Kemi Badenoch’s misplaced priorities

Culture wars won’t seem quite as important in the cold

Artillery Row

Kemi Badenoch MP has been one to watch for years. The 42-year-old member for Saffron Walden appears to have quickly become a favourite of Conservative party members and the young, online Right. As Minister for Equalities, Badenoch has made a name for herself as a pugnacious opponent of progressive identitarianism. 

This is not merely posturing for a socially radicalised Tory right, fed a rich diet of Telegraph, Spiked and Spectator doom-mongering. The Mumsnet faction of British politically-aware society is aware of the heady possibilities of serious institutional changes, with the influence of groups like Stonewall visibly waning for the first time in a decade. Besides, the old suggestion that hardline identity politics would remain confined to the Universities and the stranger crevices of progressive political parties now seems unconvincing even to centrist voters. 

The social and cultural Overton window of 2022 is open far, far wider than in 2010. The question of how to sustain a culturally coherent, liberal and multiethnic democracy in the coming decades is a real one. Badenoch is surely speaking to constituencies beyond the Tory right when she takes aim at those importing American racial, sexual or cultural politics into the United Kingdom. Broadly speaking, she seems to be aiming for a distinctly British democratic society, aware of the dangerously entropic potential of late-stage progressive multiculturalism.

The real problem for Badenoch is the economy, stupid

This is in itself no bad thing. Ordinary people, even Labour voters, tend to want to build that kind of society. If Badenoch wants to be the person to promote a post-racial, moderate and inclusive society, then all power to her.

Yet Badenoch’s ascent to the commanding heights of the Tory party is far from certain. She is a relative unknown with the public, has never held high ministerial office and was only elected to the Commons in 2017. The launch of her campaign today betrayed that lack of experience. 

The Telegraph reporter Camilla Turner noted on Twitter that the Badenoch campaign had stuck crude paper “men” and “ladies” signs on the doors of loos at the venue. A pretty low-budget and lacklustre culture war gimmick. This is hardly preparing to head up Her Majesty’s Government.

Similarly disappointing was Badenoch’s speech, which was a rather trite invective against red tape and state inefficiency. Her answers to journalists’ questions were worse: just rehearsed enough to sound faintly insincere, not rehearsed enough to sound polished. Clichés abounded: “inefficient”, “dead weight”, etc. Badenoch sounds comfortably competent at the despatch box; here she seemed out of her depth.

The real problem for Badenoch is the economy, stupid. Tory leadership candidates marshalling their culture war shibboleths are naively preparing for the wrong war, and exhibiting an astonishing complacency. The cost of living crisis is bearing down upon them like a freight train. People — Conservative voters included — are going to struggle to pay their bills this year. Rent is unaffordable for too many. The majority of those in receipt of state benefits are already in work.

Unfortunately for Badenoch, she seems to be sticking to her utterly unsuitable guns. Her vocal warnings about the dangers of “socialism” are horribly misplaced. The country isn’t crying out for Corbynism, but to insist on a neo-Thatcherite programme of shrinking the state at the precise moment in which millions of people need a powerful (if inefficient) British state to shield them from an economic storm is suicidal. 

Covid, the supply-chain crisis, the Ukraine war and now the economic tempest battering domestic budgets have all hammered home the need for an effective and protective state. The rise of a menacing China, the slow grind of a European land war and the knock-on effects of climate change in the Third World are all going to require the United Kingdom to invest heavily in defence, security and the diplomatic services.

Tax-slashing Thatcherite necromancy will not cut it

At home, economic growth is held back by crumbling or non-existent infrastructure. How can Britain be a significant power if it can’t successfully build a single high-speed railway? How can we compete economically with the continent when major British cities still lack tramways and light rail? How can we be more productive if the regions of the country with most of the decent jobs also suffer from a near-unimaginable housing crisis? Deregulation alone is a completely inadequate response. Britain needs investment. Some of that must come from the state.

An increase in material poverty in Britain is currently being met by intellectual poverty on the British right. Kemi Badenoch seems genuinely to want to restore the United Kingdom’s standing in the world, and to banish the current cultural cringe which so debilitates the present political and media classes. Tax-slashing Thatcherite necromancy will not cut it. It is very thin gruel.

Conservative forays into the culture war are embarrassingly reactive. A sterile party elite lurches to rebuff progressive advances across contested cultural territories. The Right’s rare victories are almost never consolidated. Its struggle rarely rises above the tactical. The progressives have a strategy. 

It is hard to see what culture precisely the Tories even wish to conserve. The precarity and resentment caused by increasing poverty and inequality will be corrosive of already fraying social bonds. Conservatives cannot rebuild a cohesive British society while penny-pinching Treasury liberals refuse to promote and subsidise the family. The two-child limit on Universal Credit claims, for example, is a moral, political and economic disaster. 

There is an alternative. If Badenoch wishes to reknit Britain into a more confident and coherent democratic power, she must come to see the state and its capabilities as integral to a post-liberal vision of a productive, self-assured and united Kingdom. There is genuine potential for a Gove — or Cummings-style reform of the civil service, of defence procurement, etc. But its goal must be more ambitious, and more communitarian, than anything Badenoch has proposed so far. The next Tory government ought to be concerned not with cutting costs, but with what Britain can build and make and do.

If it does not, the Labour Party — for all its flirtations with entropic progressivism  — is waiting in the wings.

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