First, a declaration. I know Nick Timothy and have dealt with him in various capacities for a decade or so around Westminster. When he was advising Theresa May at the Home Office, I was writing newspaper columns about how stupid and harmful I thought her immigration policies were. I suppose that makes me one of the “elite liberals” Timothy’s book rains fire on. But I’m here to praise at least one provincial white man not bury him.
First, the imperfections. These are mainly structural. For such a short book — 228 pages — it attempts to do too much. It contains a breezy account of Theresa May’s early premiership (she does not emerge well from that), an economic critique of globalisation (so-so), thoughts on the nature of freedom as described by J.S. Mill and Isaiah Berlin (good, but incomplete: what about T.H. Green?), an analysis of why Westminster politics and politicians often fail to recognise what matters to voters (scathing, convincing) and a policy agenda based on the author’s eclectic thinking (also pretty good).
The heart of the book though, is Timothy’s thinking on liberalism and conservatism. He spends a lot of effort attempting to eviscerate “liberals” or more often “ultra liberals” for a range of intellectual and political sins. A fair bit of this effort is wasted, or at least unnecessary, because sometimes his targets are small and undeserving of such attention. Sometimes when Timothy says “liberals” he means “the really bad Guardian columnists” or “some people on Twitter”. Sometimes he just means “George Osborne”. And while demonstrating the failure of the Cameron- Osborne project may be satisfying, the world has done that job quite well enough already.
Timothy’s strongest challenge to us liberal types is around citizenship, community and identity. We have not, he says, accepted that being part of a group matters, expecting people to act as rational individuals who subscribe to universal (transnational) ideals of conduct:
Because liberals tend to divorce social and political organisation from its historical, cultural and institutional context, they fall into the twin traps of impractical individualism and unrealistic universalism.
He has a point. How else could so many clever people who were supposed to know how the world works have been so surprised by Brexit? And dismayed that so many of their fellow citizens did not see the world the way the clever people did?
For Timothy, citizenship is not just a transaction but an obligation, a duty to be part of something. This is where I become less comfortable accepting Timothy’s challenge, because he follows this path into a discussion of immigration, integration and race. “White people are as attached to their ethnic and cultural identity as any other group,” he asserts, by way of argument for controlling immigration and requiring migrants to integrate into the majority culture of their new nation.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had here, and the questions Timothy raises don’t get enough discussion among academics, politicians and journalists who reflexively conclude anyone talking about “white culture” is a racist. But having ventured into such complex, dangerous territory, Timothy doesn’t allow himself time to defuse the ideas he tosses around like grenades. Another few dozen pages exploring what “white culture” actually is, if it really exists and pondering where the “culture” of white liberals fits into it would have done this book, and its author, a lot of good.
For all that Timothy’s clumsy brevity on race and culture attracts the noisy ire of people keen to unfairly write him off as a crypto-racist, it’s not the most interesting or important bit of this book. That is his challenge not to liberals but to conservatives. Sometimes it’s frankly hard to understand why Timothy has spent most of his working life in and around the Conservative Party, given how little he seems to agree with or even like it.
It’s hard to list the articles of recent Conservative faith that Timothy doesn’t dispute. Some of the time he’s happy to admit as much, though sometimes the attacks he insists are directed at “liberals” actually do much more damage to his own side. Timothy’s conception of conservatism has no room for the “perfection of the market” or the assertion of “autonomous and rational individuals” that underpins it.
Applying the ideas of this book to government could have been very successful, capturing the real centre ground of politics
His critique of a political economy dominated by rentier capitalists exploiting the ordinary working man would have been considered fiercely left-wing in the Labour Party of Tony Blair, and while the centre of political gravity has unquestionably shifted in the last decade or so, it’s still quite something to see the former chief of staff to a Conservative PM rubbishing Hayek, praising trade unions and reeling off a list of failing, exploitative markets.
He likes the state too, not least because he’s aware that it made him what he is, educating him, employing his mother and treating his sick brother. “I suppose I was a fairly conventional conservative until my thirties. But then I started to reflect on the hostility many Conservatives feel towards the state,” he confides.
It is Timothy’s own story that makes him and his book such useful challenges to his party. A state-school boy from Brum, he is socially mobile, a Tory success story. But he admits to “a sense of loss” at the place he left in order to make a career at Westminster. “Far from feeling I had escaped from my old world, I missed it and realised that many people in positions of power rarely understood anything about the way families like mine lived their lives.”
He doesn’t say it explicitly, but most or even all of those “people in positions of power” are his fellow Conservatives. The tension between a man who once held more sway over a Conservative government than many cabinet ministers and the Conservative Party as a whole is the most intriguing facet of this book.
It seems trivial today, but one day history will ponder the counterfactual: what if Theresa May hadn’t cocked up her election? What if she’d won? In that version of history, Timothy would be governing, not writing, and this book is best read as a philosophical What If?, a way to imagine what might have been. Strikingly, it suggests that many things that happened on Boris Johnson’s watch might have come to pass anyway; Timothy’s is a blueprint for a shift towards the social conservatism and strong state that are the logical future for a party elected by Brexiteers in Labour seats.
These days you can still find Tories who curse Timothy’s name and his 2017 general election manifesto, often without realising that their current leader and his team have been quite happy to set course for a very similar destination.
Successful politicians are often successful because they avoid difficult conversations with the electorate. Timothy, by contrast, isn’t a politician and had a lucky escape when he failed to be selected for a Commons seat last year, because he’s determined to force issues and have those conversations, even when (or perhaps because) it discomforts his friends.
A successful May leadership following the Timothy agenda would have at least attempted to change conservatism in a very fundamental way, and quite possibly more fundamentally than the party would have accepted: Tory turmoil would have been inevitable. But done right — which, to be fair, would have required charm and deftness far beyond May’s capabilities — applying the ideas of this book to government could have been very successful, capturing the real centre ground of politics in a way we still haven’t really seen for 20 years.
Like so many of us, Timothy holds David Cameron in contempt, but in his case it’s surely in part because he, unlike Cameron, truly wanted to change the Conservative Party, dragging it out of its comfort zone to meet the electorate where they really live. Progressive economics and mild authoritarianism? I mean this as a compliment though he might not take it this way, but Nick Timothy’s thought-provoking book reveals him as a real heir to Blair.
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