Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Dean Godson: The new ethnic minority voices who are challenging left-wing orthodoxy on race and culture

20 Jul

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

The membership of the Government’s commission on race and ethnic disparities represents a significant evolution in the story of race in this country – and in the Conservative Party in particular.

Tories have been frightened of their own shadow on race for many decades. Modernisers feared that too many of their own members were still really Powellites at heart. Frightened that they didn’t speak the modern language of diversity and multiculturalism well enough (partly because minority voters mainly lived in Labour seats). Frightened that too few minorities voted for them, and they didn’t know how to make themselves more politically attractive to them.

One result of these fears is that the party has been unable to take the initiative on such issues, or dared to have its own views, and has allowed itself to be painted as deaf to the concerns of ethnic minorities. So as the country’s ethnic minority population has grown, and issues relating to diversity have become a more mainstream political subject, the Conservative Party has found itself, in recent years, turning for affirmation on such matters to exponents of the leftish-inclined, race relations orthodoxy.

It was Conservative ministers who appointed David Lammy to oversee a review of racial bias in the criminal justice system. It was Conservative ministers who appointed race campaigner Simon Woolley to chair the Race Disparity Unit, and also made him a peer.

This meant that Conservative policy ended up being a less strident version of Labour views on race: that Britain suffers from severe systemic racism; that things have barely improved over the past 30 years, with prejudice and discrimination merely becoming more subtle, and any departure from the proportional representation of minorities can only be explained by white discrimination.

This failure to think for itself on race meant that the Tories ended up ignoring a growing body of ethnic minority opinion that rejected large parts of the standard racism narrative.

Yet as the ethnic minority educated middle class has grown in recent decades, it has inevitably become more intellectually and politically heterogenous. The overwhelming majority of minority voters still lean left and accept the standard narrative on race but, as in America, a dissident minority has started to find its voice.

Some of the leading dissidents wrote for a special “rethinking race” issue of Prospect magazine in 2010 including Munira Mirza, an academic who worked in the arts, and who served as a Deputy Mayor of London; Tony Sewell, Managing Director at Generating Genius; and Swaran Singh, Professor of Social and Community Psychiatry at the University of Warwick, and a former Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Several, including Mirza, Sewell and Trevor Phillips, have worked for the Policy Exchange think tank.

It has often been noted that many ethnic minority voters have small-c conservative values: hard work and aspiration (symbolised by the shopkeepers from a variety of Asian backgrounds whose children go to university and become medical consultants); a belief in the centrality of family; parental authority; and, often, a rejection of liberal secularism.

Yet negative associations with the Conservative Party’s past ambivalence about multi-ethnic Britain and Labour’s happy embrace of it meant that those small-c values did not translate into voting Tory. There was a small upward blip in the minority Tory vote in 2015, though much of that progress was wiped out in 2017.

Nevertheless, in recent months, thanks in part to the new Government elected last December, the Conservative Party has evidently started to think for itself on these matters, and those dissident minority voices have been invited in from the cold.

The fact that the Cabinet has more non-white figures in senior positions than any before in British history, that Kemi Badenoch is an effective Equalities Minister, and that Number Ten has minorities in several key positions – above all, Munira Mirza as Head of the Policy Unit – has given this Government a confidence and moral authority on these issues lacking by previous Tory governments.

There was an interesting skirmish between the different strands of minority opinion over how to respond to the fact that Covid-19 was disproportionately hitting minorities. Munira Mirza and Phillips were on to the Covid-19 trend as soon as it emerged and were keen to monitor it closely and to set up an official investigation. Sayeeda Warsi and Simon Woolley, representing more conventional thinking, wrote a piece in the Guardian essentially blaming poverty and discrimination for the Covid deaths.

Sewell, an educational reformer, has now been appointed to chair the commission on race and ethnic disparities. Moreover, the ten person commission is full of independent-minded people of minority background including some, such as Samir Shah and Mercy Muroki, who have actively spoken out against the dominant anti-racist left narrative. It is not an accident that Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a space scientist, is also on the commission. The intent is to put evidence before emotion.

After the anger, and often sectarian politics, stirred up by the Black Lives Matter moment, the appointments to this commission constitute a notable step change. The mainstream “structural racism” left will try to discredit it and the Guardian has already dug up some embarrassing quotes by Sewell from 30 years ago.

But the race dissidents are now too entrenched and too powerful to be easily scared. And they are themselves an interestingly mixed bunch both socially and ideologically. Many, such as Rishi Sunak or Kwasi Kwarteng or Kemi Badenoch, are capital-C Conservatives.  Others such as Mirza and Phillips come from the left. There are younger voices emerging such as Remi Adekoya, Inaya Folarin Iman and Muroki.

What is perhaps most striking is that none of them owes their prominence purely to being race campaigners. Some like Sunak have prospered in the private sector, though he subsequently did write an influential portrait of modern Britain when working for Policy Exchange, focusing heavily on these issues. Mirza was a long time writer and analyst of these issues. Badenoch was a systems engineer, then a banker

None of them believe we live in a post-racist society. But they reject the critical race theory assumption that everything about a majority white society is racist unless proved otherwise. And most are sceptical of the notion of systemic or institutional racism and think Britain is more open than the standard narrative gives it credit for.

I think all would sign up to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous attack on the “soft bigotry of low expectations” towards minorities, and the way that the standard narrative removes responsibility and agency from ethnic minority individuals themselves – a consistent theme of Britain’s “strictest headmistress” Katharine Birbalsingh. Along with that goes a certain suspicion of white “saviour” liberalism.

This group is now being heard in the media and in government, and is becoming organised and self-aware, learning from the Left on how to make their presence felt. These ethnic minority free thinkers will help to counter some of the excesses of BLM subjectivism and guide the country to a more mature debate about race and discrimination. The Government’s new commission might be seen in the future as signifying their formal arrival on the political scene.