From Disraeli to Johnson, the Left has never understood the Right, and Fawcett shows us why

31 Oct

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition by Edmund Fawcett

Edmund Fawcett, “a left-wing liberal” (his term), here performs, with grace, acuity and good humour, a signal service for conservatives. He introduces us to each other.

Reading his book is like being at a vast family party, where as one glances round the marquee one is struck by the affinities between people who have never met, but have much in common.

Here one encounters cousins of whom one may, perhaps, have heard, but about whom one knows next to nothing.

In one of the most delightful parts of his book, published as Appendix C, Fawcett in under 40 pages gives us brief lives of over 200 conservative politicians and thinkers, drawn from Britain, France, Germany and the United States, all of whom have attained some degree of eminence since the French Revolution.

This brevity is wonderful. It is not difficult to find a long book about any of these people. To find a dozen lines that are worth reading can be almost impossible.

And conservatism is itself an almost impossible subject. As Fawcett remarks in his preface, “A chaos of voices has often made it hard to say what, if anything, conservatives stand for.”

He notes a paradox:

“Puzzling as it sounds, conservatives have largely created and learned to dominate a liberal modern world in which they cannot feel at home.”

He remarks that he is not writing solely or even primarily for the benefit of conservatives:

“Readers on the Left will get a view of their opponent’s position, which they are prone, like rash chess players, to ignore.”

And he adds a pointed question for his companions on the Left:

“if we’re so smart, how come we’re not in charge?”

Part of the answer to that question is that the Left often fails to take the Right seriously. Moral condemnation forestalls understanding.

Another part of the answer is that the Right does take the Left seriously, is indeed terrified of the damage it can do. Fawcett begins with two conservative opponents of the French Revolution, Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.

Burke is for British and American conservatives a marvellous source of wisdom, endlessly invigorating and enjoyable. Few of us have ever felt at ease with Maistre’s savagery, but Fawcett insists that although “Maistre was never going to sit well in conservatism’s front parlour”, he “belongs in the household as much as Burke”.

We are happier to be told that Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832), a Prussian who studied under Kant, worked for the Austrians and took a retainer from the British, translated Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution into German, “teasing out Burke’s thought in long footnotes that tidied up the argument in rationalist spirit”.

Gentz, Fawcett suggests,

“was an early model of a familiar present-day figure, the clever policy intellectual with top degrees circulating between right-wing think tanks, conservative magazines, and political leaders’ private offices.”

And Gentz in his essay “On the Balance of Power”, published in 1806, developed the ideas which would guide the post-Napoleonic settlement, upholding peace between nations while retarding not just revolution but democracy.

Fawcett is excellent at giving us a feeling for his conservatives by quoting remarks which a less worldly Lefty would not find funny, and might therefore be inclined to censor.

So at a dinner at the Congress of Aix in 1818 we get Gentz telling Robert Owen, pioneer of utopian socialism and of the co-operative movement:

“We do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”

But Gentz was not some blinkered reactionary, who supposed the ruling classes could restore to themselves the privileges they had enjoyed before 1789:

“Revolution had to be fought, Gentz insisted, not with nostalgia but with modernity’s own weapons.”

Here is another part of the explanation for conservative incomprehensibility. Intelligent conservatives are at once more attached to the past than their opponents, and more anxious to understand what will work in the future.

This mixture of mixture of emotion and pragmatism cannot be reduced to an ideology – the very thing that leftish commentators consider it a mortal weakness not to possess.

Fawcett’s book is brilliantly organised, so one can without difficulty find what conservatives in Britain, France, Germany and the United States were saying and doing in any particular period.

He himself worked for The Economist as its chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, and also as its European and literary editor.

As in that magazine, his eye for what is happening overseas is very good, but the texture of British politics is sometimes smoothed away in order to make it fit some editorial analysis.

Fawcett does not get Benjamin Disraeli. Few historians of ideas do, for by the time the butterfly has been pinned to the page, he is dead.

Millions of voters did get Disraeli, loved his patriotism and felt exhilarated by his impudence. He is the only Prime Minister who has inspired the creation of a posthumous cult: the Primrose League.

When he comes to Stanley Baldwin, Fawcett attributes his description of the new Conservative MPs elected in 1918 as “a lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war” to Lloyd George, as if only a Liberal could see how repulsive the Tories were.

Baldwin succeeded in part because he well understood how repulsive the Tories might seem, and took enormous pains to create a more favourable impression.

In 1980, Fawcett introduces us to “the hard right”. It is an unsatisfactory label, for the word “hard” makes it sound more defined, and less yielding, than it really is.

Fawcett knows the term is not satisfactory, for he keeps worrying away at it, and trying to justify it. In the course of a passage about Donald Trump, he writes:

“The hard right, in sum, was not weird or extreme. It was popular and normal. Indeed, it was alarming because it was popular and normal.

“Lest the term ‘hard right’ here sound loaded, and the account of events overdrawn, the passion and dismay with which mainstream conservatives themselves reacted needs recalling. They did not, in detached spirit, dwell confidently on the hard right’s visible weaknesses and incompatibilities. They did not ask if there was here a pantomime villain got up by the liberal left.”

Trump was and is an opportunist, a huckster who has belonged to three different political parties, and who seeks, as American presidential candidates since Andrew Jackson have sought, to get himself elected by expressing the anger of poor white voters who loathe the condescension of the East Coast establishment.

When he comes to consider Boris Johnson, Fawcett quotes The Economist‘s description of him as “indifferent to the truth”, and its advice to voters last December to vote Liberal Democrat – a way, perhaps, of feeling virtuous, but also of opting out of the choice actually facing the country.

Fawcett goes on to attribute a “forceful hard-right style” to Johnson, and a “disregard for familiar liberal-democratic norms”. The author is worried, for as he declares in his preface:

“To survive, let alone flourish, liberal democracy needs the right’s support… When, as now, the right hesitates or denies its support, liberal democracy’s health is at risk.”

The conservative family is in danger of going to the bad. This is true, but has always been true, and sometimes the warnings have turned out to be exaggerated.

Johnson enjoys teasing liberals, but has lived much among them, craves their approval and himself possesses many liberal characteristics.

Fawcett will know this, for he is the Prime Minister’s uncle: a brother of Johnson’s mother Charlotte.

The near impossibility of defining Johnson, something of which his critics complain, could even be a sign that he is a conservative.

These quibbles about the last part of the book in no way diminish admiration for it as an astonishingly accomplished survey of the last two centuries of conservative thought.

Interview: Goodhart says Johnson understands better than Starmer that a graduate meritocracy alienates manual workers

21 Oct

Sitting on a bench on a sunny afternoon in Hampstead, on a grassy bank with a view of Erno Goldfinger’s modern house at 2 Willow Road, David Goodhart warns of “the dark side of creating a cognitive meritocracy”.

In his new book, Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, Goodhart contends that this meritocracy now shapes society largely in its own interests, and has devalued work done by hand or from the heart.

He believes Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Boris Johnson have so far shown greater signs than the Labour Party of comprehending what has gone wrong, and the need to uphold a national social contract.

Goodhart adds that we are sending far too many people to university, creating “a bloated cognitive bureaucratic class” and “a crisis of expectations for the kids”, many of whom find their degrees are of no real worth, and turn instead to protest movements such as Momentum and Black Lives Matter.

He laments “the lack of emotional intelligence of highly educated people”, and also touches on his own outbreak of rebellion after failing to be picked for the First Eleven cricket team at Eton.

ConHome: “Let’s start with the distinction you made in your previous book, The Road to Somewhere, between the Somewheres and the Anywheres.”

Goodhart: “The new book is The Road to Somewhere part two. It’s motivated by the same interest in understanding the political alienation of so many of our fellow citizens and what lies behind it.

