Artillery Row

Old Labour blues

Could the future of conservatism be on the left?

I learned my politics at my grandfathers’ knee. A lifelong Tory, the enthusiasm with which he expounded his conservatism increased in line with the inappropriateness of the setting. He was my hero. Yet here I sit, a member of the Labour Party.

Classic rejection of childhood authority, one might think, but on the contrary. My grandfather passed away late last year, and to the very end we were allies. Comrades, as he never would have put it. Party allegiance was just about the only thing we didn’t agree on, other than football. He thought the Labour Party were a bunch of commies; I found I was too conservative for the Conservatives.

On most everything else, we were at one. My grandfather would engage anyone in debate, venting his traditionalism with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, delighting in the outrage he could sow. And there was plenty of outrage to reap, as among my large and boisterous family I alone inherited his mindset and made it my own. Yet beneath the merry rabble-rousing, I always detected in him a twinge of sadness whenever the conversation turned to politics, that the world had slipped so far from what he had hoped it could be.

Far more than dinner table rhetoric, it was these instincts and intuitions that I absorbed. A sense that things had once been better, or had held the potential to be better still, but another path had been taken. Phillip Blond, another Tory whose insights draw me to Labour, once noted that he wished we could build the society that the World War II generation thought they were fighting for. My grandfather carried that yearning with him, and infused my childhood with it.

The conservatism he bequeathed me was not cold monetarism

I remember the home he shared with my grandmother, and briefly with me. Framed pictures of Lancaster bombers, busts of Churchill, sepia photos of aircrew, great tomes on the life and times of Arthur Harris. He was RAF to the core, having served in Bomber Command and Coastal Command across the theatres of World War 2. He was branch chair of the Aircrew Association, and as a boy I would join him on excursions to places like RAF Cosford and Imperial War Museum Duxford. I would sit on long bus journeys munching service station sarnies surrounded by bristling moustaches and squadron lapel badges, and absorb a worldview that was already fading into popular memory.

That worldview was not mere wartime nostalgia. Alongside the biographies of Churchill and Bomber Harris sat the complete works of Shakespeare and histories of kings and queens. My grandfather had no university education but could quote passages of Henry V, Merchant of Venice and the poetry of Rupert Brooke. If you met him it wouldn’t surprise you at all that he knew the entirety of “This Sceptred Isle” from Richard II. His mind was, as Peter Hitchens might say, furnished with beauty. He could recite dates from English history with unerring precision and was chairman of the town’s Heritage Centre, where I spent many happy childhood hours imbibing local history and dressing up in civil war regalia.

Yet his conservatism was not historical or literary, it was lived. He was a freemason, a church warden, a stalwart of rowing club and rugby club (he despised my beloved football because it was base and money-driven). And of course, he was a pillar of his local Conservative Party. I have been asked, during my own political soul searching, why one should join a party at all. I can only assume it is a habit I learned from my grandfather. He joined things, he took part, even as they slipped away from him. And so I join things too.

I did in fact, years ago, join the Conservative Party. But I couldn’t stick it. Even as a youngster, I found constituency gatherings down the pub didn’t reflect what I thought conservatism should be. Maybe today I would call it right-liberalism, but back then I just couldn’t understand why no one seemed interested in conserving anything. I became a malcontent, a political wanderer, until I met Maurice Glasman and discovered a Blue Labour tradition rich in paradoxical social conservatism. So I presented my grandfather with a question that I had forgotten to ask over the previous thirty years: why are we Conservatives?

The answer severed any affection I had for the Tories. The family business for as long as anyone could remember had been haulage. Horses and carts gave way during my grandfather’s lifetime to motorcars, but the job was the same: transport the people and goods of the upper classes to where they wanted to go. And woe betide any small businessman who voted against the interests of his clientele. He told me how his own father would straighten up when speaking down the phone to the old aristocrats calling for a cab, and venture out into the teeth of storms at their beck and call. He told me how a relative once broke ranks and stood for the Liberals in a local election, and nearly bankrupted the company in the process. The Conservatives were our family’s party because they were the party of business.

The tribalism was keenly felt; he recalled childhood scraps in the streets with kids wearing red rosettes. But the entire explanation left me cold. The conservatism he bequeathed me was not cold monetarism. Maybe it was a bit jingoistic and a bit deferential, and riddled with English eccentricity and contradiction, but it was a love of home and hearth and history. It was a living commitment to the neighbourhood and the lattice of voluntary organisations that made for a happy, ordered society. He was, dare I be anachronistic, a postliberal.

The great postliberal insight is that small is beautiful

To my layman’s mind the great postliberal insight is that small is beautiful, that flourishing is the temporal end of man and it is best achieved on a human scale, and that the little platoons that make for happy society are threatened equally by big business and big government. These are observations that sit at the heart of the early British Labour movement, which is so distinctively British in its genius. It grew not from Marxism and French philosophy but from friendly societies, equitables, unions and cooperatives, from an enthusiasm for the associative that seems to have antagonised liberal Tories who saw only a barrier to the movement of capital. Liberal Tories were the only variety in town the last time I stopped by a Conservative constituency meeting.

Of course I don’t sit in Labour Party gatherings happily cocooned in a supportive bundle of postliberal fraternity, but I can’t see the Tory Party standing up to the Amazonification of the economy any time soon. So I happily take my place on the Blue Labour barricades with wonderful friends and thinkers, and look to the possibility of what the party could be. I suspect I would have been jolly happy in the Labour Party of 1906, and traces of that heritage cannot be expunged.

Labourism is still the great handbrake against capitalism, doubly so if it can remember its inheritance as heirs what Adrian Pabst calls “the radical tradition of British Romanticism — of William Cobbett, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and William Morris, G. D. H. Cole and R. H. Tawney”. I fancy that is the cord that binds my Blue Labourism and my grandfather’s conservatism; we were both great romantics. So I participate in the Labour Party in his spirit, channelling his joyful pessimism. Safe in the knowledge that nothing will ever be as good as it once was or as good as it could have been, I roll up my sleeves and get stuck in regardless.

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