Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Why the Conservatives can never be right

(Heresy Corner, September 2007)

Gordon Brown's speech to the party faithful in Bournemouth yesterday was a predictable exercise in right-wing demogogery, equally predictably characterised as "stealing Tory clothes". Except, of course, that no Conservative would talk, as Brown did, of "British jobs for British workers", or indulge in the kind of authoritarian language that ought to have the hang'em and flog'em brigade speaking in tongues.

There's a paradox here, one which has often been pointed to but never really understood, because it has been misinterpreted as one of language. It's too easy to say that an assumed "man of the Left" can "get away" with right-wing rhetoric which no Tory would have the temerity to utter. For to say this is to buy into the cosy "left-of-centre" assumption that Tories would obviously like to say such things, and much worse, and only the salutary effect of a liberal media obliges them to bite their tongues. For some Tories, at some times, this is no doubt true. But to imagine that it is true of all Tories, at all times, is to buy into a left-liberal Toryphobia that has contributed in no small way to the catastrophic erosion of democracy and civil liberties in this country.

Toryphobia: that hate that has no problem at all speaking its name. This struck me forcefully the other week (although it had certainly occured to me many times before) when I heard the saintly Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the radio preface some mildly complimentary remarks about David Cameron with the mealy-mouthed disclaimer, "I hate Tories but...". Now, I doubt Mrs Brown meant it literally. It's hard to imagine her actually hating anyone. But the fact that she felt able, even obliged, to say it speaks volumes. Should she have said "I hate black people", or "I hate homosexuals" or "I hate Jews" she would never have been allowed back on the airwaves. But then even the spokesmen of the BNP would never say anything like that.

Any concept of "Toryphobia" is, like the concept of Islamophobia, open to the objection that Toryism is a set of ideas, and you can't be racist against ideas. But Tories, like Muslims, aren't ideas, but people; and people who hate Tories seem to hate them not for their ideas, but for who they are. And just as it's easy to stereotype Muslims as woman-hating terrorists, it's easy to stereotype Tories as privileged, fox-hunting, bigoted, closet racist, crypto-fascist "toffs". But just as the majority of Muslims are decent, honest folk just trying to get on with their lives, so within the ranks of the Conservative Party are a great many hard-working, compassionate, charitable pillars of society.

But Toryphobia isn't just morally suspect. It's also politically highly dangerous, because it hands carte-blanche to left-wingers in power to hack away at the foundations of liberalism: civil society, civil liberties, and the rule of law. The New Labour attack on the British constitution, on the presumption of innocence, the discretion of judges, and trial by jury; not to mention their authoritarian schemes for identity cards and detention without trial, the assaults on free speech, the official secrecy, the corruption of office, the cronyism and quangoes: all this has gone, if not entirely unchallenged, then insufficiently challenged. Even strong opponents of such measures on the left still tell themselves, come polling day, that "It would be worse under the Tories".

No it wouldn't.

All these things have happened under a Labour government. Not because Labour happened to be in power at the time, but because these are the sort of things only Labour governments can do. Not because the media would restrain the Tories by shrieking "lurch to the right", either. But because they are the sort of things that only a Labour government would want to do. The last Conservative government looked at the case for ID cards and decided against them. It took a socialist regime determined to brand the population like cattle to introduce the appalling scheme, whose consequences (unless it collapses under its own weight) will be baleful. This isn't an isolated incident. Conservative governments, even Mrs Thatcher's, have never been particularly right-wing. Name a liberal Home Secretary. Unless you're thinking of Roy Jenkins, the name that most readily comes to mind is a Tory name. Hurd. Clarke. Whitelaw. In the criminal justice system the Eighties was a time of liberal reform. Now name an illiberal Home Secretary. Blunkett, anyone? John Reid?

People who are neither liberal nor conservative, or liberal but not conservative (or indeed conservative but not liberal, like Gordon Brown) find it impossible to understand the liberal conservative position. They imagine that liberal conservatives are liberal despite being conservative, whereas the truth is that it's being a conservative that enables you to be truly liberal. "Liberal" is not a euphemism for "libertarian", either, although freedom is a large part of it. No, conservatives are so-called because they want to conserve things. In particular, British conservatives want to conserve ancient British liberties like free speech, trial by jury, the Whig tradition of moderate progress, honour and restraint in pubic office, and being left alone to live one's own life.

A state that asserts its power over the individual is an oppressor, however benign its intentions, however well-meaning and morally comfortable its supporters. Any government, even (perhaps especially) a "progressive" one which expands the scope of state supervision over the individual and over the institutions of civil society tends towards tyranny. Civil libertarians and others who value personal freedom and oppose state control should take off their blinkers and learn to love the Tories.

1 comment:

bender said...

I've only just found this place and i realise that this is an old post, and indeed an old subject, but it's rung a few bells with me, not least because i'm just starting to take off the blinkers and look around after my seemingly obligatory "red rosette good, blue rosette bad" student days.

I wanted to raise one point though - if, as you argue, "these are the sort of things only Labour governments can do", how does that mesh with the parallel erosion, or in some cases wholesale destruction, of civil liberties seen in the US under an avowedly conservative government? Although unrestrained socialism (or the bastardised Nulab version of same) can lead to the chilling increase of state power and supervision we have seen in this country, it would seem that so too can unrestrained capitalism, as evinced by the neocon project in America.

It's possible i'm comparing two incomparable systems of government in the UK and US, but i wondered what your thoughts were.

Thanks for the blogs, and your GU comments, please keep it up.

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