The Tories are worse than weak

The Conservatives cannot blame powerlessness for their failures

Artillery Row

The next general election has yet to be decided, but right-wing commentators are already scribbling their obituaries for Conservative governance. Gareth Roberts, for example, rains fire across “thirteen years in which almost every public and private institution in the country has capitulated, to a lesser but usually greater extent, to the … ideology of intersectional progressivism”.

This may come as a surprise, given the power of that sentence, but I think Roberts is too kind to the Conservatives. In trying to explain their failure he says:

I suspect the real reason was the well-brought-up reluctance to avoid hyperbole, to swerve anything resembling a “scene”. They are embarrassed to be conservatives, ashamed to do things that might upset “nice” people, which crippled them from the very beginning. They shied away from any confrontation — it took over a decade for them to address the blatant intimidation in academia, to notice that students were no longer the amiable geeks waving little gonks on Blockbusters.

Are they embarrassed to be conservatives, or are they conservatives at all?

Granted, “soundness policing” can be an irritating exercise. There are people online — often with Roman statues as their profile pictures — who think that if your views are not entirely in line with a 16th century landowner’s, you’re some kind of communist.

If the Conservatives have hidden reservoirs of right-wing sentiment that are being held back by their social and professional inhibitions, though, they are doing an excellent job of hiding them. It seems parsimonious to conclude that they do not. “Modernisation” was more than more than a pragmatic case of public relations.

To be sure, that doesn’t make them a bunch of commies. They have a comfortable commitment to the broad outlines of economic liberalism, and I’m sure they’re no big fans of statue threateners and road obstructers. Nonetheless, their social outlook, by and large, is that of complacent moderns — attached to the idea of serene moral progress.

They aligned themselves with moral modernisation because of real belief

David Cameron, who reportedly announced himself to be the “heir to Blair” in 2005, can’t stop talking about how the introduction of gay marriage was one of his proudest achievements (as if a Labour government would not have introduced it, too). Michael Gove announced that he loved Blair in 2003, attached himself to the “Blair agenda” in 2009 and defended Blair’s garter, much as he had defended his disastrous wars, in 2022. All that separated him from New Labour was his choice of summer parties.

This outlook has had major consequences. The Conservatives would make sporadic gestures to their right on social and cultural issues — but they were nothing more than that. Immigration targets would be established, for example, and then totally ignored, allowing migration stats to soar to levels Sir Tony had never reached. Even Brexit was pretty much imposed on them. Two of the four Conservative PMs who have followed the referendum voted against leaving, and one of the others only decided to support Vote Leave at the eleventh hour, having previously supported Turkish accession.

Such Blairite attitudes did not just amount to some sort of electoral manoeuvre. William Hague, who held pretty much every significant Conservative position except PM, has been spending his retirement lecturing the Women’s Institute on why they should accept trans members — and lecturing Britons on why they should accept more immigration. George Osborne has been conspiring to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. These are men who could have retired with their millions. They didn’t align themselves with moral modernisation because of some sort of social inhibitedness, but because of real belief.

The gender debate certainly divides Conservatives, but it’s no mystery that “self-ID” rampaged to the heart of British institutions when it had the backing of Conservatives like Penny Mordaunt. The abrupt Tory embrace of single sex spaces, whilst not unwelcome, seems like blatant electioneering.

This doesn’t mean that all of the momentum behind such changes came from the Tories. The Blob has a power that transcends parliamentary politics. Still, it has been enabled less out of cowardice — or even ignorance — than a sort of vague, complacent, bourgeois approval.

This matters because in the aftermath of a probable Conservative defeat, we’re going to hear from a lot of politicians and ex-politicians claiming that they would have loved to be more right-wing if it weren’t for the damn [insert synonym for “woke” here]. No, you just didn’t want to be. You were living your truth. The truth is, you enabled, supported and boasted about the things that you did.

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