Dear Tory, (A Letter To The Tories)

Dear Tory,

By which I mean Tories in positions of power.  Your voters and your party members don’t really matter here. They are ageing and ill-educated, which is not their fault.  I’m talking to you, Tory MP, Tory peer, Tory councillor, Tory MEP, Tory AM or MSP.  You are the ones I see on TV, read about in the press, over whom I sometimes stumble on social media. You are the public faces and voices of a party which has long sought successfully to win the democratic vote.  So how do you look to those who are not of your tribe?

There’s no easy way to say this.  You look bad.

There is not the slightest shred of authority about you.  You are like a street gang, tooled-up with knives, or bottles of acid, fighting senseless postcode wars that make no sense to anyone who doesn’t share your tiny, narrow, ill-informed world view (almost everyone else).  Your deadly feuds are with one another, and you’ll wield a weapon as the first, not the last response to some perceived threat or sleight.  Much of the Cabinet is like this.

Though, as in any gang, there are the more passive-aggressive members who make up the numbers, but are rarely required to think for themselves.  The backbench member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee who was wheeled out on TV and radio to attack the BBC on pay yesterday was a fairly typical example.  A sweaty man with the flushed demeanour of someone who had recently been studying a porn site on his phone, this creature could scarcely string an argument together, because the only matter of any significance in this affair was to do the bidding of the gang’s Mr Big dealers, the commercial rivals of the BBC.  I looked at this odious man and thought, “No way are you worth £76,000 of anyone’s money.”

Then there’s the Tories who are so Old School that they have forgotten about 200 years of British history, and have no concept of democracy, or of public service. Step forward Councillor Rock Fielding-Mellen, former Deputy Leader (with responsibility for housing) of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  This is the man whose response to council tenants wanting a say over their services said, “The village cannot dictate to the Estate”.

Think about that phrase, dripping with a contempt for ‘the little people’, those without property, status, wealth and power.  It’s the language of the Second Estate, the privileged nobility for whom the notion of public service, still less the equality of all citizens, is wholly alien.  This is a face of the modern Tory Party.  Cold, literally careless.

And who was the relatively youthful Tory (Brexiter) MP who, in a state of drunken euphoria on referendum night rejoiced as the value of Sterling fell off a cliff, declaring that he didn’t care?  He was rich. He’d always be all right.  Kate Maltby, his appalled fellow Tory hasn’t shopped him, but I think we can all guess who this ‘potential candidate for future leadership of the party’ might be.  Because there are just so many who fit this Ancien Regime template.

Theresa May, narrow, slow-thinking, Thames Valley Tory that she is, may have wanted, sincerely, to re-position her party as slightly more sympathetic and inclusive, but she lacked the wit, the words, the policies and the support for it to be anything more than a few speeches written by Nick Timothy.  No matter. The public didn’t buy it. Neither did her party.  She is now the prisoner-PM, chained to the leg-iron of Brexit.

For I must say this, Tories.  You are not only cruel, self-interested, avaricious, undemocratic in instincts, and unconcerned with public service – you are inept.

The level of incompetence you Tories display – across the board – is staggering.  A former miner created the NHS from scratch in three years. His partner built the Open University. Once we had leaders who could lead, create, make change happen.  Now we have you, Tories, who are the embodiment of cluelessness.

That, my Tory fellow citizens, is how you look to the rest of us.

Have a nice day,

Yours faithfully,

A Voter.

Centrism For Beginners

The excitable state of politics at the moment includes much talk of ‘centrism’.  Social media aches with longing for a British Macron.  Sections of the mainstream media went weak-kneed last night at the sight of Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry announcing their cross-party cooperation to ameliorate (defeat?) Brexit.  The nation’s steady, sensible middle classes have had enough of extremisms, whether Brexity, or Corbynite.

