) but they had enough of a common enemy for it to work.
But the past three decades have seen huge global technological, cultural and economic changes that have shifted that balance, causing a realignment in British politics just as it has across the Atlantic. And these groups don’t necessarily align anymore.
Out of those changes there has emerged a new strain of progressivism, and today the natural function of any Right-wing party is to counter its excesses. This worldview is marked by certain assumptions, which might broadly be defined as:
Most social relationships are exploitative in a way similar to that between bosses and workers, therefore the world is naturally divided into victim and oppressor groups.
Biology has little influence on our outcomes, which are essentially the result of social forces that can be fought; sex and gender are different and the latter is not a result of biology (although believers are confused about the details).
Diversity is by itself a good thing. Racism is pervasive in western society and explains different outcomes between groups, except where whites are worse off; equality of outcomes between groups is good and inequality needs to be combatted, again except when it is disfavoured groups (men, white people) who fall behind.
Sexual freedom is not just a human right, but an almost sacred idea, and sexual minority status is always to be applauded and celebrated; body autonomy is likewise central.
Religion is a force for oppression, although we should be respectful of minority religions.
One lifestyle choice is no better or worse than another lifestyle choice, and should not be stigmatised. It’s the stigma which often causes the problems associated with those lifestyles.
There are other, older aspects to this worldview, such as a Rousseau-influenced idea of human nature being inherently good, and a (to non-believers) pathological desire to help the supposedly vulnerable.
We’re against all those ideas, but we also believe in certain things, yet it feels like we’re going to struggle unless we state what they are. Here is a rough outline of what I would say a post-Tory centre-Right party should believe in. It’s just my personal manifesto, not in any particular order, but I hope it can act as a starting point.
There is a compromise to be had between freedom, solidarity and equality, the three essential goals of society since the French Revolution, but compared to our opponents we place less emphasis on the latter. We believe equality of outcomes to be impossible, due to humans being born with different abilities, and generally favour measuring absolute over relative measures. Equality shouldn’t be some government goal.
However, we also believe that high levels of economic inequality within a society are unhealthy and potentially unstable, and that progressivism actually contributes to this problem, mostly due to immigration and looser social norms. California, at the vanguard of progressive ideas, now has quite extreme levels of inequality and a far smaller middle class than it once had, and those two things aren’t unrelated.
The three aims of the French Revolution are a good example of another principle: life is a series of trade-offs. Freedom rubs up against equality and solidarity, and we shouldn’t pretend there aren’t trade-offs.
Revolutions are generally a bad thing, but conservatives rarely oppose all revolutionary innovations or seek to reverse them. We are sceptical towards the ideas of the 1960s and the sexual revolution, or qualified supporters at best; it brought huge improvements to the lives of many women, who were able to escape from abusive marriages and allowed to work, but it has clearly also had unresolvable side effects, in particular plunging female happiness and higher unemployment among working-class men. We also believe that looser social norms often makes people unhappier, more isolated, and more prone to destructive social ills like addiction. Strong social norms and community, while perceived as oppressive to an artistic intellectual minority, provide huge moral and psychic support to people down on their luck. We think that there needs to be a better balance between the two aims.
Western conservatism is deeply intertwined with the nuclear family (as opposed to the traditional, multi-generational family), while western liberalism is associated with the individual (most of liberalism’s founding fathers were childless men). Where possible — and without getting back to 90s-era Baxter Basics-style PR disasters involving Tory MP being found in sex dungeons — we support favouring the nuclear family with tax incentives and wider social support; that is, a general idea that it is the norm and a good thing.
Government policy should aim at giving people the opportunity to choose traditional family norms, if they wish, and a working man or woman should be able to afford a home and a family on an average salary. That is not impossible; in fact the British tax system maintained by both Labour and the Tories is unusually hostile to one-income, two-parent family structures, compared to most European countries.
The biggest failure of liberalism, as it’s currently understood, is that it often makes people unhappy. It looks down on many forms of moral guidance and so raises the risk of individuals making terrible life choices, because humans are unusually social mammals and very susceptible to messaging and cultural influence. We support people’s right to make life choices they feel best, and which don’t get in the way of others, but we also believe that there are social norms which stand as the default.
