Sorry, Matthew, but there’s a Centre Party already – Johnson’s Conservatives

3 May

It’s easier to define what the centre ground of politics isn’t than what it is.  So here goes.

It’s not the same territory in one generation as in the next: political landscapes change – sometimes because of a volcanic eruption, like the financial crash; sometimes more slowly, because of eroding attitudes (on eugenics, say, or over women).

Nor is it found by picking some point halfway between that held by the two main parties.  Most voters aren’t engaged with them in the first place, or with politics at all.

Polling will help you to find it, but the map it provides is confusing – at least to political afficiandos.  For example, most voters are broadly pro-NHS but anti-immigration.  Does that make them Left or Right?

Those two examples help to find the answer – as close to one as we can get, anyway.  Voters lean Left on economics and Right on culture. To their being anti-migration (though less than they were) and pro-health service, we add the following.

English voters are also: patriotic, pro-lockdown, anti-racist, pro-armed forces and supportive of public spending over tax cuts (if forced to choose).

They are somewhat isolationist, pro-Joe Biden rather than Donald Trump, unsupportive of the aid budget when push comes to shove, punitive on crime, and paralysed over housing, where the interests of different generations net out.

Centrist voters, like a lot of others, are also closer to teachers than Ministers, at least if they have children of school age – a headache for reforming Ministers of all parties.

They are pro-environment, but in a certain way: our columnist James Frayne has suggested that there is a consensus for improving food safety, animal welfare, protecting areas of natural beauty and reducing the use of plastic.

(Welsh voters are broadly the same; Scottish ones are divided over patriotism and, as the inter-SNP dispute over trans has demonstrated, probably a bit more to the Right on culture, as well as rather more to the Left on economics.)

James himself, whose fortnightly column on this site we call “Far from Notting Hill”, isn’t himself a million miles away from where this centre currently is.

If you wanted to pick out some issues that give the flavour of it, you could do worse than the following: hospital parking charges, pet kidnappings, the proposed Football Superleague, and the decline of high streets (which doesn’t stop those who complain using Amazon).

This ground was getting bigger, like a widening land enclosure, before Brexit; and leaving the EU has allowed it to become even bigger.  You can see where all this is going.

Theresa May, under the guidance of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had first dibs at occupying this territory – or, if you distrust the metaphor of ground, winning the support of these voters – remember “citizens of nowhere”, and all that.

She made a botch of the job, and Boris Johnson had a second go.  Do you want to go Left on economics?  If so, you’ll welcome his government’s proposed Corporation Tax rises, the record borrowing, the superdeduction for manufacturing, the net zero commitments.

Do you want to go Right on culture?  There’s less for you here, given the quiet shift to a more permissive migration policy.  Even so, you can rely on Johnson not to “take a knee”, unlike Keir Starmer; and to commission the Sewell Report; and to protect statues.

We are over five hundred words into this article, and haven’t yet deployed those two reverberating words: “Red Wall”.  But now we have, that the Conservatives hold, say, Burnley, Redcar and West Bromwich East says something about this new centre and who lives in it.

Whatever this week’s local, Mayoral, Scottish and Wesh elections may bring, these voters are Johnson’s to lose – if Starmer can’t grab enough of them: he has done nothing to date to suggest that he can.

If you want to know why this is so, consider the three most coherent alternatives to today’s Johnsonian centre party.  First, one that begins by being to the right of it on economics.

It would be for a smaller state, free markets, lower taxes and personal freedom.  This outlook is likely to drag it to left on culture: for example, it would not be uncomfortable with the present immigration policy, and not always exercised by “woke”.

It members might include: Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Matt Ridley, Steve Baker, Lee Rowley, Sam Bowman, Crispin Blunt and our columnists Ryan Bourne, Emily Carver and Dan Hannan.

We see no reason why it shouldn’t include economically liberal former Remainers other than Truss – such as, talking of this site columnists, David Gauke.  Or, if you really want to put the cat among the pigeons, George Osborne.

Next up, a party that starts by being to the left on culture.  This already exists.  It’s called the Labour Party.  It’s Dawn Butler going on about “racial gatekeepers” and Nadia Whittome refusing to condemn the Bristol rioters.

It’s Angela Rayner claiming that the former husband of the Conservative candidate in Hartlepool was once a banker in the Cayman Islands.  (He was a barrister and the head of banking supervision at the islands’ Monetary Authority.)