Oh dear. We’ve been here before.  In the 1980s, when Thatcherism embodied the catnip destructionism now manifested as Brexit, and Labour was being eaten from within by the Militant Tendency, the Social Democratic Party appeared as a beacon of cool-headed pragmatism.  Founded in 1981, it quickly topped opinion polls and started winning by-elections.  It was dead before the decade was out.

There is a very good case to be made for a realignment in British politics.  Parties need a clear social base from which to draw voters and members, and to whom they owe a responsibility to represent.  It’s pretty plain that the current party configuration is not a good match for today’s population.

It is also clear that without major constitutional reform, party realignment will be difficult.  That’s partly what killed off the SDP – the inherent conservatism of our electoral system.  But that’s not an argument against centrism.

The problem with centrism is that it is a chimera.  The first question is – where is the centre of politics?

Pollsters regularly ask voters to place the parties on a left-right spectrum.  They mostly place their preferred party just a little to the left, or right of the centre, and place the party they most dislike further out towards the extreme.  Asked then to locate themselves on the spectrum, they usually place themselves near to their preferred party, but marginally closer to the centre. We all think our opinions put us somewhere bang in the middle.

Yet any relatively objective examination of political history, or comparative politics, shows that the ‘centre’ is a constantly shifting place.  The 2017 Labour Manifesto is a pathetic, right-wing thing compared to 1945 – or even 1964.  Today’s Liberals are well to the right of the Macmillanite Tories of the 1950s (and so are Labour on many things, including social housing and the NHS).

At the level of political philosophy, centrism is even more difficult to locate.  If the right is motivated by a belief in the natural selfishness of humans, and the need for politics to regulate and constrain that selfishness a little, in order to benefit from the dynamism of self-interest; and the left believes in altruism and social solidarity for mutual benefit, the best I can come up with for centrism is that it believes that it is rational and pragmatic.  The trouble is, both right and left also believe that their political creed is a pragmatic and rational response to human nature.  Try to touch centrism, and it evaporates.

Those who espouse centrism seem to want to square a circle.  They want social liberalism (tolerance, respect for difference and diversity, a meritocracy), and economic liberalism (free-markets, globalisation).  Leaving aside the satirical intent of Michael Young when he coined the term ‘meritocracy’ (the author of Labour’s 1945 Manifesto was no advocate of his invention), social liberalism is meaningless in the face of economic liberalism.  Some social liberalism is marketisable and commodifiable (the recent Pride event had elements of this), but where social injustice and prejudice maps onto economic stratification (social class), as it does in the case of race and ethnicity, and to a very high degree in the case of gender, not to mention the poor more generally, then social liberalism talks the talk, but is very unwilling to go further.  In other words, the ‘right wing’ bit of centrism – its position on economics – renders its social liberalism a facade, or even a con.  As we saw quite clearly with David Cameron and George Osborne’s form of Liberal Conservatism.

We do need a new politics.  But it needs to be a massively ambitious, radical politics.  We need to change all our institutions, devolve power away from the centre, change the electoral system, address structural inequality, find new ways to fund services, to reject the fetishisation of markets where they don’t work.  Above all, we must seriously address the looming global crisis of climate change by meaningful international cooperation.  Indeed, the very concept of the nation must be challenged and eroded, if our planet is to be saved.

We don’t need unambitious, puny centrism.  We need an Internationalist Manifesto!

The Tories Have Lost The Right To Govern

What are the Tories for?  Received wisdom has always been that the Tories are, essentially, Britain.  The CofE, the state church, was the Tory Party at prayer. Tory ladies were the mainstay of the magistrates bench. The generals, the vice-chancellors, the captains of industry, the great and good, were, with few exceptions (eccentrics?), Tory by divine Right.  It was just the way things were.  The natural party of government.

They were, of course, the Stupid Party, too.  But that was no slur.  This is a country in which to be ‘too clever by half’ is deeply suspect.  Or as we put it today, we don’t trust ‘experts’.  Being ‘stupid’ was a way of showing ‘common sense’.  A bone-headed, John Bull triumphalism, shorn of any pesky, doubt-inducing reading.  No one ever joined a gentleman’s club in order to pursue the life of thought.

