The empty Trojan horse

Blairism and the Tories

Artillery Row

There were two spectres haunting the Conservative Party Conference. One was a product of our own making, of our greatest success and longest-serving Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher was incessantly invoked, as either a litmus test of ideological purity or as the only remnant of a halcyon time when the party clearly stood for something, and for something distinguishable from Labour. From panels entitled “Can we win the next election?” (which was joined by a cardboard cutout of Old Maggie) and “What would Maggie do?”, to framed portraits and “not for turning” myths, this spectre hung heavily across Birmingham. This is a problem that has long-plagued the Tories, even beyond the walls of the ICC.

Yet another spectre haunted us that week. More subtly, but just as ubiquitous, was the presence of an entity named after the Conservatives’ most successful adversary. In almost every panel I attended, or heard about from friends, there was someone from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Either they were speaking on the panel itself, or they were prepared to ask questions about the implications of any suggestions of action for the Labour Party, and how they might also benefit from the insights shared. 

How did we end up with a scenario in which our greatest enemy can attend our conference and ask us how we would like to be defeated?

Cameron instituted many policies that Thatcher would have despised

I should not really be asking this question. For one thing, it is likely to get me expelled from the party, but therein lies the problem. After all, it was David Cameron who proudly proclaimed he was the “heir to Blair. He instituted the development of many policies that, ironically, Margaret Thatcher would have despised, the legalisation of homosexual marriage among them. This is not a new observation, nor one that is worth rehashing — the conservative case for extending the institution of marriage is one that can be made, and has been addressed by better men than I — but we have to ask, was this argument-making ever actually done? Now, groups such as the LGB Alliance, Mermaids and Stonewall are invited to the Conference, but not to make the argument that conservatism ought to be an instructive, cautious philosophy through which such issues can be addressed. Rather, they come so the Party can flagellate itself in front of (hostile) groups that have no interest in conservatism. 

Neither does the Party, it must be said, but this is only possible because these groups are welcomed into the Conference (and, by consequence, the Party). Once conservatism is risked in favour of inclusivity, especially for inclusivity of groups who do not hold conservative principles, it is a hop, skip and a jump to allowing in groups who actively despise conservative principles. Consider the Tony Blair Institute’s own panel on the future of education reform, which discussed raising the goal for national university attendance to 70 per cent. It was Tony Blair’s own goal of 50 per cent university attendance that, as David Goodhart put it, “sliced the country into two” yet did not increase social mobility anyway, “because it came to be monopolised by the middle and upper middle class, whilst syphoning off the brightest kids from post-industrial, working class towns exacerbated regional inequality”. 

The Conservative Party Conference — and the Party in general — has a problem with gatekeeping, and that problem is the lack of it. The Party, still plagued by then-Chairman Theresa May’s desire to no longer be seen as “the nasty party, is so terrified of being seen as “nasty” that it will bend over backward to welcome in anyone. There is a case to make for welcoming in everyone, but that case is so that they may hear the conservative message and maybe, perhaps, possibly, if it’s not too much trouble, consider it a viable alternative? This is not done. Instead, anyone is welcomed in to tell us where we are going wrong. 

Perhaps things are going to change: the Party is currently considering altering the accreditation of campaigning groups to attend conference, but it is telling that this was supposedly in response to Greenpeace disrupting the Prime Minister’s speech on Wednesday, and not the revelation that one of Mermaids’ trustees attended a conference organised by a paedophile support group. The only logical conclusion I can draw here is that Greenpeace dared to overstep the line — by insulting Dear Leader. If that’s the case, then I too am for the chop, but you’ll have to send most of the grassroots with me

There is another reason, however, that the Party has developed a problem with gatekeeping. It has wed itself, inexplicably, to the ideological cause of Free Speech. One panel, held by the Young Conservatives, debated the “point of free speech”, at which, it must be applauded, Miriam Cates was prepared to say that a generation had been “too coddled” in a “mission creep” from physical to emotional security, and should be more prepared to risk being offended. Shortly after, the Institute for Economic Affairs hosted a panel called “is the UK a safe space for free speech?” I should start carrying a bingo card for poor attempts at mocking the Left, I thought, but nonetheless the formidable Professor Eric Kaufmann was there prepared to make the intellectual argument for academic freedom of speech.

An ideological commitment to free speech means you cannot gatekeep

Neither of these instances are particularly daring — but then, what do you expect from Right Blairism Conference 2022? What got everyone talking in the latter half of the conference, however, was the sudden media frenzy over the NHS nurse who claimed that conservative voters “should not be resuscitated by the NHS”. Almost everyone who talked to me about That Nurse seemed to recognise the explicit danger of allowing someone with such prejudicial views access to medical equipment, yet the real shock came when some started defending this woman, based purely on her “right to free speech”. I know we often forget we are not America, but Britain does not have a right to free speech. This is not an issue of coddling or of academic enquiry — this is quite literally a case of preventing the possibility of harm.

An extreme case, this may be, but an ideological commitment to free speech as a cornerstone principle means you cannot gatekeep. Groups like the Free Speech Union might be useful on the issues highlighted by Eric Kaufmann, Miriam Cates and other respectable culture warriors, but whilst Kaufmann et al. recognise the instrumental value of free speech, the FSU and the like seem to think it is an inherent and unmitigated good. In the context of a Tory Party terrified of being seen as discriminating even against its ideological enemies, this only ever leads to a situation in which they cannot be kept out. 

With this commitment placed alongside the age-old attitude of the Tories being a “broad church party, these compass-spinning problems mean there can be no condition on which exclusion can be made, no condition on which ideological enemies can be reasonably kept out. Basic procedural mechanisms, like ensuring applicants for Conference need to be members for at least three months prior, are simply not good enough when anyone with a long-term desire to engineer the demise of the Tories — such as Blairites — will always be prepared to wait. 

The Trojan Horse at the gates is viewed with such suspicion that we fail to notice those opening the gates are already not One Of Us. Whilst conservatives get agitated by the presence of once non-conservative constituencies at Conference, or in the Party itself, the real problem lies one step before. Can we even recognise the enemy at our gates anymore? Do we have the intellectual capacity to do so?

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