It’s Zarah Sultana calling on prisoners to be prioritised for Covid vaccinations, and Labour voting against the Crime and Policing Bill.  It’s Starmer himself taking a knee in his office rather than in public – so seeking both to placate his party’s left while also hoping no-one else notices.

Finally, we turn to a party that begins by being to the right on culture: a successor to the Brexit Party.  The Conservatives may be leaving a gap for it here with their new immigration policy.

Which means that it would be likely to pick up more voters outside London and the Greater South-East, which in turn would drag it leftwards on economics.

This is the ground that Nigel Farage occupied, that his Reform UK party is now trying to recover under Richard Tice, and that a mass of others are sniffing around: Reclaim (that bloke from Question Time), the Heritage Party, the SDP (no relation; not really).

In electoral terms, this new Labour Party would be best off junking its efforts in provincial working-class seats altogether, and competing with the Greens and Liberal Democrats for the urban, university-educated and ethnic minority vote. Think Bristol West.

Our new economically liberal party could begin by diving into the blue heartlands from which city workers commute into the capital.  Think St Albans.

And the various revamp parties would try to paint the Red Wall purple, where voters may have backed one of the two main ones, but have no love for either of them. Think, say…well, anywhere within it.

We apologise for coming so late to the cause of this article: Matthew Parris’ column in last Saturday’s Times, where he yearned for a “sober, moderate, intelligent and morally reputable centre party”, and asked “where is it”?

He’s right that the Conservatives’ grip on the centre will weaken sooner or later: because another volcanic eruption blows it apart, or it sinks below the sea…or Johnson blows himself up or sinks instead.

But he’s mistaken about what the centre is.  Or, more precisely, he identifies it with himself.  But many sober, moderate, intelligent and reputable voters backed the Tories in 2019, if only for want of anything else – and still do, it seems.

The real centre isn’t where Matthew or ConservativeHome or anyone else wants it to be.  It’s where it is, as cited above.  Johnson’s bottom squats on it, and he’s no intention of moving.

David Skelton: Why we should properly celebrate Saint George’s Day

23 Apr

David Skelton is the author of Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map.

Every St George’s Day, I have a bit of a ritual, which goes beyond the celebratory pint. I try to read Orwell’s ‘Lion and the Unicorn’, possibly one of the finest essays in the English language and almost certainly the finest essay ever written about England.

For Orwell, Englishness was a profoundly positive force and something to be celebrated. He argued that, “there is something distinctive and recognisable about English civilisation… it has a flavour of its own… it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past… And above all, it is your civilisation, it is you… The suet puddings and the red pillar boxes have entered into your soul.”

His Englishness was very much of the left. The essay is, after all, subtitled “Socialism and the English Genius”, but he was very much aware that elements of the left were deeply hostile to Englishness and deeply antagonistic to patriotism.

For him, the English intelligentsia represented an “island of dissident thought”, with England being the “only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.” In some left-wing circles, there was “a duty to snigger at every English institution”, bemoaning the fact that throughout “the critical years” many left-wingers “were chipping away at English morale”, trying to “spread an outlook that was sometimes squashily pacifist… but always anti-British.”

That brings me to another annual St George’s Day ritual. Each year, without fail, various elements of the smug left-wing Twitterati remind us that “St George wasn’t actually English” and expect this information to act as a blinding revelation. Other elements of left wing social media either snigger at any mention of St George’s Day or seem appalled at any kind of patriotism.

We’ve all seen the Twitter accounts that treat the English or the British flag as something to be ashamed about and complain about “flag waving” and “jingoism”. These are often the same people who merrily waved Palestinian flags at the Labour Party conference and have European, Palestinian (and almost every flag other than their own) festooned across their Twitter account. They’re often sensitive souls too. One, with the inevitable EU flag on their social media profile, complained that Morrison’s use of the Union Flag on their porridge was “unpleasant and intimidating.”

The problem for Sir Keir Starmer is that such hostility to Englishness and patriotism isn’t just a fringe element in the modern left. In many ways it is the modern left. Despite the good work of the likes of Jon Cruddas and John Denham, a snobbery that looks down on working class patriotism has become the norm.

Little wonder that so many patriotic former Labour heartlands fell to the Conservatives in 2019. As Maurice Glasman argued, Labour became out of touch “with its history, traditions and the communities that cherished and created it. So out of touch that it couldn’t see the rejection coming.”