In short, and for a couple of centuries, the Tory Party represented some of the better impulses of this country (charitable obligations, can-do, hands-on public service, a break on impulsive radicalism, a desire to limit the scope of government to stop it intruding into personal and family life), and some of the worst (anti-intellectualism, snobbishness, fatalism about inequality, prejudicial or bigoted social attitudes, defence of hierarchies of power and wealth).  Many of us, over generations, opposed the Tories, sometimes winning victories over them, but never for long.  They had iron discipline, a firm social base, a grip on the higher ranks of influence and power, and the ability to roll with change, absorbing it, appearing to modernise, whilst all the time remaining the same.

But now it all feels different. Very different.

When Tony Blair strode up Downing Street in 1997, proclaiming that Red, White and Blue ‘New Labour’ had routed the Tories, it didn’t feel as though it was the end of the Tories.  Not only was the Labour programme essentially premised upon Tory economics, so the government changed without the whole direction of travel changing – Toryism with a human face, if you like – but the Tories themselves looked exhausted, not finished.

For, twenty years ago, the Tories still had a large and active party base, a rampant Tory press, and the trust and financial backing of the business world.  That’s a formidable foundation for any political movement.  And, initially, after running through a few hapless leaders (Hague, Howard, IDS), they found in David Cameron the perfect modern Tory leader.  Old-school (Eton), yet modern metropolitan (Converse sneakers, attractive wife), Cameron as Opposition Leader was able to offer, with some conviction, the jibe at Blair, “You were the future once!”

But Cameron’s only real-life job had been as a PR man.  Hugging a hoodie simply wasn’t enough.  ‘Owning the narrative’ could swing an election, but it didn’t have a lot of effect on his own party.  The members weren’t keen on equal marriage, and climate change, and foreign aid, and all that modern malarky.  And in the Parliamentary party, John Major’s “bastards” were still there, the Redwoods, and Lilleys, the Bill Cash backbench boneheads, their ranks reinforced by new swivel-eyed radicals, like Bernard Jenkin, Kwasi Kwateng, Priti Patel.  Their manifesto was a thin, nasty document called ‘Britannia Unchained’.  The virus of Euroscepticism was spreading, and mutating, in the Tory bloodstream.

And so we are here.  Since 1979, the Tory legacy has been to deskill and hollow out the state, dismantle effective local governance, privatise natural monopolies like water, power, and rail, entrench social division, destroy industries that provided dynamism to regional economies, make financial services ‘too big to fail’, parasitic upon what’s left of the state to underwrite their errors, and to make the capital a drain on the rest of the country, rather than a source of national irrigation.  And Brexit.

The Tories own Brexit.  They invented it.  They made it happen.  In the process, and not inadvertently, they stoked social division, criminal levels of hate, and even a political assassination of a British Member of Parliament.

What’s worse, now that they have Brexit, they don’t know what to do with it.  What is it, they say?  It’s not the Single Market, oh no.  It’s not the Customs Union. Jesus, not the ECJ. Freedom of movement?  That’s just for capital.  They own a word, Brexit.  And asked to say what it is, they invent other, equally meaningless words, like Anglosphere.  They have months left to build a home fit for 65 million people, and no plan, no architect, no competent builders, no bloody clue.

There are other things the Tories don’t have now.  They don’t have a parliamentary majority.  They don’t have the backing of most of business – particularly the ones that employ a lot of people.  They don’t have a vote that includes the young and well-educated (aka the future).

The Tories are a Norwegian Blue, nailed to its perch.  It has ceased to be.  It has shuffled off its mortal coil, gone to meet its maker, gone to join the choir invisible.  This is an ex-government.  And when they do, finally, go, it’ll take an almighty effort to regain any credibility whatsoever.

The Tories have simply lost the right to govern.