“One of the complaints about the previous book was that the Anywhere/Somewhere divide is too binary. Obviously it is somewhat binary. But in the real world it is somewhat binary.

“People who read the book will know there’s lots of sub-divisions in the Anywheres, lots of sub-divisions in the Somewheres.

“A lot of the Guardian-reading classes felt I think very defensive about the last book – possibly rather less so about this one. The last book made more enemies because I was pointing out to a lot of people who think of themselves as progressive, and indeed on the side of the people who I call the Somewheres, that they are part of the problem.

“They like to think it’s the rich and the corporations that are the problem. But actually it is the lack of emotional intelligence of highly educated people whose priorities have dominated our society for the last generation or two.”

ConHome: “So this is new? Or it’s got worse, anyhow.”

Goodhart: “Exactly. It’s only really in the last 25, 30 years that the liberal graduate class has become so dominant, more numerous, and less inhibited about pursuing their own interests – generally thinking, for most of the time, that these are in the general, common interest, and indeed some of the time they are.

“Quite a large part of this is about educational stratification. It’s about the dark side of creating a cognitive meritocracy.

“We’re in the middle of a great deluge of books having a go at the meritocracy. There’s the Michael Sandel book, The Tyranny of Merit, there’s a guy a few months ago called Daniel Markovits who wrote a book called The Meritocracy Trap, he teaches at Yale Law School and is partly talking about his own very, very high-flying American students, and how even they suffer from it in some ways.

“These bigger reflections on the limits of meritocracy have mainly come from America. It’s quite interesting to reflect on why that is. One obvious reason is that meritocracy only really became – contrary to Michael Young’s intention [in The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, published in 1958] – a feature of Centre-Left politics back in the Eighties, Nineties.

“After all, the Left had been at least formally more egalitarian than meritocratic. Meritocracy after all is the opportunity to be unequal.

“As that bold religion of socialism died, meritocracy became the soft soap version for modern social democrats, as the Left was forced to accept much of the political economy of the Centre Right, the Reagan/Thatcher reforms.

“It was easier for them to tell the meritocracy story than for the traditional Right, who at some level were still defending privilege. But even the Right was quite happy to take up the meritocratic mantle – the joke was that Tory party had been the party of people with large estates and was now the party of estate agents – they practised meritocracy while the Left talked about it.

“In America in particular this coincided with a period of grotesque increases in inequality, and slowdowns in social mobility pretty much across the western world.

“Meritocracy tends to get it both ways. It’s both criticised for not being sufficiently meritocratic, and it’s criticised in itself, for its own ideal – the Michael Young critique, which is essentially an egalitarian one. He was a very old-fashioned egalitarian socialist.

“Most people would go along with the Michael Young critique if you express it in terms of why on earth would we want to turn society into a competition in which the most able win and most of the rest feel like losers?”

ConHome: “It’s a very bleak, utilitarian idea, isn’t it. It doesn’t even contemplate the idea of human beings being of equal worth, which is the Christian idea.”

Goodhart: “The foundation of Christianity, and the foundation of democracy. One person one vote.”

ConHome: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…”

Goodhart: “In recent times, too much reward and prestige has gone to this one, cognitive form of merit.

“Of course we all believe in meritocracy at some fundamental level. You do not want to be operated on by someone who’s failed their surgery exams. The people who run your nuclear research programme should be your top nuclear physicists.”

ConHome: “If you support Arsenal, you want Arsenal to have the best players.”

Goodhart: “You do not choose the England cricket team by lottery.”

ConHome: “In your new book, while remarking on the role played by chance in deciding a life course, you say your rebellious streak, mucking up your A levels and so forth, emerged as the result of your failure to get into the First Eleven cricket team at Eton.”

Goodhart: “I compare myself to John Strachey, who became a leading Communist in the 1930s after failing to get into the Eton First Eleven.

“My self-regarding explanation for that is that I was captain of the under-16 team, and I was a very selfless captain.”

ConHome [laughing]: “You gave everyone else a bowl.”

Goodhart: “I was an all-rounder, so I came in at number seven or eight, and I bowled fifth or sixth change, so I didn’t really develop either skill to a sufficient level to get into the First Eleven.”

ConHome: “Too much of a team player. And why did you not get those six votes when you stood on a Far Left ticket for a full-time student union job at York University, and just failed to win?”

Goodhart [laughing]: “That was bloody lucky. I’d be a f***ing Labour MP now.

ConHome: “Your father, Sir Philip Goodhart, was a distinguished Conservative MP. Anyhow, you feel relieved not to be a Labour MP.

“Which leads on to the question: who, politically, gets what you are talking about? Did Nick Timothy and Theresa May?”

Goodhart: “Well I think so. People sometimes say I influenced the notorious ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’ [May’s party conference speech of October 2016], but I think Nick is perfectly capable of thinking of that himself.

“But I contributed to a climate of opinion that made those sorts of ideas more legitimate and mainstream.

“It’s a shame that section of that speech…”

ConHome: “Came out all wrong.”

Goodhart: “I think what she said is perfectly right and perfectly legitimate, and she was actually aiming not so much at the Guardian academic, what Thomas Piketty called the Brahmin Left, she was aiming more at the people who don’t pay their taxes and the corporations who don’t pay their taxes, the people who live in the first-class airport lounges.

“All she had to do was preface it by something like ‘Of course there’s nothing wrong with being an internationally minded person…'”

ConHome: “There are lots of people here in Hampstead who think of themselves as citizens of the world, but they love Hampstead as well, and would rise up in their wrath against any threat to Hampstead.”

Goodhart: “They don’t have to love their country, but it’s also important they feel some kind of attachment to their fellow citizens, rather than feeling only attachment to international bodies or people suffering in faraway lands.

“Of course one should as a human being feel that. But national social contracts remain incredibly important, central to politics in many ways, and if the best educated and most affluent people are detaching themselves from those social contracts then I think there is a problem.

“And it’s reasonable for politicians to talk about it.”

ConHome: “To some extent both Trump and Johnson – without falling into the trap of imagining them to be identical – their success is partly explained by the work you’ve been doing.”

Goodhart: “Populism is a bastard expression of a majority politics which has not received expression in recent decades. The politics of what one might call the hard centre.

“Daniel Bell, the American sociologist, was asked for his political credo, some time back in the 1990s, and he said ‘a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture’.

“And I think that combination, I suppose someone like David Owen in this country might have come closer to it than most people, is very attractive, and I think it’s almost a majority one, but for various contingent historical reasons neither of the main political parties of the Centre Left or Centre Right have at least until recently adopted it.

“A lot of populism is a bastard form of that kind of lost centre actually.

“But I think both the Theresa May and to some extent the Boris Johnson government, when the Conservative Party decided it was going to be the party of Brexit, and particularly given how they’ve shifted to the Left on economic management, they probably come closer to that combination at the moment than any other political formation.

“And in some ways that’s a good thing. Boris rather oddly represents that combination, perhaps more than Starmer. And I do think, although I’ve been a member of the Labour Party most of my adult life, I resigned only a couple of years ago, I couldn’t bear the direction, because of Corbyn, yes, but even for Starmer I think there’s a real problem, me and Matt Goodwin argue which of us used this analysis first: that it’s easier for parties of the Right to move left on economics than it is for parties of the Left to move right on culture.”

Goodhart ended with some remarks about universities: “It’s absurd that we subsidise, even with tuition fees, the grand motorway into higher education. We’re international outliers in the very expensive form of higher education, which is residential higher education.

“Breaking that is I think pretty important in some ways. It’s a difficult thing to do. You get accused of wanting to kick away the ladder.

“We do need to readjust, and not allocate all of the prestige and reward to people that take the academic route, particularly as you just get diminishing returns.