The new snobs of the left are completely wrong when they argue that Englishness and St George’s Day are somehow divisive. The truth is that Englishness is very much an inclusive identity, and that many of the recent events that brought us together as a country were based around Englishness. Who could forget the incredible feeling throughout the country when Gareth Southgate’s multi-racial England team made it to the World Cup semi finals in 2018? The only people who weren’t surfing the wave of patriotism seemed to be the Guardian columnists who were seemingly happy to support anyone but England.

Polls show that people from every background see Englishness as an inclusive and unifying concept. A poll for British Future showed that 61 per cent of people think that the St George’s flag should be flown more often and  a majority of ethic minority voters think St George’s Day parties should be held; 54 per cent of voters believe that paying more attention to Englishness would unite communities.  Nor is celebrating Englishness something that should detract from our precious union: 70 per cent of people in England regard themselves as both British and English.

The vast majority of people see England, its complex history and traditions with a sense of real pride. Centuries of freedom, expressed through our Parliament, is a central part of this pride. Today also marks Shakespeare’s birthday and it’s a reminder of the power of the English language, from the Authorised Version through to Byron and Blake. It has helped to define a culture that has made such a profound difference to the world. A uniquely English use of language is still very clear in the lyrics of people like Alex Turner, Ray Davies, Joe Strummer and Pete Doherty.

There’s so much to celebrate in English music, architecture and culture, which has spread English identity globally; and more locally, in the English pub, English humour, the beauty of the English countryside, and the great games of football and cricket.

Celebrating Englishness is something that will help to strengthen a sense of community. We have all seen local communities come together during lockdown and we should do what we can to maintain these new bonds.

Strengthening community is, of course, a key goal of the Government and Danny Kruger set out a number of sensible proposals in his excellent Levelling Up Our Communities report. Many of the ‘Red Wall’ towns that drove Brexit are also towns that have seen community facilities and “social infrastructure” damaged by deindustrialisation, austerity and economic decline.  Marking important occasions, like St George’s Day, isn’t going to revive community spirit single-handedly (that needs genuine empowerment of local people and renewal of local facilities), but it will be a step in helping restore community spirit.

Community will not be strengthened by an identity-obsessed left or by economically reductionist libertarians. As conservatives, we instinctively understand the importance of place, community and continuity and doing more to mark St George’s Day will strengthen all three. We should make a much bigger deal of St George’s Day and make it a day for everyone to share our pride in England and Englishness. Why not make St George’s Day a bank holiday in England as St Andrew’s Day is in Scotland or St Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland?

As James Frayne argued on these pages a few months ago, bringing back local events is an important way of restoring local pride and a sense of community and the revival of St George’s Day events in 2022 and beyond would be a great way of bringing communities together.

When he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was right to push back against the lunacy of London spending millions on St Patrick’s Day parades but doing nothing for St George’s Day. He introduced free events and celebrations so that the day was no longer ignored in London and correctly argued that “St George’s Day is a time to celebrate the best of everything English.”

Just as London started to celebrate St George’s Day properly when Boris was Mayor, hopefully from next year onwards the rest of England can be encouraged to mark the day as well. This year, we can mark the occasion in a beer garden, in a socially distanced way. Next year, when the nightmare of Covid is behind us, hopefully people in villages, towns and cities around England will be able to come together to celebrate our Englishness and raise a glass to St George.

New and old reasons for flying the flag

25 Mar

Come with ConservativeHome for a stroll along Whitehall.  Do you see that Union flag above the Treasury, and do you know why it’s there?  Because of Gordon Brown.

In his first Commons statement as Prime Minister, Brown declared that he would lift the restrictions that barred the Union flag from flying above government buildings for more than 18 days a year.  The date explains his decision.  That statement was made on July 5 2007.  Five days earlier, Islamist terrorists had attempted a mass atrocity at Glasgow airport.

Brown’s initiative was an aspect of the focus in Westminster and Whitehall at the time on integration: flying the flag would help to unite the country.  It is worth pondering what he did in the wake of last week’s consequential BBC interview of Robert Jenrick.

“Your flag is not up to the size of Government interview measurements,” Charlie Stayt, a BBC Breakfast presenter, said to the Housing Secretary as an interview ended.  “We’ve seen it every day, haven’t we?” he added to his co-presenter, Naga Munchetty, who was interjecting “always a flag”.

There was a rumpus, and now comes the news that whereas Brown allowed government buildings to fly the flag each day, Oliver Dowden will require them to.  It’s remarkable what a single interview can achieve.