We believe certain things are good and we should support them, even if we don’t have concrete ideas for incentivising them through law or the tax system. MPs are wary of making any moral stance because so many of them obviously have quite squalid private lives, and that goes double for journalists; but since senior clergy now only say something when they want elite approval, someone has to.
Again, the most obvious is marriage: it’s in society’s best interests that more people get married and have children. We can’t all achieve that, and sometimes life gets in the way of our plans, and we fail our own goals; we can still maintain that there are goals worth having.
Children are good, and we should aim at making our society the best possible place to raise children. The long-term future of the country depends on replacement fertility, which should be a policy goal; the country’s pop intelligentsia will say that’s equivalent to Nazism or reducing women to baby machines, but you don’t actually have to listen to them. If that involves making childcare cheaper, then we need to think about those decisions; housing also probably plays a big part, but so does culture.
We’re muggles, not wizards. Conservatism, in my mind, means creating a society that is most pleasant for ‘the average man’, while modern progressivism is focused on the exceptional and unusual, who are both disproportionately found among people in the media, and among hard-luck cases caught up by otherwise good systems.
Our politics is secular but religion is an important social force for good, and Christianity is the lodestar of our civilisation. The decline of religion has resulted in far greater anxiety and loneliness, and led people to seek answers in politics, which is a terrible idea.
We believe in freedom of speech, and people need greater protections from harsh and unjust laws aimed at enforcing progressive moral codes. But we also believe in politeness and civil behaviour; we’re opposed to the coarsening of public culture, and in some cases ‘cancel culture’ has just filled the vacuum left by legitimate moral authority. Needlessly offending people is not something to be celebrated, and the decline of public standards in the late 20th century just led to a new, worse, kind of moralising. People should be able to celebrate and indulge any subcultural norm within private settings, but the public sphere should be respectful and polite, and reflect positive and healthy values.
Perhaps more importantly, we believe in freedom of association, the first thing that authoritarian regimes attack. This is a less fashionable cause than free speech, but actually more vital, and it has been consistently eroded over the past decades. We believe the desire for ‘equality’ or ‘equity’ is fundamentally oppressive, because it can only be done at the expense of freedom, and helps to weaken the little platoons.
The Tory vote has collapsed in urban areas and it’s clear that the party is no longer capable of winning people in cities. We believe in cities but think that cities need to be civilised: we have come to tolerate way too much everyday crime and squalor. This was almost completely unknown two generations ago but we just accept it because the people in charge are too feeble to do anything.
Most crime is committed by a small number of persistent criminals who have very high rates of recidivism. Prison works, and our sentences are currently way too short; criminals should serve the sentence they receive. Many people in the media, in politics and in the justice system are more sympathetic towards criminals than to victims of crime and the many more secondary victims who alter their lifestyles because of violence and theft. We are 100% on the side of crime victims.
Many people in prison should be in mental hospitals and there is a relationship between the decline in bed numbers and the rise in imprisonment. The idea of treating the seriously mentally ill ‘in the community’ is yet another failed 1960s idea, given help by small-state Tory penny-pinching. The state needs to take far more of an active role in caring for people incapable of caring for themselves.
Similarly the rise in homelessness is a stain that the Tories bear a great deal of responsibility for, accelerated by local council cuts. But the key drivers are the rise of substance abuse, broken homes and the acute shortage of houses; the latter is far easier for the state to deal with.
We need to desperately build more homes. The housing system is completely dysfunctional, with a private sector that is unable to provide enough new builds and a social housing system which, since the 1970s, has become perverse, punishing long established working-class local residents who play by the rules in favour of those most ‘in need’. The housing system should incentivise prosocial behaviour and encourage stronger communities by prioritising local residents. It’s completely absurd that a higher proportion of foreign nationals than UK-born residents now live in social housing: welfare states are by definition national, and once they stop being national they collapse.
We oppose the blank slate. We believe in ‘the science’, which is that humans are dimorphic, biological sex is obviously real and even having this debate feels childish. Male and female differences are real and biological, and given more personal freedom they do not go away — quite the opposite.
The main social justice goal of any government should be poverty reduction. Some of the measures taken by previous Labour governments did work to reduce poverty, and we should accept it and try to learn from them.