“The most useful people, the Einsteins, are always going to be the people with the very highest academic, intellectual insight, producing new knowledge.

“What’s happened, though, is a whole great bloated cognitive bureaucratic class has emerged that piggybacks on the prestige of the higher intellectual cognitive class, and it’s now become dysfunctional.

“The knowledge economy simply doesn’t need so many knowledge workers, and yet we’re on automatic pilot, we’re creating a crisis of expectations for the kids.

“Even before AI comes along you can see this in the collapse of the graduate income premium. It used to be 100 per cent or 75 per cent, it’s now for most kids who don’t go to the most elite universities below ten per cent.

“They have these expectations. I think a lot of the political eruptions of recent times – Bernie Sanders in America, Jeremy Corbyn and the Momentum movement, even perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement, although there are obviously other factors there – are partly an expression of the disappointment of the new middle class at the lack of higher status and higher paid employment.”

The Conservative Party Conference programme – and which ministers are up and down

30 Sep

With only two days to go, the itinerary for this year’s Conservative Party Conference is upon us. Much has changed, thanks to Covid-19, not least the way events have been formatted. 

Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at who’s doing what, and how events have been categorised – as well as what this could imply for ministers.

The first thing to note is that every MP in the Cabinet is making at least one appearance, albeit in different formats. The MPs taking part in two events are Amanda Milling, Elizabeth Truss and Matt Hancock. The Prime Minister will also be delivering a speech and being interviewed by Lord Sharpe of Epsom.

The events have been categorised broadly into keynote speeches, fireside chats, interactive interviews, panel discussions and training sessions. 

Clearly the most important is the keynote speech, which the following Cabinet ministers will be giving:

  • Dominic Raab (15:00 on Saturday)
  • Priti Patel (15:00 on Sunday)
  • Rishi Sunak (11:50 on Monday)
  • The Prime Minister (11:30 on Tuesday)

Milling will also be opening the conference at 11:30 on the first day.

Next up there’s the fireside chat. There are two versions of this, one involving being asked questions by an interviewer, the other by party members. The latter is arguably a more complex task; ministers are out on their own dealing with questions. The ministers doing this are:

  • Michael Gove (11:45 on Saturday)
  • Alok Sharma (14:30 on Monday)

Fireside chats involving an interviewer include:

  • Robert Buckland (16:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Ken Clarke.
  • Gavin Williamson (11:00 on Monday) – interviewed by Peter Ashton, a headteacher and his former politics teacher.
  • Matt Hancock (16:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Patrick Stephenson, Director of Innovation and Healthcare at Fujitsu.

There’s also the “interactive interview”. It’s not obvious what makes this different from the “fireside chat”, but the ministers taking part in these are:

  • Liz Truss (14:30 on Saturday) – interviewed by Robert Colville, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
  • Matt Hancock (14:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Nimco Ali OBE, CEO and Founder of the Five Foundation.
  • Grant Shapps (15:00 on Monday) – although it does not say who will interview him yet.
  • Oliver Dowden (15:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Joy Morrissey, MP for Beaconsfield (this is labelled as simply an “interview”).

Then there are the panel discussions. More sceptical Conservative members may notice that a number of fairly high profile Cabinet ministers are taking part in these. They may ask why they have not been put forward for the fireside chat or an interview – instead being accompanied by ministerial teams.

These include:

  • Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, who’s partaking in the Ministry of Defence Panel Discussion (12:15 on Saturday) with other ministers from the department.
  • Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who’s chairing a discussion (13:30 on Sunday) with party members and other ministers from the department.
  • Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, who’s chairing the The Department for Work & Pensions Panel Discussion (11:30 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.
  • George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who’s holding a panel discussion (14:00 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.

It looks as though Downing Street has taken a decision to downgrade their profile.

Last up on the agenda are events focussed around increasing participation in Conservative campaigning. It’s clear, in particular, that CCHQ is keen to push for more female participation, with events on Female Entrepreneurs and Training, and Women and the 2021 Elections, alongside training support for young people.

Interview: “Petrolhead” Milling denies that Elliott is really in charge at CCHQ, and says that she’s visited all 48 Red Wall seats

30 Sep

Amanda Milling’s “greatest love” is Formula 1 and she is making sure the Conservative machine is ready for next year’s election races: “I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.”

As Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party she announces “the biggest conference ever”, starting on Saturday, and has been “on the road constantly for the last three months”, visiting all 48 of the Red or, as they are now sometimes called, Blue Wall seats won off other parties at the general election.

Milling denies in this interview that Ben Elliot, her Co-Chairman, runs the show at CCHQ, just as Andrew Feldman did for David Cameron.

She does not deny that since the general election victory in December, CCHQ has got rid of some campaign managers: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers round the country.”

Her role, she explains, is not to represent the party on the airwaves, but to maintain close contact with activists: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base.”

The interview was conducted on Monday afternoon in her office at CCHQ, which is adorned by pictures of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

ConHome: “What do you think the virtual party conference will be like, and what do you hope to achieve from it?”

Milling: “Well I’m thoroughly looking forward to the virtual conference which starts on Saturday. It’s going to be the biggest conference ever, given the number of registrations.

“Obviously I’m disappointed we’re not in Birmingham, but we are where we are. You do find yourself attracting people who would normally not come to conference, by virtue of being able to dial in from your home.”

ConHome: “It is very expensive, in time as well as money, to go to conference.”

Milling: “Yes, in terms of normal conference, if you think about actually going along to Birmingham or Manchester, the hotel, it can be quite a big commitment.

“But I’m delighted we’ve got this virtual conference this year to be able to pour more people in, and hopefully it’ll give them appetite to join us at future conferences both in the spring and in the autumn.”

ConHome: “Will they be able to answer back, or to applaud?”

Milling: “It’s going to be very interactive. A virtual conference does give us the opportunity to have that chat function. People can pose their questions.

“I think that’s quite an important part of this. Because otherwise I think there’s a bit of a danger that it’s permanently just ‘transmit’ – it’s much better to have that interaction – the ability to ask colleagues questions.

“And I’m very pleased that ConHome are having the fringe events too.”

ConHome: “We are, in massive number. Just so you can help us plan, how many set-piece speeches will there be?”

Milling: “We’ve got set-piece speeches from the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister, but other Cabinet ministers will be having their slots as well.”

ConHome: “Let me ask you about your function, and do this by looking back for a moment. We’ve had a number of dual chairs, we’ve had Saatchi and Fox, then we got to Feldman and Shapps, and Feldman chaired the Board, and Feldman really was David Cameron’s man, he was in effect the real Party Chairman.

“I’m going to put this to you absolutely straight. There’s a view that Ben Elliot chairs the Board, Ben Elliot is a long-time supporter of Boris, as you are, and Ben’s the real Party Chairman.

“And that with no local elections this year it’s been very hard to see what you’re up to, or some people would say, brutally, why you’re there.”

Milling: “It’s very much a Co-Chairman role, and very much teamwork, with both of us working together. Inevitably we take on different roles and responsibilities.

“Your point about campaigning. Whilst we did have the pause, the postponement of elections earlier in the year, we still have to work towards those elections next May.

“During the summer since we had the easing of lockdown one of the things that’s been really important is setting out guidance for our activists in terms of how they can campaign in a Covid-secure way ahead of those elections next year.”

ConHome: “Tell us about your year. What have you been doing with no local elections? How did you fill in and prepare for next year’s?”

Milling: “Let’s be honest, when I was appointed Co-Chairman back in February I was there ready to get out campaigning and get out also to those seats which are the Blue Wall seats.

“They are Blue Wall seats not Red Wall seats now. Lockdown made that somewhat more difficult. But during lockdown I did a lot of work engaging with the membership via our various new virtual platforms, Zoom and Teams.

