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Artillery Row

Britain needs eccentric thought

Lewis Goodall is wrong about the “radicalisation” of the Tory right

There’s a fascinating sentence in a recent article by Lewis Goodall in the New Statesman. This is itself an interesting sentence, because you don’t expect to find fascinating sentences in articles by Lewis Goodall. But fascinating it remains.

The article is called “The Tory right’s radicalisation should trouble us all”. One of Goodall’s major arguments in his articles and on his podcast The News Agents is that there has been “a slow, hostile takeover by the right of the Conservative Party”. Yes, the Conservative Party that has raised immigration to unprecedented levels, overseen a fall in economic freedom, legalised no-fault divorce et cetera et cetera is a hive of reactionary extremism.

Where was I? Ah, yes. There has been a slow, hostile takeover by the right of the Conservative Party, Goodall argues, and he spies once again in the unconvincing attempt by Liz Truss, Lee Anderson, Jacob Rees Mogg and others to set up the “Popular Conservatives” (an unconvincing attempt because, as Goodall justifiably says, it has no grassroots support).

Here’s the sentence that interested me. Goodall is talking about how the “PopCons” have “positions” like “obsessive culture wars”:

The media, both new and old, which should act as a guard against eccentric thought, is often where these ideas germinate.

A guard against eccentric thought? Interesting. Perhaps it’s just a thoughtless choice of words — and we’ve all been there — but it could also be deeply wrong-headed and revealing. A guard against irrational thought? That would be fine. A guard against hateful thought? Understandable. A guard against eccentric thought? Weird. 

“Eccentric”, of course, means unconventional and slightly strange. “Unconventional” has no necessary pejorative connotations. What is “strange”, meanwhile, is an essentially subjective judgement. Yet Goodall sees resisting the “eccentric” as the duty of the journalistic class.

I don’t care if you are on the right or on the left. Britain very obviously needs eccentric thought. It is economically stagnant. Its institutions have declined across the board. Its people are deeply dissatisfied. To be sure, this does not mean that an alternative must be better than the status quo. While most people are well-fed and relatively safe, things can always be worse. But politics is very clearly failing Britain. Why would people want the normal and the conventional?

Besides, what Goodall thinks is normal and conventional is only normal and conventional within the confines of contemporary thought. He writes:

It would once have seemed unlikely that a prime minister would make a vulnerable minority group the butt of a joke as Rishi Sunak has with trans people.

Sunak’s joke — its regrettable context notwithstanding — was about Keir Starmer saying that 99.9% of women “haven’t got a penis”. You are very free to believe that women can have penises. But it is totally unarguable that what “would have once seemed unlikely” was a politician thinking this, not a politician joking about it. That does not make it untrue. History is not infallible. But it would have seemed very “eccentric” indeed.

Goodall’s thinking represents a strange form of conservatism in which Britain’s extrapolitical order — its courts, its civil service, its cultural institutions… — contain such timeless value that to challenge them except in the most marginal terms is to illustrate your dangerous radicalism. “Anti-institutionalism,” he claims: 

… a belief that the established legal, cultural and political order is antithetical to conservative ends, has gripped not just the Conservative Party but the wider ecosystem of the right.

The breadth of Goodall’s judgement here is what makes it unhelpful. Of course, it would be dangerous and destructive to oppose our entire legal, cultural and political order — but there must be a distinction between challenging habeas corpus, for example, and challenging the Equality Act 2010. Agree or disagree with the latter, it cannot be claimed to be a foundational element of British law.

For all that Britain’s “legal, cultural and political order” contains time-tested traditions, much of it has always been in flux. Even many of its formal aspects have evolved rather than standing like Stonehenge. A lot of them have only existed since Tony Blair sauntered into power. 

Needless to say, Goodall considers it inherently ridiculous to think that much of our “legal, cultural and political order is antithetical to conservative ends”, ignoring, for example, the institutionalisation of EDI, wider curbs on unfashionable thought and speech and the guilt-ridden iconoclasm of historical and artistic institutions. You don’t need to engage with an argument when you’re practising this kind of political zoology — observing beasts and marvelling at their strange inhuman ways.

I’m not saying it is untrue that anti-establishment thinking can mutate into irrational and destructive forms. I’m not pining for a British Marjorie Taylor Greene (entertaining as that would no doubt be). Right-wing Conservatives should remain truthful and principled, because there can indeed be tantalising incentives to demagogic behaviour in opposition. (If their leader is the very liberal Liz Truss then I suspect this will not be an issue but it is worth saying nonetheless.)

Yet however British institutional life can be restored, the solutions are bound to seem “eccentric” to someone whose idea of normality is so cramped. Eccentric times call for eccentric measures.

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