One might react to the Culture Secretary’s decision by wondering if the presenters had a point.  Englishness and understatedness are bound up together, and seldom more so than when it comes to patriotism.  There’s no need to make an exhibition of it in order to show that we have it, and that Ministers are now seldom filmed at work without a Union flag is cynical and exploitative.

Our view is that, whatever may be said of this take, it neglects the context: the way in which Munchetty turned her head away in scorn, for example, as she added: “there’s a picture of the Queen there as well”.

But do you see what we did there?  Englishness and understatement, we wrote.  But the point Brown was making was about Britishness.  The sum of his argument was that amidst a new terrorist threat, much of it from people who had been born or raised here, we needed to rally round what the flag is – a symbol of our common nationhood and identity.

Both now face a new though democratically pursued, non-violent threat: Scottish nationalism.  Flying the Union flag above a building is a response to it.  So would be putting it on a plaque in a facility in Scotland financed by the Shared Prosperity Fund.

That the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation has been said often enough for us not to repeat it at length, but one would hope that its presenters understand it.  If enough of them don’t, and show it, their disdain will be self-defeating.  Public support for the Corporation will fall and the licence fee will end sooner.

There is a bigger context.  It is easy for the part of the the UK that has over 80 per cent of the population to assume that it’s the whole – to bask, as it were, in the superiority of numbers, get complacent, and take our country for granted.

Broadly speaking, this is what has been happening (Northern Ireland’s peculiar circumstances aside) since Margo MacDonald won the Glasgow Govan by-election for the SNP in 1973.  There is a case for the devolution settlement in Scotland that Brown co-crafted and one against, but it is incontrovertible that, if one’s measure is the stability of the Union, it has failed.

And if Ministers sit down for broadcasts with the Union flag, don’t worry about them using it for advantage.  The British people are wonderfully knowing, and can sniff out insincerity in a moment.

If Boris Johnson does so, for example, they will make a judgement about him and his party.  Ditto Keir Starmer.  Given the adolescent state of the left, in auto-protest against Britain’s history as a whole, the comparison is unlikely to be his advantage.  That may be rough justice on Starmer himself, but there you go.

Ultimately, the Jenrick saga is a reminder that patriotrism is not only a matter of duty but also one of taste.  If he had appeared in that interview wearing a small Union Flag badge on his lapel, even the most left-wing BBC presenter would be unlikely to have said a word.

If, on the other hand, he had appeared in the full Union Flag three-piece suit, complete with red white and blue top hat, even the most right-wing ConHome commenter would have assumed that he had either a) gone mad or b) was making a leadership bid, or both.  Or was preparing to fly himself from the bows of a warship.

Whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, we should get used to that taste being a bit broader, a bit more transatlantic-flavoured, than it used to be.  There are good reasons for it.

Mark Lehain: “The Government stands unequivocally against critical race theory.” The significance of Badenoch’s speech this week.

22 Oct

Mark Lehain is Director of the Campaign for Common Sense, and the founder and former Principal of Bedford Free School.

On Tuesday, towards the end of an otherwise run-of-the-mill debate on Black History Month in the Commons, Kemi Badenoch said the following:

“I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory… We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

And boom: there it is – the clearest statement yet that the Government is serious about taking on some of the hard-left ideas that have taken hold of large chunks of the public and private sectors in recent times.  You can see the whole of Badenoch’s speech above.

Her words build on guidance released by the Department for Education last month, which contained a reminder for schools of their legal obligation to “offer a balanced presentation of opposing views” when covering political issues.

The requirement for schools to be impartial on such matters is longstanding including private schools and academies – but you wouldn’t think this was the case judging by the reaction of some people. Even John McDonell popped up to claim it was more evidence that a “drift towards extreme Conservative authoritarianism is gaining pace”, bless him.

Reminding people of a law that growing numbers are ignoring is important, but not in itself enough.

My campaign group, The Campaign for Common Sense has been tracking the issue of biased schools for a while now, and we’ve four simple, low-effort, suggestions as to how schools can be helped to get back on track.

First of all, the Department for Education should work with the Headteacher unions to develop further guidance and exemplification on the kinds of issues that are tripping schools up. (Sadly, there’s no point talking to the big teacher unions as they’re completely in thrall to Critical Race Theory and other leftist ideology.)

Next, Gavin Williamson should write to the Headteacher and Chair of Governors (or Trustees) of every school in England. He would remind them of their obligations to impartiality, and share the results of the union collaboration to assist with compliance.