“in fact the day was filled morning to evening engaging with our activists. Actually you can get to see more activists in many ways using technology because you’re cutting out the travel time.

“But then after the lockdown was eased I started on what my original mission had been which is to get out and visit these Blue Wall seats.

“And at the weekend I did my last visit which meant I’d visited every single seat that we gained in December. I’ve been on the road constantly for the last three months.”

ConHome: “You actually visited physically?”

Milling: “Physically every single one.”

ConHome: “Could you remind me how many that is?”

Milling: “It is 48.”

ConHome: “And how many times in the year have you been put up on the Today programme or Newsnight?”

Milling: “So I haven’t been on either the Today programme or Newsnight, but obviously with Conference it’s a big opportunity to reach out to our activist base, our members, and talk about my vision for the party.”

ConHome: “Will the local elections definitely go ahead next year?”

Milling: “Yes, there is a lot of work going on in the Cabinet Office to make sure that those local elections go ahead.”

ConHome: “This is a bumper crop of local elections. What have we got? We’ve got London…”

Milling: “We’ve got the county council elections, PCC elections, mayoral elections from 2020 and also 2021, we’ve got elections in Wales and elections in Scotland. So you’re right, this is an absolutely bumper year.”

ConHome: “And everywhere you’ve got a third of the council being elected.”

Milling: “And you’ve got some by-elections. This is why this conference is a really great opportunity to galvanise the troops, enthuse the troops in terms of campaigning.

“I think back to about June time, I would go round the House of Commons, I would literally have colleagues going ‘When can we go out campaigning?’ I was actually hearing that from the grassroots as well.

“And it’s been great to see people getting back on the campaign trail, having rested their legs over lockdown.”

ConHome: “Do you think these elections will be seen as a referendum on the Government?”

Milling: “These elections are our opportunity to really demonstrate Conservatives delivering at a local level. These are local elections, but on a very large scale, given that they are two years’ worth.”

ConHome: “How has it come about that the opposition to the way the fight against Covid was conducted is actually now being led by the Chairman of the 1922 Committee?”

Milling: “Throughout this, we as a Government had to respond to an unprecedented situation with measures to protect jobs, businesses and also lives.”

ConHome: “But how come you seem to have lost the confidence, up to a point, if I read his piece in The Telegraph on Saturday rightly, of the Chairman of the ’22?”

Milling: “So what this debate is about at the moment is the time spent in Parliament discussing it. Today [Monday], as an example, we are having a debate on Coronavirus and the various measures, and a staggering 80 people are in that debate. And there will be further debates and votes going forward.”

ConHome: “But some of them are hopping up and down because today they say we’ve had another set of regulations sprung on us without any notice, saying you can’t dance in a pub and you can’t sing in a pub.”

Milling: “What the Government’s having to do is respond to what is a very fast-moving situation, but at the same time giving colleagues the opportunity to debate that, as is being demonstrated this evening.”

ConHome: “Do you feel there’s been a movement among the colleagues towards a more Swedish-type solution?”

Milling: “Colleagues are as I say debating this today and the Government are responding to the science and the research to ultimately save lives, and that’s the most important thing.”

ConHome: “If this Brady amendment is debated on Wednesday, by then we would expect the Government to have made some move to accommodate it?”

Milling: “We will be having the vote on the Rule of Six next week.”

ConHome: “Though not amendable.”

Milling: “The days of me being in the Whips Office in terms of what’s amendable are over, you seem to forget.”

ConHome: “What do you do in your spare time? Though by the sound of it you don’t have all that much of it just at the moment.”

Milling: “Well my greatest love, and I do try to carve out the time for this, is watching Formula 1.”

ConHome: “Gosh!”

Milling: “So I am a petrolhead.”

ConHome: “From what age were you a petrolhead?”

Milling: “From childhood. I was brought up around cars.”

ConHome: “Who are the greatest racing drivers in your lifetime? Lewis Hamilton’s a bit dull, isn’t he? I mean obviously very good at it.”

Milling: “He’s very, very good at it. He had a bit of a tough day in the office yesterday. Eddie Irvine I always thought was quite an interesting character, because he really took the challenge to Schumacher at the time if I recall rightly.

“So I love Formula 1. So you can imagine my Sunday evenings are most definitely carved out for watching the highlights.

“It’s nice downtime. It would be nicer to actually go to one, but obviously at the moment that’s more difficult. Going to Silverstone is a great, great experience.”

ConHome: “You were brought up around cars?”

Milling: “My father had some vintage cars. There’s a photo if I recall correctly of me at about two in a kind of jump suit with a spanner in hand, although I’m not sure I’d be very good at servicing cars.

“Although on the matter of servicing cars, in terms of this particular role at the moment, I’ve got the bonnet open, we’re having a look at what needs a bit of oil, what maybe needs replacing.

“You haven’t maybe been able to do these things over the last few years, because we’ve just been so focussed on elections.”

ConHome: “So you’re tuning the engine.”

Milling: “We’re tuning the engine. Curiously, lockdown enabled us to do that to a greater extent.”

ConHome: “What sort of things?”

Milling: “One of the things is the candidates’ process, so an end-to-end review of that, from identifying talent to assessing talent and then supporting and nurturing talent.

“We did the Welsh review. We’ve recently appointed a team member to be the campaign manager for Northern Ireland.”

ConHome: “In the past there’s been a lot of criticism of losing highly knowledgeable campaign managers after a general election, and then the machine not in fact being in proper working order, for example in 2017.”

Milling: “So what we’ve been doing over the last few months, particularly ahead of next year’s elections, is making sure that our team are in the right places.

“But also over time our main focus is on getting the organisation fit for not just next year but 2024.”

ConHome: “The organisation was very scanty in many of the 48 seats which were won in December. What are you doing to build up some troops, some boots on the ground, for next time?”

Milling: “There’s a big piece of work we’ve been undertaking looking at these Blue Wall seats. Lee Rowley, who’s the Deputy Chairman, has been sitting down with all these colleagues to really get under the skin of what have they got, what have they not got, what their priorities are, what we need to do to build a membership and activists in these different areas.

“We’re going to be having a working group to make that more action-focussed.”

ConHome: “You just said you’ll be getting the campaign managers to the right places. Is that fewer people to the right places?”

Milling: “It’s not unusual after a general election you don’t have as many campaign managers around the country. But I think the main point for me as well is making sure that those campaign managers that we’ve got are focussed in the right places, particularly ahead of next year, which you know is a challenge, given the number of elections that we’ve got.”

ConHome: “When you went round the Red Wall or Blue Wall seats, how many of them don’t have a Conservative councillor?”

Milling: “It’s a big of a mixed bag. I think the key here is about building on having a Conservative MP. From being out on the ground, when I’ve met with businesses and residents, they’re really chuffed to have a Conservative MP who’s really there acting on their behalf, a voice in Parliament for them.”

ConHome: “How many of them actually have activists, never mind local councillors? How many of them have had to put together a team outside the traditional association structure?”

Milling: “My seat back in 2015 was a marginal seat and you have to build it up over time to have that broader activist base.”

ConHome: “Previous Chairmen have actually declared the membership figures. I don’t think you’ve got any plans to do that, have you?”

Milling: “No. I’m not going to be declaring the membership figures.”

ConHome: “Why not?”

Milling: “There’s a number of things on this. Number one which is actually membership’s just part of the Conservative family in many ways. It’s also about activists as well.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is actually people putting their cross by the Conservatives at an election.

“But what I would say is that membership is up from this time last year.”

ConHome: “Is there any other organisation – the National Trust or whatever – name me another that doesn’t declare their membership.”

Milling: “Look, I’m not going to declare the membership numbers. But as I say, it is up from last year.”

