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Against conservative clichés

What conservatives talk about when they talk about conservatism

Artillery Row

There’s nothing conservatives love more than talking about conservatism. You might think that British people talk too much about the weather, or that Italian people talk too much with their hands, but that’s nothing compared to how much conservatives love to talk about conservatism. 

There’s nothing wrong with it — not in essence, anyway. Unlike the weather, we can change conservatism. Yet like the weather, our discourse is all too often rather windy and wet.

Take a new piece on Conservative Home, written by Sebastian Payne and Martyn Rose of the think tank Onward. Had it been uploaded on 1 April, I would have been tempted to think of it as a prank. You couldn’t more acutely satirise the worst tendencies of conservative rhetoric.

“Renewal is one of the Conservative Party’s most natural instincts,” Payne and Rose suggest. “Very often, our opponents find the agility of policy and leadership reinvention mind-boggling, almost political gravity defying.” It was pretty mind-boggling that the Conservative Party went through a trio of leaders in 2022, but not in a good way. As for agile policy — is that a reference to how it leaps around the point?

The sad fact is that the Conservatives are flailing about to find policies

Payne and Rose are arguing that the Conservative Party has to change, which is not untrue, but they seem to want to accomplish this feat without implying that it has done a great deal wrong. It’s like watching someone trying to convince a very sensitive smoker to make healthier choices in life without referencing cigarettes.

I’ve never been convinced by the Martin Amis argument that bad prose is symptomatic of bad thought, but now I’m beginning to see his point. “In the wake of the Ukraine war and the pandemic, the atmospherics are far from fortuitous,” write Payne and Rose. “Atmosphere” would be right there if they hadn’t wanted to inflict that clunky “pandemic/atmospherics” rhyme on us. Can the Ukraine War be said to have a “wake” when it is ongoing? 

“The recent successes of Rishi Sunak speak not only to that tested formula of competent administration, but also the virtues of adapting policy to the challenges of the present era,” write Payne and Rose, which is a very kind thing to say of a politician who has been PM for about six months. You have to expect presentism from authors who claim: “For historians of the distant future, 2016 will no doubt prove the most decisive moment in modern political history … Britain’s political life will eventually be classified as BB and AB: Before Brexit and After Brexit.” How can you possibly know?

Payne and Rose are announcing their “Future of Conservatism” project, which:

 … will set out what so many are seeking from the party today: vision. The project will define the values and ideas that we must take to thrive in the 2020s and beyond. 

A fine goal! In the spirit of being helpful as well as snide, here are three points that I think should be incorporated:

The Tories have completely failed. Payne and Rose want to put a brave face on whilst talking about the Conservatives’ prospects at the next election. “As we saw with the Prime Minister’s … recent strategies to deal with antisocial behaviour and the small boats issue,” they write, for example, “pragmatic conservatism is back.” How can we know that until the “recent strategies” have been put into practice? Pragmatism is about results, and here there are no results. I’m all for addressing antisocial behaviour, but if the police can’t arrest burglars and bike thieves, how are they going to stop graffiti artists? 

The sad fact is that the Conservatives are flailing about to find “sound” policies that will make people forget their abysmal record. We can’t expect them to say that in public, of course, but it doesn’t mean that we should pretend otherwise.

What policies are going to make Britain richer, safer and nicer?

“Realignment” is mostly a myth. Conservatives love to talk about that Red Wall, and that Workington Man, and that political realignment. It makes us feel popular. Meanwhile, about half of Britain’s voters are backing Labour and only a quarter are backing the Tories

Don’t get me wrong: it is true that most voters want lower immigration and stronger punishments for criminals, and that the average voter tends to be more left-wing on economics than traditional Tories. But this has always been true. That average voter just happened to feel more attracted to the Conservative Party in the afterglow of Brexit and with Labour presenting a historically radical and controversial candidate. Whilst there are lessons to take from polling, what voters want above all is success. What policies are going to make Britain, as a whole, richer, safer and nicer? That’s the biggest question.

Buzzwords are not the same things as values. “We seek,” write Payne and Rose, “to bring a modernising lens to policy dilemmas whilst remaining true to the best core centre right principles: an active but agile state, supported by low taxes and a dynamic market economy that prioritises social fabric, cohesion and the role of communities and the family.” Okay, what’s the difference between “social fabric” and “communities and the family”? Really — what is “social fabric” without communities and the family? 

Come to that — what are “communities”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming Payne and Rose for using slightly vague terms here. It is a short opinion piece. Yet, just as leftists have their nod words, which provide a dim feeling of purpose and warmth — like “equality”, “diversity” et cetera — conservatives are becoming too whimsical with “community” or “belonging”. They can be valuable concepts, but they can also be PR guff. 

Anyway, how is the weather? Wet and windy, no?

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