Third, schools are already obliged to publish curriculum details on their website, and we propose that they add to this a statement from the Headteacher confirming one thing: that they have checked the curriculum programme and resources and are satisfied that pupils will received a politically impartial education. (They should be doing this already, so this is literally two-minutes work for them.)

Finally, Ofsted should spot-check for impartiality as part of their inspection process; this could be whilst evaluating the “Quality of Education” or “Personal Development” areas. If non-compliance meant a school’s all-important “Overall Effectiveness” judgement couldn’t be “Good” or better, you can be sure political balance would be restored very quickly indeed.

These steps would go a long way to improving things for pupils, but it raises questions about the wider public sector.

The previous Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education was particularly keen on Critical Race theory and other “woke” ideas, but even though he has been moved on the department still runs “Project Race”, and has civil servants who act as “Race Champions”. Much time and money is also given over to other politically correct initiatives including gender identity, unconscious bias, and so on. And of course, this is happening across all departments, not just education.

Stopping civil servants from allocating precious resources to these kinds of things is vital if politically contested ideas are going to be removed and the Civil Service depoliticised.

It probably shouldn’t stop there, though – after all, lots of public services are provided by quangos, third sector organisations, and charities. Obviously, how these organisations spend their own or other people’s money is absolutely their own business. But future public sector grants and contracts should insert a clause that the money that comes from them cannot be spent on politically contested ideas and practices.

All of the above would make a big difference to the focus and quality of lots of our public services. However, these changes would pale into insignificance if the government got the right people into key roles.

Consider how Liz Truss has taken the heat out of the issue of transgender rights and self-ID. Or the way the Commission of Race and Ethnic Disparities is moving the issue of racism away from emotions and onto evidence & practical improvements.

And look at the impact of a quiet letter to museums about historical displays places previously under pressure to remove objects are now standing firm.

The bad ideas we’re challenging are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – point out how wrong they are, and they quickly fall apart.

Marvel at the impact Badenoch made with a few words in parliament. Now imagine a government filled with similarly clear-sighted souls. We could quickly get back to common sense issues and improving everyday lives. Here’s hoping that Badenoch’s speech in parliament marked the start of a concerted push, and not a chance blast in the dark.

Johnson believes faith in the nation can unite lifelong Tories and traditional Labour supporters

6 Oct

Before Boris Johnson delivered his conference speech, Rachel Sylvester suggested, in her column in The Times, that he

“is fortunate to be speaking on a video link rather than in person because he might have received a less rapturous reception than normal.”

It is true that the Prime Minister is, as often happens to holders of that office, less popular than he used to be. But the idea that he was lucky not to be performing in front of a live audience is preposterous.

His difficulties spring not only from the often inadequate response by the authorities to Covid-19, but from the impossibility, during the pandemic, of engaging with live audiences.

Johnson is one of the few speakers in any party who has taken the enormous trouble needed to master the art of the conference speech. For year after year on these occasions, he would for an hour or two steal his party leader’s thunder, by showing he knew better than David Cameron or Theresa May how to make Conservatives feel good about being Conservative.

This year, one cannot judge how his oratory went down in the hall. He spoke, however, in much the same manner as he would have employed if he had been in front of a live audience:

“I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges – and I can tell you that no power on earth was and is going to do that – and I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.”

This is designed not only to convince those ready to be convinced, but also to infuriate those ready to be infuriated.

“Drivel” and “seditious propaganda” are deliberately insulting ways to describe all those high-minded columns by Sylvester and other distinguished pundits who devote their intellects to the task of demonstrating that Johnson is a scoundrel.

That he has the effrontery to accuse them of “sedition”, as if he were a monarch, just confirms his unfitness for office, a truth which will shortly become so obvious and embarrassing that Conservative MPs will bundle him out of power.

One day this forecast will turn out to be true, but meanwhile this kind of commentary runs the risk of underestimating the Prime Minister’s chances of success. As Tom McTague observes in The Atlantic, again and again Johnson has been written off, and again and again he has survived and in due course prospered.

Nor does the failure to understand Johnson end there. Members of the commentariat ask what his ideology is, and point out, after making their investigations, that he does not have one.

This is true, but what they fail to see is that this is in many ways a strength. He has not strapped himself, or had himself strapped by others, into an ideological straitjacket.

He is a Tory pragmatist, interested in what works in practice, not what looks good on paper.