Why the Germans don’t always do it better

4 Sep

Every so often it becomes fashionable to use the understated brilliance and modernity of Germany as a stick with which to beat Britain for holding to absurdly antiquated ways of doing things.

I did it myself a few months ago, in a piece for ConHome suggesting that when the pandemic is over, we will have to look at what the NHS can learn from Germany.

Now John Kampfner has devoted a whole book, Why The Germans Do It Better, to this theme. It is a good title, but also a hostage to fortune. Will the Germans go on doing it better? Nobody knows.

And although the book, which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading, doubtless contains all sorts of prudent qualifications to the bold assertion in the title, it is bound to encourage the kind of Briton who already believes that compared to Germany, the United Kingdom is hopelessly old-fashioned and resistant to change.

I love Germany, and in the 1990s had the pleasure of living for almost six years in Berlin. During that time, I wondered in vain how to write a book about modern Germany which could be read for pleasure as well as edification.

For in those days, and I fear this is still  true, while educated Germans often had an almost perfect grasp of the English language, and a detailed knowledge of British society, the reverse was by no means the case.

In some well-to-do parts of German society, Anglophilia raged almost out of control. They dispatched their children to fee-paying schools in Britain, followed by British universities. Even their dogs seemed to come from Yorkshire.

I hope some German author is at work on a study of this phenomenon, entitled Why The British Do It Better, which can sit next to Kampfner’s volume on my shelf.

But the truth about Britain and Germany is more complicated than such compliments, or exercises in self-denigration, can convey. And although it is worth identifying the things the Germans do well, it would be naive to suggest that simply by copying German methods, we can transplant their successes to British soil.

John Major said in March 1991 that he wanted Britain to be “where it belongs, at the very heart of Europe”. This always seemed, from a geographical point of view, an implausible goal.

Germany is at the heart of Europe, surrounded by about 20 other countries, all of them smaller than Germany. This is an inescapable fact, and offers a powerful reason for developing some system of amicable co-operation with those neighbours, so none of them becomes worried by Germany’s preponderant size.

The United Kingdom is on the edge of Europe. We have fewer neighbours and wider choices. We may make a dreadful mess of those choices: the Union with Scotland is now in grave danger.

But there is not much profit in trying to deny that the choices exist. Yet this is what Major and his successors tried to do. They said it would be mad to adopt any policy other than being at the heart of Europe.

This accusation of madness did not prove a happy way of managing Major’s critics within the Conservative Party, who put up a dogged resistance to his European policy.

In the eyes of the kind of people who will feel themselves in instinctive agreement with Kampfner’s title, this protracted row was an embarrassment.

It showed how backward and barbarous some Tory MPs were. Individual parliamentarians were held up as examples of complete madness. None of the care and sympathy which are nowadays supposed to be extended to the mentally ill were extended to these Conservatives.

There was instead a brutal attempt to cast them and their ideas out of polite society.

Germany did not have an argument like that. Although the German people wished by a clear majority to keep the German mark, German MPs voted on 23rd April 1998 by 575 to 35 in favour of replacing it with the euro, with no fewer than 27 of the “no” votes coming from the PDS, successor to the East German communist party.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl assured German MPs that the euro would make Frankfurt a “very big financial centre”, that Britain would be a member of the new currency within a few years, and that Switzerland would join within ten years.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which I rejoiced to read each morning, learned professors of economics argued with anguished pedantry that the new currency could not work. Their opinion was widely shared by German voters, who loved going on holiday in Italy, or at least to the local Italian restaurant, but did not think sharing a currency with the Italians was a good idea, and feared German savers and taxpayers were bound to end up subsidising the weaker members of the euro.

Kohl promised them their fears were groundless, and kept the political class solidly behind the project. He was a power politician of genius, who exploited the fact that the opposition Social Democrats believed more devoutly in his European policy than his own Christian Democrats did.

Nor was he above maintaining his dominance with the use of illegal bank accounts. High ideals and low methods were yoked together, but for a long time only the former got much coverage in the German press.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Kohl succeeded: it is hard to tell, for we have not reached the end of the story.

But it is in some ways a pity that German politicians failed to have the argument among themselves which created such animosity within the Conservative Party.

German public opinion was not prepared, and the assumption took hold that one’s duty, as a member of the political class, is not to rock the boat, and to suppress any details which might create the wrong impression.

There wasn’t, in Bonn, the open parliamentary debate which should have preceded so a momentous an experiment as subsuming the national currency, proud symbol of post-war recovery, within a new, supranational currency, as yet unsupported by a new, supranational state.

Dissent was stifled: something more easily done in a system with party lists. Many Germans saw with indignation the herd mentality that had developed among their representatives.

It has become a commonplace of commentary on foreign affairs that Germany is failing to rise to the great responsibilities which now rest on her shoulders.

Again, one may argue that this is a good thing: that being undramatic is better than being over-dramatic: that all difficult questions should be left in the calm hands of Angela Merkel, who long ago had the ruthlessness to knife Kohl.

But this preference for a quiet life has its drawbacks too. For years, Wirecard was held up as a German success story, a rare example of a national tech champion which could beat the Americans at their own game.

German regulators declined to investigate persistent allegations of irregular accounting and the company frightened into silence anyone who suggested its figures were too good to be true.

Only a year ago, Merkel promoted Wirecard’s efforts to get a licence to operate in China.

The German press failed to expose the Wirecard scandal. That was left to a troublesome newspaper based in London, The Financial Times, which took a courageous, principled, long-term view of the story, and wanted to tell its readers what was actually going on. Those qualities are not only found in Germany.

David Gauke: Without a proper state aid regime, the UK is unlikely to make a deal with Brussels

1 Aug

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Within the next three months, Boris Johnson is going to have to make the decision that will define his premiership and determine the future of British politics – especially the Conservative Party – for a generation. And the subject matter of this momentous decision? The previously obscure issue of the regulatory regime constraining the ability of the Government to provide taxpayer support for private sector companies. In other words, state aid.

Before turning to the issue in hand, let me set out a little context. My last two columns (here and here) have made the case that there is an electoral logic that points towards the Conservative Party moving in a leftwards direction economically but in a rightwards direction when it comes to social issues or, to put it more precisely, issues of national identity. Politics appears to be realigning as the biggest dividing line ceases to be about economic class or ideology but in relation to cultural issues.

The consequences of such a dividing line – and the Conservative Party unambiguously placing itself on one side or the other – is an uncomfortable one for those Conservatives with a desire for intellectual consistency.

At least since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservative orthodoxy has been in favour of sound money and free trade. That is not to say that the State had been banished from making any kind of intervention in the economy – no recent government could accurately be described as laissez faire – but that any such intervention would be made carefully, recognising that the market was, by and large, a rather good way of allocating resources.

As for cultural issues, the Conservative Party has been a broad church consisting of social conservatives and social liberals, tub-thumping patriots and committed internationalists. Generally, we rubbed along alright.

These Conservative traditions were abandoned in 2019, resulting in the Prime Minister’s electoral triumph in December when he won previously safe Labour seats. He did so by promising an economic policy that involved more spending and greater government intervention. He also promised to deliver Brexit at whatever cost. It was an uncompromisingly Leave prospectus that appealed to patriotic/English nationalist working class voters.

This brings us to the UK/EU negotiations over a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Contrary to promises of an oven-ready deal, discussions have not yet made a lot of progress. There are two sticking points. The first is fish. This is a matter of economic irrelevance (our fishing industry contributes less to GDP than Harrods) but of disproportionate political importance. As one can make a similar point about the EU, it would be an extraordinary failure for this matter to prevent a wider deal being reached.

The more substantive issue relates to the level playing field provisions. These are the EU’s requirements that the UK will not engage in “unfair competition” by undercutting the EU’s social and environmental legislation, nor provide anti-competitive subsidies.