We believe that being rich is better than being poor, and wealth creation tends to best be achieved through high levels of market freedom, although that is still compatible with reasonably high levels of redistribution. Whether we like it or not, any successful small-c conservative party is going to have to be fairly pro-redistribution, because that’s where the votes are now.
We’ve completely forgotten how, over a century ago, we were much richer than most of our European neighbours; we’re now closer to Romania than to the Netherlands, and poorer than all 50 US states. The biggest thing stopping growth right now is probably planning, especially the restrictions around the Oxbridge-Cambridge arc; many of these suggestions could make us richer.
Diversity is not a strength; it doesn’t matter how often people repeat it, it doesn’t make it true. The benefits of multiculturalism are pretty thin and beyond a certain level are outweighed by the costs. Diversity is associated with a reduction in trust, and multi-ethnic societies are especially plagued by instability. Britain is not a ‘nation of immigrants’, it is a recent innovation, and we need a pause to absorb the unprecedented levels we have taken since 1997. The Conservative Party is incapable of doing this, because high levels of immigration are a short-term economic necessity for the labour market, and the Tories will always put the interests of employers above the national interest.
There are no jobs British people won’t do, only jobs they won’t do unless they’re offered a decent wage.
Governments and institutions work to serve the interests of the British people, above all others. Britain is our home: no one has the ‘right’ to live here, and laws that prevent us from deporting illegal immigrants or criminals need to be addressed. We can do this while treating everyone who comes here with the highest level of dignity and humanity.
Education is a wonderful thing but, like all virtues, it becomes a vice in immoderation — and the over-extension of higher education has had a negative impact. There are too many academically weak courses taught at universities — there are 133 courses just in media studies, which is probably 133 too many — and over-education is landing people with huge amounts of debt. There is no evidence it increases overall levels of literacy and numeracy, which anecdotally show evidence of decline.
We should be aiming towards 15-20% of people going to university, and expand apprenticeships, and that means giving 18 year olds the same financial incentives to become a plumber as to spend three years at a university.
We believe in high culture, because we believe in encouraging the good things in life. Public-service broadcasting should have a duty to encourage the highbrow, and we should not shy away from encouraging it everywhere, whether it’s opera, classical music, the literary canon, the study of Latin and Greek. British culture has become depressingly moronic, and we shouldn’t pander to it.
The NHS is not the best in the world and there are in fact more than two types of healthcare system. We would all be better off copying the Germans, although realistically it will take a Labour government to take this momentous and inevitable step.
Institutions are central to conservatism, but an organisation set up 20 years ago or one now explicitly run by progressives in order to further their political aims is not the same as an independent, ancient and politically-neutral body. We have the right to confront progressive control of institutions, and their habit of appointing political allies to lead them. .
Central to conservatism is the idea that radical change is almost always bad. To use an analogy from evolution, large mutations tend to be detrimental and sometimes lead to debilitating illnesses, but small mutations are often advantageous. The ideas being proposed by American Democrats, and their imitators in the Labour Party, are incredibly radical — they would have sounded insane just 20 years ago.
There is a correlation today between car ownership and Tory-voting. However, while cars are wonderful inventions that bring independence, in a densely populated country like ours, public transport needs to be a priority. We need to rebuild many of the railway lines lost in the 1960s, and invest in tram and metro systems for our major cities. We could also learn a lot from the Netherlands about cycle infrastructure, and the fact that Dutch teenagers are much happier than ours is surely related to the fact that they cycle everywhere — lack of exercise is a huge contributor to unhappiness.
Public spending on infrastructure needs to improve, not just with public transport but with energy, too. We must overcome the inertia that makes it hard to build anything in Britain, even if it is opposed by people nearby — it’s impoverishing us as a nation.
We should have much more beautiful cities, and there is nothing to stop us turning the town centres across Britain into the most attractive on earth. We can make Guildford and Basingstoke look like Oxford or Bath. There is also nothing stopping us from rebuilding many of the great architectural wonders lost in the mid-20th century. We have taken many wrong paths over the past century, and we shouldn’t be afraid to correct them.
We want to leave a physical legacy because — most importantly — posterity is central to our philosophy. We should plan for the decades ahead, not worry about the next election cycle. Conservatism, as the old saying goes, is about planting a tree that your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will sit in the shade of. Our hope is that, years from now and long after we’re gone, they’ll spend the odd evening speaking warmly of us and what we did.
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