Pragmatism is an unexciting virtue, but Johnson has a gift for making dull stuff sound more attractive than it would from some other speaker:

“It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, and propelled this country to commercial greatness.”

One has only to imagine, with a shudder, how dreary the green energy proposals would have sounded in the mouth of any other party leader.

Johnson confirmed with this speech that he stands in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli. Here is Robin Harris, in The Conservatives: A History, explaining at the end of his two chapters on Disraeli what mattered most to that statesman:

“As Salisbury said in the Lords in tribute to his old chief – a man he increasingly grew to respect, though never to like: ‘Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life.’ When the mythology is stripped away – the overwritten novels, the overwrought expressions, the mysterious allusions, all later wrapped up in the hugely successful and highly eccentric trappings of the Primrose League – that simple core remains. ‘The greatness of England’ (by which Disraeli meant Britain, but never thought it necessary to explain) is his decisive contribution to the idea which the Conservative Party has of itself, and which, down through the decades, it has wanted others to have of it.”

And here is Johnson at the end of his speech:

“That is the Britain we can build – in its way, and with all due respect to everywhere else, the greatest place on earth; indeed that is the country and the society we are in the process of building.

“And I know that it seems tough now, when we are tackling the indignities and cruelty and absurdity of the disease, but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we are simply not going to let it hold us back or slow us down, and we are certainly not going to let it get us down, not for a moment, because even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.”

Here, ignored by superior commentators, is the faith in the nation which Johnson believes can unite lifelong Conservatives with the traditional Labour supporters who voted Conservative for the first time last December.

Conservatives can’t be neutral about culture

7 Sep

MPs are to be made to take unconscious bias training.  A former Prime Minister of Australia is targeted because he is a social conservative.  The British Library links changes to the way it will work to George Floyd’s murder in America.   Extinction Rebellion clip the wings of a free press.  Senior civil servants declare publicly for Black Lives Matter.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have a majority of 80.  But the Left’s long march through the institutions seems, if anything, to speed up.

And the Government either won’t do anything about it or doesn’t want to – or both.  What’s the point of a Tory Government, a stonking majority and Brexit itself if nothing changes?

That’s the case for the prosection from some on the Right.  Should Johnson and his Government be found guilty?

The first thing a fair-minded jury would do is mull the charge sheet above.  It would see at once that the incidents and developments above vary in important ways.  For example, the Executive does not control the Legislature.  So whether to conduct bias training or otherwise is a matter for MPs, not Ministers.

The second course it would take is to try to work out what government should and shouldn’t do.  To take another example, Ministerial control of police operations would be alien to the British model of policing by consent, and to a free society.

Third, it would ask those at the top of the Government what they have to say for themselves.  The answers ConservativeHome gets when it puts that question, off the record, is a mix of the following.

Downing Street has “limited bandwidth” – i.e: fewer people than it needs.  Changing the culture of government is like turning round a supertanker, but it can be done.  Look at the change of tone from the BBC’s new Director-General.  And there are victories as well as defeats: the corporation backed down over Last Night of the Proms and the Government didn’t over Abbott’s appointment.

But that’s not all that some of our sources will say when they’re being candid.  They say that the Prime Minister moves slowly not just for reasons of political calculation, but because he’s internally conflicted.  His upbringing, attitudes and reflexes are liberal as well as conservative.  So he moves cautiously – being slower out of traps to champion the singing of Rule Britannia, as it happens, than did Keir Starmer.

You, ladies and gentlemen of the conservative jury, will reach your own verdict – or, if you’re sensible, conclude that putting the Government on a trial after it has had less than a year in office is premature.  Nonetheless, here’s our provisional take.

Johnson is denounced by much of the Remain-flavoured Left as a British Trumpian Bannonite – a misreading which helps to explain why he keeps on winning.  He is right not to declare a culture war from Downing Street.  The British people aren’t in our view enthusiasts for wars of any kind.

But if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see that one of the reasons he doesn’t need to declare such a war is that is already being fought.  The noisiest and nastiest parts of it tend to be where race, sex and religion are contested.

Those in the front line aren’t necessarily conservatives, let alone Conservatives.  They include J.K.Rowling as well as Katherine Birbalsingh (who’s being interviewed live by Mark Wallace this week ; Germaine Greer as well as Nigel Biggar.

That they and others are in the hottest parts of the action may explain why, to large parts of the conservative movement, the real heroes of our time are private citizens rather than public ones.  Consider the case of Jordan Peterson.