The UK Government’s response to these demands has been to argue that this is an outrageous attempt to fetter the actions of a newly-independent nation. Given that (1) free trade agreements inevitably involve accepting some restrictions on a country’s ability to determine its own rules and (2) the UK accepted the principle of level playing field provisions in October’s Political Declaration, the EU is less than impressed by the argument.

The particular focus of the dispute has been state aid. At one level, this is surprising. The UK has traditionally eschewed state aid spending, seeing it as market-distorting and a wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. We spend less of it than the French and Germans and, as EU members, consistently argued against its use.

Nor has it traditionally been a touchstone issue for Eurosceptics. From my days in the ERG, I recall plenty of conversations about how the EU imposed regulatory burdens on businesses, prevented trade deals with rising economies like China and resulted in too much power in the hands of the unelected (oh, happy innocent days). Restrictions on bailing out private sector companies were not so much of problem for us Thatcherites.

This issue could have easily been de-escalated if we had put in place our own, independent and robust state aid regime, perhaps enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority. Such a regime is probably necessary (albeit not sufficient) in order to reach a compromise with the EU on this topic.

Instead, we have refused to set out our own domestic regime and there is much talk of how we can use our new freedoms as ex-members of the EU to support our own companies, like the rather odd acquisition earlier this month of a £400 million shareholding in a failed satellite company.

According to the Financial Times, Dominic Cummings is digging in against anything other than a “minimal, light-touch” state aid regime, believing that once you have left the EU “you should just do whatever you want”.

This brings me back to the nature of the Conservative victory last year and, in particular, the new supporters. If the Government’s focus is appealing to nationalists who favour an interventionist state, it would want the ability to back national champions or other businesses in favoured locations.

And if you are temperamentally inclined to think that any constraint on your ability to “do whatever you want” (whether by the EU, Parliament or the legal system) is an affront to democracy, then you will be all the more the likely to resist a robust and independent regime.

There are, however, consequences. First, it is very hard to see how the EU will agree to a deal if the UK does not have a proper state aid regime. I wrote in February how there may be a political case for not getting a deal (any deal will be very thin in any event, some parts of the economy will suffer as a consequence of leaving the Single Market, better to collapse the talks and blame the EU for the consequences) and that argument still applies.

But, as a consequence of the handling of Covid-19, the Government is more vulnerable to the charge of incompetence. In addition, a no deal Brexit would be a gift to the SNP, thus weakening the Union yet further.

Second, even putting aside the EU dimension, there are very good arguments for having in place a robust state aid regime. The Treasury will be arguing the case. Both as a finance ministry (ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely) and as an economics ministry (wanting resources to be allocated productively in order to maximise economic growth), it institutionally hates state aid. Presumably, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, well-regarded by his officials, will have similar views and will be making the case forcefully. At least, he should be.

It will be for the Prime Minister to decide. Go for the purist view of Brexit (“you do whatever you want”), embrace the new political alignment and splash the cash in order to play to the Red Wall voters. Or keep open the possibility of a deal, look after the interests of taxpayers and maintain some kind of consistency with economic orthodoxy. Whichever way he goes, it will be a hugely consequential and revealing decision.

Kanwal Gill and Patrick O’Connor: Why we’re launching the Conservative Diversity Project

31 Jul

Kanwal Gill is founder and Chairman, and Patrick O’Conner a Director, of the Conservative Diversity Project.

This week, the Government announced the membership of its Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED). This was an important step in the process of shining a light on inequality in the UK.

The Commission will focus on areas including poverty, education, employment, health, and the criminal justice system.

It is timely that the Government is seeking to shed a light on ethnic disparities in our country. The expert membership for the CRED means they will make evidence-based recommendations to change lives for the better, and will be crucial in informing and improving the national conversation on race.

As Conservatives, notions of aspiration, opportunity and freedom are often discussed in the political arena. These are values which we inherently believe in. We as a Party understand that your success in life should not be defined by who you love, the colour of your skin, your gender, or whether you have a disability or not.

Yet, for too many people in this country, this is not their reality.  When Theresa May first stood on the steps of Downing Street in July 2016 as Prime Minister, she recognised this. The burning injustices she acknowledged remain today. We have seen it in the disproportionate impact that COVID has had on BAME communities.

One of the ways in which we ensure that the challenges facing ethnic minorities and diverse communities in this country is through the formation of a politics that is truly accessible for all.

The Conservative Party has already done much to do this. The only two female Prime Ministers which this country has had have been Conservatives. Three members of the current Cabinet are from ethnic minority backgrounds, holding two of the great offices of state. We have had the first British Asian to hold the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer.

These are undoubtedly indicative of the progress we have seen in regards to diversity and inclusion – but we can do so much more.  Only six percent of Conservative MPs are BAME, and less than one per cent have a visible disability. Moreover, the House of Commons contains just 65 MPs from non-White ethnic backgrounds. This is the highest number in its history, but if the House truly reflected the ethnic make-up of the population, there would be around 90.

We as a party should be championing diversity. We should be encouraging more diverse initiatives. We must constantly be asking ourselves: who is not in the room? The emphasis and value that is now placed on diversity and inclusion did not come quickly or easily. It is now our responsibility to ensure that these values are practised and upheld.

Labour have for too long believed that they have a monopoly on compassion and diversity. It’s time we tackled this head on. To say with confidence that this Conservative Party has, and will continue to, stand up for our diverse communities, to champion their voices, and welcome them.

Our Party is at its best when it is a broad church, not only on the political spectrum but when we have voices from all walks of life. As a party we should reach out and embrace the rich tapestry which is the diversity within our society. To champion the diverse voices around us, learn from their experiences and grow together.

It will signal to people of different genders, from the LGBTQ community, BAME communities, or the disabled that this party is here for them, that it welcomes them, and will champion them.

The challenges we have faced as a country and a global community over the course of the last twenty years has done much to change the face of our politics. The next twenty will undoubtedly change our society. Our party should be at the vanguard of these changes; embracing further diverse representation and tackling the issues which face our communities in this country, and abroad.

Our party has always stood up in the face of adversity, and led our country to new beginnings. As we re-emerge from COVID, and recalibrate our country for the future, let diversity and inclusion be the new frontier of progress. If we can do this, we can realise the vision of a country which works for everyone, built on the values of compassionate conservatism, with freedom and opportunity for all.

There is a clear appetite for change. The question now is how we foster greater diversity and inclusion in our party, and how can we translate this into greater representation at both local, and national levels? It will require a bottom-up approach, and the Conservative Diversity Project has been founded with this in mind.

The CDP will seek to understand the issues which are affecting our diverse members. By sharing the experiences and knowledge of diverse candidates who have stood before, we aim to break the barriers to such candidates standing for election. This is our attempt at building politics that is truly accessible for all.

Johnson benefits from the scorn of critics such as Parris, for it suggests the PM is still an outsider

28 Jul

“There seems no pressing need to embark on the second volume, provisionally entitled The Statesmanship of Boris Johnson, which I hope one day to offer the world.”

So I wrote in 2007, for the paperback edition of my account of his early life, published in hardback the previous year.

Distinguished commentators of the Right and Left, including Alexander Chancellor, Stephen Glover and Paul Routledge, were among those who had greeted with incredulity my suggestion that Johnson might yet become Prime Minister.

David Cameron was firmly in the driving seat as Conservative leader, and in the reshuffle of the Shadow Cabinet which he conducted in the summer of 2007 – necessitated by Gordon Brown’s Cabinet reshuffle on becoming Prime Minister a few days earlier – had kept Johnson at arm’s length, as Shadow Spokesman on Higher Education.

Both men had been to Eton and Oxford, but as I attempted in a subsequent update of the book to explain, their temperaments were incompatible:

“There is something about Boris which is an affront to serious-minded people’s idea of how politics should be conducted. By refusing to adopt their solemn tone, he implies that they are ridiculous, and the dreadful thing, from their point of view, is that a large part of the British public agrees with Boris. So it is not just lefties, but people from every part of the political class, who cannot bear his unwillingness to take them as seriously as they take themselves. It was after all a Tory leader, Michael Howard, who had sacked Boris [in 2004], and Howard’s chosen successor, Cameron, has similar instincts about what does and does not constitute reliable behaviour…

“For while Cameron is a favoured son of the Establishment, and takes the Establishment’s view that there are certain things which are just not done, Boris is an outsider, a loner, a man who likes to be on genial terms with everyone but who has no circle of political intimates. Cameron is a man of astonishing gifts, including cool judgement under pressure, but his instinct is to work within the existing framework of rules. Boris frets under such restraint and is always ready to drive a coach and horses through it. Cameron believes in order: Boris believes in being free. Cameron is bound to regard Boris as a bit disreputable, while Boris is bound to regard Cameron as a bit limited.”

This divide had a decisive influence in 2016, when Brexit was the issue. Cameron sought to uphold the status quo, but Johnson drove a coach and horses through it.

So now we have an outsider as Prime Minister, a situation less unusual or paradoxical than one might suppose, for an essential features of our tradition, and a reason why it has survived, is that the Conservative Party has often been led by outsiders.

Margaret Thatcher, Harold Macmillan, Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli are four obvious examples: all on occasion could not, as a matter of temperament more than ideology, stomach the Establishment line taken by the then party leader.

All at one time or another – though not of course in perpetuity – were able as a result to appeal to parts of the nation which were far removed from the Establishment, and which regarded the Establishment’s moralising with disgust.

This is the line in which Johnson belongs. He has a particular affinity with Disraeli, a scandalously disreputable figure in his youth, this early history obscured by his ability to charm Queen Victoria, and by posthumous adulation.

Like Disraeli, Johnson has dismayed his liberal opponents by winning support from patriotic working-class voters who believe in the greatness of Britain, symbolised today by Queen Elizabeth II and our armed forces.

The present Queen would never dream of being partisan in the manner of her great great grandmother, but Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for her or the armed forces, and sympathy with various terrorist movements, cost Labour dear in December 2019 among its traditional supporters.

Matthew Goodwin suggested, in a piece yesterday for Unherd entitled “Why Boris Johnson keeps on winning”, that the Prime Minister has so far retained the support of these patriotic working-class voters because like them, he rejects the view of many on the Left that Britain is in decline:

“Ever since the vote for Brexit, Left-wing and liberal writers have been consumed by ‘declinism’: the belief that Britain’s best days are in the past. Declinists are united by the assumption that, because of decisions that went against their own politics, Britain has become a diminished world power, is falling behind other states and is led by incompetent, amateurish elites who either lack the required expertise or ‘correct’ ideology to reverse this decline or, worse, are actively perpetuating it…

“One reason why declinists are so vicious is that they have found themselves written out of the national story — election defeats or referendum outcomes have left them on the sidelines, with little power or influence. One reason why Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza have been so strongly attacked is not only because they committed the double sin of being Conservatives and Brexiteers, but because they are essentially the first group to have gone up against the ‘liberal establishment’ and won.”

Johnson benefits from the disdain of his critics, for it shows his supporters that he is still, in some respects, an outsider, one who is despised rather in the way they were despised when they voted for Brexit. Here is dear old Matthew Parris in a recent column for The Times:

“his colleagues always knew his shamelessness from his personal history. That he isn’t even clever, however, they are only now discovering. If competence shone through then I think the shamelessness would remain an embarrassment that his colleagues would be prepared to suppress. But he’s losing, and the combination of incapacity and shamelessness is beginning to curdle.”

A dozen other commentators might be quoted, all as determined as Parris to take the lowest possible view of the Prime Minister.

One day they will almost certainly be right. Johnson will fall: he will take the blame for something he has done, or even, it may be, for something he has not done, or something many of us thought at the time was a good idea. The role of Prime Minister is essentially sacrificial: ask Lord North, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden or Tony Blair.

But until the culminating debacle, whatever it turns out to be, Parris and the rest render Johnson incomprehensible. How can a man who “isn’t even clever” have won two London mayoral elections, the EU referendum, the leadership of the Conservative Party and a general election?

A second volume is required to plumb this mystery. Is Parris clever enough to see through Johnson, or Johnson clever enough to incur the enmity of Parris? I shall endeavour, while writing it, to provide evidence for both schools of thought.

The people in whose name liberals act are absent from Applebaum’s defence of liberalism

25 Jul

Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends by Anne Applebaum

Anyone wondering what has gone wrong with democracy over the last 20 years should buy this book. It opens with a New Year’s Eve party thrown on 31st December 1999 by Anne Applebaum and her husband Radek Sikorski at Chobielin, their not yet fully restored manor house in an “obscure piece of Polish countryside”.

It ends with a summer party which they gave there in August 2019:

“Nearly two decades later, I would now cross the street to avoid some of the people who were at my New Year’s Eve party. They, in turn, would not only refuse to enter my house, they would be embarrassed to admit they had ever been there. In fact, about half the people who were at that party would no longer speak to the other half. The estrangements are political, not personal. Poland is now one of the most polarised societies in Europe, and we have found ourselves on opposite sides of a profound divide, one that runs through not only what used to be the Polish right but also the old Hungarian right, the Spanish right, the French right, the Italian right, and with some differences, the British right and the American right, too.”

The guests in 1999 are an eclectic mixture of journalists – Applebaum is an American journalist and historian who has by now already worked for The Economist in Warsaw and The Spectator in London – junior diplomats and politicians – Sikorski is at this point Poland’s deputy foreign minister – along with local friends, “a large group of cousins” and “a handful of Polish journalists…none then particularly famous”.

The party lasted all night,

“and was infused with the optimism I remember from that time. We had rebuilt our ruined house. Our friends were rebuilding the country… Poland was on the cusp of joining the West, it felt as if we were all on the same team. We agreed about democracy, about the road to prosperity, about the way things were going.”

Why are they no longer on the same team? Why has a part of the right – including the Law and Justice party in Poland – yielded to “a different set of ideas, not just xenophobic and paranoid but openly authoritarian”?

For Applebaum, this is a treason of the clerks, or of the educated class: she refers to Julien Benda’s work of 1927, La trahison des clercs, in which he described how intellectuals of both the Left and the Right betrayed their essential task, the search for truth, and became propagandists for Soviet Marxism, or else for “national passion” in the form of fascism.

With admirable brevity – the book is under 200 pages long – Applebaum touches on a wide range of countries, including Poland, Hungary, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, and on an even wider range of writers, some of whom have abandoned liberalism and become apologists for authoritarianism.

She recognises the temptation which an authoritarian regime presents to the disappointed, second-rate writer, who by placing his pen at its service obtains the material rewards and significance which have hitherto eluded him.

The poverty of his talents is made up for by his loyalty to the regime, demonstrated by his willingness to acclaim its lies as truth.

Applebaum is acute on the way a one-party state, a form of political organisation invented by Lenin, can be regarded as more just than a democracy which has competing parties:

“If you believe, as many of my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, people who are loyal to the party leader, people who are…a ‘better sort of Pole’ – then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them deserves to rule? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore truly deserving of wealth?”

She has the humility not to pretend fully to understand what is happening:

“There is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution. But there is a theme: Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We can never rest on our laurels and suppose that the end of history has arrived. Even the highest forms of civilisation contain within them the seeds of decay.

All that is true, and yet I think Applebaum’s pessimism is overdone. Or to put it another way: this lament for the failure of liberals to live up to their liberalism could have been written at almost any time since 1789.