Some will say that the Conservative Party, and the centre-right more broadly, is divided about this cultural struggle, citing such telltale signs as Matt Hancock deliberately declaring “Black Lives Matter” at a Government Coronavirus press conference, or Grant Shapps declaring that he’d check Abbott’s record before going for a drink with him.

We think this is an over-complication.  Sure, conservatives won’t always agree about culture any more than they will about economics.  That’s why, inter alia, the flavour of David Cameron’s Downing Street was different from that of Johnson’s.  Near the top, there were fewer northern accents, more women, and fewer “weirdos and misfits”.

But we suspect that if Tory MPs were surveyed, the following attitudes would be found.  Support for equality of opportunity, or as close as one can get to it, rather than equality of outcome.  Much less backing for abortion on demand than on the Labour benches.  Much more for the free market being a friend of the environment, not an enemy.  Caution on reforming the Gender Recognition Act.   Agreement that real diversity must include a diversity of viewpoints.  Disagreement that poor working-class white people have a race privilege.  Poll them and prove us wrong.

In other words, Conservative MPs are more likely to share the patriotic instincts of most voters than Labour ones.  If you doubt it, ask yourself why Starmer is so anxious to present as Labour a patriotic party; why he was quicker than Johnson in coming out for Rule Britannia, and whywe read – his team want to present him as a very British hero who led in prosecuting an Islamist bomb plot. That’s solid ground for the Prime Minister to have beneath him

So while these are early days, we say that just because a Tory Government can’t – and shouldn’t – do everything, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t do something.  For example, there is a Minister for the Civil Service.  He is no less senior a figure than the Prime Minister himself.

So it’s up to Johnson to ensure that senior civil servants don’t promote, in practice if not in theory, causes that are outside any reasonable reading of its code – such as Black Lives Matter which, on any impartial reading, is tainted by anti-white dogma.  (Which doesn’t for a moment preclude following-up on Theresa May’s observation that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.)

Cultural change isn’t driven by governments, and thank goodness for that.  Over time, those that have transformed human lives most are the products of human invention (railways; the pill; vaccines) or conviction (the Abrahamic religions; the Enlightenment; secular humanism – or, talking of black lives mattering, America’s civil war.

But though the role of government should be limited, it is real, and modern Britain will always be more than just a market with a flag on top.  Governments propose laws, present manifestos, fund public services, make arguments – just as Johnson’s pre-election one did for delivering Brexit. And, talking of Extinction Rebellion, set the framework for policing policy.

We’d like to see the Prime Minister speak more swiftly when what Neil O’Brien calls the New Puritans – i.e: the legions of the woke – try to silence their opponents.  And ensure that the Government keeps them out of what government does.  Were Cummings and co to reduce its size and scope, that task would become just a bit easier.

Andrew Bowie: We need to rediscover the quiet strength of British patriotism

5 Sep

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

It is ironic that one of the most distinctive British traits is a desire not to be seen to be overly patriotic. Not for us the flag waving, star-spangled brashness of our cousins over the pond; nor for the Brits the haughty, aloof self-confidence of our Gallic friends on the other side of the channel.

No, for us, a quiet, polite pride in who we are and what we stand for. Understated, unspoken, inoffensive, British.

A couple of minutes silence in November to commemorate our war dead; a parade one morning in early June to celebrate the birthday of the Queen; the closest the United Kingdom gets to national commemoration, celebration or recognition of who we are and what our nation has achieved.

Compare to the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris or the 4th of July fireworks in the USA.

Britain never needed these displays of greatness. Our nation was not forged from war or revolution, nor liberated from tyranny and fascism. Never have we suffered invasion and the indignity of occupation; we were not liberated from a foreign power. Never have we, unlike the Founding Fathers or Charles De Gaulle, had to reinvent ourselves, rebuild, or build anew our national identity.

To be British was understood; our greatness self-evident and accepted. We didn’t need to shout it from the roof tops. This is the country that abolished slavery, that fought with our Commonwealth, Empire, and allies to free the world from oppression, Nazism, and Communism; helped found the United Nations and NATO; and stood as a beacon for the poor and dispossessed of the world as a symbol of hope that good will, forever, overcome evil.

Of course, there are moments in our national story that we cannot be proud of. Our cities and empire grew on the back of the vile trade in human life long before we abolished it, and peoples across the world suffered from episodes of ill-judged and aggressive expansionism and exploitation at our hands and the hands of other European powers. We must understand and accept that in history, there is not, ever, one single view.