There is a void in this book. The people in whose name the liberals act are absent. They have occasional walk-on parts: Sikorski knew almost everyone “including the flight attendants” on the plane which crashed at Smolensk in 2010 with the loss of all on board, including the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, and dozens of senior military figures and politicians: an event since exploited by the Polish right to peddle disgraceful conspiracy theories.

At Applebaum and Sikorski’s parties, unimportant people are of course made welcome. As she writes of last year’s summer party:

“At one point, I noticed the local forest ranger engaged in heated discussion with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, with whom my husband created the Eastern Partnership between the EU and Ukraine several years earlier.”

We do not, unfortunately, discover what point the local forest ranger was trying to impress on Bildt. The ranger is, as it were, a charming decoration, like one of the small, rustic figures which adorn a classical landscape, whose point is to show the imposing scale of the ruins in which the artist and viewer are really interested.

And here is Applebaum on the difficulty which far-right movements often have in forming alliances with each other:

“Relations between the Italian far right and the Austrian far right, for example, once came unstuck after they started arguing, amusingly, over the national identity of South Tyrol, a German-speaking province in northern Italy that has sometimes been Austrian.”

What a wealth of meaning the word “amusingly” carries here. We find ourselves at a dinner party where the foibles of the natives are dismissed as merely ridiculous.

For those who care about it, South Tyrol is not “amusing”: it speaks to deep emotions and loyalties, and carries a weight of history.

If one wants to prevent demagogues from exploiting those emotions, one shouldn’t start by ignoring or downplaying or declaring illegitimate or laughing at the very existence of such feelings and loyalties, while instructing people to forget any inconvenient bits of history.

Liberals have to show they offer a better way, which quite possibly they do: the abolition of borders. But that project can only work if instead of handing it down from on high, as if to their vassals, the liberals first listen with respect to what the people may be attempting, however inconveniently, to say.

Applebaum knows Boris Johnson: her husband was with him in the Bullingdon Club. In her view,

“Both were playing with the old forms of the English class system, acting out some of the rules because it amused them. They enjoyed the Bullingdon not despite [Evelyn] Waugh’s vicious parody, but because of it.”

That sounds right: the Bullingdon was a joke. But part of the joke was at the expense of the priggish middle class, the Puritans shocked by the club’s hooliganism – a hooliganism which, one cannot help thinking, may have put its members more in touch with the hooliganism found in other classes of society, though not, of course, in the middle-class prigs.

Applebaum one day bumps into Johnson in the City of London:

“He was then mayor; he was riding his bike. I waved at him, he stopped, exclaimed over the amazing coincidence, and suggested that we go into a pub for a quick drink.”

Once inside the pub he is mobbed by people demanding selfies. But then they have a chat. She does not tell us what they said, but here we see a man anxious to mend fences, or if possible not to fall out in the first place.

The Conservative Party has endured because it has avoided, at least with greater success than the Liberals or Labour, “the parting of friends”. Let’s have a quick drink.

And let’s find a leader who can connect with the wider public, however much the liberal intelligentsia may despise him – or her, in the case of Margaret Thatcher.

Applebaum at length takes us to Washington DC, where she was an early and outspoken opponent of Donald Trump. She recognises that he represents “another America”:

“This America has no special democratic spirit of the kind Jefferson described. The unity of this America is created by white skin, a certain idea of Christianity, and an attachment to land that will be surrounded and defended by a wall. This America’s ethnic nationalism resembles the old-fashioned ethnic nationalism of older European nations. This America’s cultural despair resembles their cultural despair.”

All this may be true, but does not do much to penetrate with imagination or sympathy into the hearts and minds of Americans who voted for Trump, many of whom regard themselves as followers of Jefferson, president 1801-09, and of Andrew Jackson, president 1829-37.

Morality gets in the way of understanding. These people are deplorable. As I suggested at the end of a recent piece, “American liberals…will do everything they can for the American people short of spending any time with them.”

Andrew Bridgen: It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to expose the scandal of Leicester’s sweatshops

16 Jul

Andrew Bridgen is Member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire.

With its Mayor, three MPs, Police and Crime Commissioner and 96 per cent representation on the city council all from the same political party, the city is called ‘Red Leicester’ for a reason. However, like a cheese that has been around for too long, something smells very bad about what is going on in this great city, which is Leicestershire’s County Town.

On a superficial basis, things look ok: its football team beat the odds to win the Premier League in 2016, it has a famous if faltering rugby team in the Leicester Tigers and an economy that has performed reasonably well in recent years – in part due to the advent of fast fashion and a resurgence of the garment industry in the city.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and the fundamentals don’t quite look as rosy. Indeed, they look extremely sinister. It has now become increasingly apparent that the growth in this industry is on the back of thousands of exploited workers earning between £3-4 per hour – something I warned was happening in Parliament during Business questions back in January.

While I have highlighted this to the Government for a considerable amount of time, the local lockdown of the city and some surrounding suburbs has created national media interest in it, and questions about the reasons behind the surge in Covid-19 cases. People are asking “why Leicester?”

All the evidence that I have seen points to workers who are effectively modern slaves being put into a position where they have to choose to either work or starve during the lockdown.

The internet retailers (who make up over 90 per cent of the factories) and customers have had a bonanza during the lockdown period, as Government policy has forced non-essential retailers to remain closed. This has effectively removed their traditional “physical competition”, and forced anyone who needed or wanted to buy clothes onto the internet.

It’s also a fact that on poverty wages the housing that these modern slaves could afford would be substandard and very overcrowded. I have been told multiple reports of 15 to 20 people forced to “live” in a traditional terraced house, which is usually deemed suitable accommodation for four people.

Leicester’s captive workforce has had to increase production by 50 per cent throughout the lockdown for their internet retailer masters, work even longer hours than normal (while often showing symptoms of the virus – as they don’t get sick pay), in factories without PPE, ventilation or any measures to reduce transmission, only to return home to chronically overcrowded accommodation. It’s a recipe for the spread of the virus and the tragedy we have seen engulf the city.

Representatives of the city council stubbornly maintain that the two issues which propelled Leicester into the media spotlight, namely the Covid-19 outbreak and the existence of illegal sweatshops, are not linked.

However, as said, I don’t think that their claims survive analysis. The hotspot of the virus outbreak in Leicester is in its North East corner, which is in the parliamentary constituency of Leicester East and all the hundreds of illegally-operating factories are also in this part of the city, the former fiefdom of the “Rt Hon” Keith Vaz.

The more I look at Leicester, the more it appears that although the Labour Party is notionally in charge, they are in fact only presiding over a city where the criminals are ruling the roost through a combination of intimidation and cultural blackmail in the knowledge that the authorities are so scared of the potential accusations of racism, that they dare not challenge the Dickensian conditions and the racketeering that exist in “their part“ of city.

When you hear Labour complain about equality, remember the fact that they appear to be happy to allow sweatshop owners driving around in Lamborghinis to threaten journalists trying to expose slave labour conditions in a city that they politically control.

The Government has to take control of this situation – clear out all that’s rotten in this borough. These appalling conditions are stifling legitimate enterprise in this city with the responsible factory owners and employers tarnished while being unable to compete on a level-playing field against those who operate illegally.

All this together with financial cost of loss of revenue to the Treasury through potential tax and benefit fraud and most importantly, the human cost of a slave workforce unable to live a life worth living.

The modern slaves in Leicester are trapped because most of them cannot speak English, and so are disadvantaged in accessing employment and opportunities outside their own closed community. This has to stop and it’s just a shame that it’s taken a pandemic to get people to sit up and take notice.

Priti Patel has given a personal commitment to stamp out these illegal and inhuman employment practices. I and others will be holding her to this pledge.