But I think, one of the glories of modern Britain is that have been, unlike many other countries with similarly blemished histories, confident enough in who we are to be able to reflect, debate, and discuss the rights and wrongs of our past without feeling ashamed of who we are or who what we represent.

So why this recent bout of uncertainty? Why this national vacillation about what Britain is? For what reason are we deemed to be in the middle of a culture war when in many ways the celebration of different cultures is what has made this country great since it was created through the binding together of our island in the Act of Union in 1707?

This week’s debate on whether or not the BBC should allow the singing of Rule Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms is symbolic of the national lack of confidence in ourselves. A lack of certainty in the future – in who we, the British, are. In what our country is and what we want it to be.

In Scotland, the SNP agitate for separation. On streets in our great cities, protests erupt and previous national heroes are held up as symbols of imperial oppression. People are questioning what Brexit means for our national identity. It is a time of confusion for many.

But I also know that this is a great country. A truly great country. A country that leads the world in so many ways. In foreign aid and charitable giving to the poorest on our planet. In combating climate change through government action, such as our determination to reach net zero carbon emissions or in the investment and research into green technology at our renowned research institutions. Our universities are the envy of most of the world. On the sporting field, in theatres, galleries, film and television and in technology, this country punches above its weight.

Our Armed Forces remain respected and relied upon by our allies, ready to fight and defend our friends and promote democracy and the rule of law wherever and whenever we are called upon to do so.

Ours is a tolerant nation. A proud multi-cultural nation. Survey after survey has found that Britain is one of the least racist and most accepting countries in the world. That is not to say that racism does not exist, and where it does we must call it out. but compared to many of our European neighbours, we are more welcoming and understanding than most. We are one of the most LGBT+ friendly countries in the world.

We have so much work to do. We must address our imperfections. We must examine this national downbeat mood. We must answer why we so lack confidence in who we are that our national broadcaster can contemplate not devoting fifteen minutes of one Saturday evening to a patriotic sing-song.

We must bring our country together; our people together. Uniting our country. That, for me, is the great challenge of this Government – of our generation. That is what ‘levelling up’ means.

I would not recognise a country that was more aggressively patriotic. More flags are not for me. I like the quiet, unspoken pride we share in being British.

But I am confident in Britain and our future. And if we can be confident in who we are and what our national mission is, then we have no need to erase our past. Let us instead build on it. Good and ill. Victory and defeat. Fair and unfair. It is our history. We should own it just as we own our future

These BBC Bourbons who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing risk precipitating their own downfall

26 Aug

The upper reaches of BBC management suffer from an unfortunate inability to comprehend any opinion which happens not to coincide with what they themselves think.

Almost anyone else would have known that vandalising the Last Night of the Proms would provoke a furious reaction.

It is not necessary to be, oneself, an enthusiastic singer of Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory in order to realise that to many people, these performances give enormous and innocent pleasure.

The idea of an innocent pleasure is alien to the modern puritans who run the BBC. They detect guilt where others hear simply a song.

A dreadful literal-mindedness is brought to bear on the interpretation of lyrics, even of single words, whose spirit can never be caught by such pedantry.

“Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” is not a line which implies that other people ought to be enslaved. It is a joyful affirmation of the liberty which Britons are fortunate enough to possess, and are determined to defend. How absurd to need to spell this out.

But perhaps by behaving in such a ridiculous way the BBC has done the country a service. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, seized the chance to observe that “enjoying patriotic songs” is no barrier to examining our past and learning lessons from it.

Boris Johnson went one better and declared, “I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history.”

The pharisaical notion that one can show how high-minded one is by expressing one’s shame at the country’s history has taken a knock.

There are doubtless things we do now, and songs we sing, which in years to come will seem in poor taste, or worse.

The wider public knows how unfair it is to condemn one epoch for failing to meet the standards of another. Yet more and more, the modern puritans invite us to take this attitude to the past, and to savour the delights of a cost-free self-righteousness.

Anyone who refuses to share in their censoriousness can be condemned as a sinner. Here is a monstrous intolerance, disguised as a higher morality.

Employ some forbidden expression, sing some forbidden lyric, and you can be cast into outer darkness, never again to be invited to move in the polite society where BBC managers spend the few hours they can spare from leading the rest of us in the paths of virtue and of truth.

The public is fed up with such condescension. These BBC Bourbons who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing are in danger of precipitating their own downfall.