I’m trying to imagine what Britain would look like under a Ukip/Conservative coalition with Cameron as PM and Farage as his deputy. The idea fills me with horror.
I think, for example, of the runaway economic boom which would result from the sudden dash to exploit our superabundant shale gas resources; I think of the revolution which would occur in education were free schools freed to make a profit; I think of the rolling back of political correctness, the reinvention of the NHS on the Singapore model, the epic reduction in public spending, the cancellation of High Speed 2, the death of the renewable energy scam. It would be a nightmare, I tell you, a complete bloody nightmare. Whatever would there be left for people like me to write about?
Luckily, it’s not going to happen for at least three reasons. The first is that things you want to happen in politics never do happen: instead — which is why my old mucker Dave is more consummate a politician than I’ll ever be — it’s all about compromise, double–dealing and fudge. And the second is that Dave could never work as comfortably with Farage as he does with Nick Clegg because he’s not remotely right-wing — he’s a social democrat.
A few years ago, when we were still on speaking terms, I put this to Dave at the Spectator party. ‘Dave,’ I said. ‘How come you’ve turned into such a fucking lefty?’ I can’t remember what Dave’s diplomatic reply was. But what I do remember is that he made no attempt to dispute the premise. Even back then — not long after he’d become Conservative party leader — Dave had clearly made up his mind that not being thought right-wing was a stigma about which a potential Tory PM could afford to be intensely relaxed.
Which brings us to the third and most intractable problem with uniting the right: the ‘r’ word has been so successfully discredited by the left that even conservatives balk at it. It is synonymous with ‘crap taste in music; even worse taste in clothes; uselessness in bed; sexism; racism; a fondness for spanking, tarts dressed as French maids, water sports and semi-auto-asphyxiation enjoyed while masturbating with an orange in your mouth; insider dealing; nimbyism; wanton selfishness; environmental vandalism; philistinism; greed; stupidity; cruelty; mendacity; corruption; xenophobia; closed-mindedness; extremism; bigotry; adultery and round, unvarnished evil’.
I wrote that list (in How to Be Right) in 2007 and all that has changed is that you’d now include Anders Breivik. But perhaps, now I think about it, there never was a time when ‘right-wing’ had favourable connotations. When you used to refer to someone as being ‘slightly to the right of Ghengis Khan’, it wasn’t to indicate that he was a fervent advocate of liberty, property rights and lower taxes, was it?
Farage, canny operator that he is, has sensed the danger, too. You rarely if ever hear him apply the ‘r’ word to his party’s policies and he is often at pains to point out that Ukip appeals as much to natural Labour voters as it does to disgruntled Tories. What he’s doing here, of course, is claiming the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, who — as Martin Durkin noted in his brilliant documentary Death of a Revolutionary — wasn’t really a conventional conservative at all but an anti–establishment radical who achieved all she did by pissing off the old high Tory hierarchy and galvanising the working classes.
‘I’d much rather be called Thatcherite than right-wing,’ Lord Bell told me the other day. ‘Being a Thatcherite is a badge of honour, whereas being called right-wing is too loaded and pejorative.’ For similar reasons, he advises Conservatives always to self–describe as Conservatives, never as Tories, a word that lends itself far too easily to being pronounced with a lefty sneer.
So does that mean, then, we should consign the word ‘right’ to the dustbin of history like some crap piece of Ratners jewellery? I’m beginning to wonder. I hardly ever refer to myself as right-wing these days, even in provocation, because I can’t help feeling it does the cause more harm than good. If, simply by association with the ‘r’ word, worthy goals like limited government, national sovereignty and fiscal restraint are made to seem cruel, fascistic and wrong, then clearly the term has long since outworn its usefulness.
With what, though, do we replace it? ‘Classical liberal’ sounds too technical — and is too easily confused with the other kind of liberal. ‘Free market’ sounds too buccaneering and callous. ‘Libertarian’ frightens too many conservative traditionalists. ‘Radical’ sounds too radical. Thatcherite is too freighted with cultural baggage.
Maybe, all things considered, we’ll have to stick with ‘right’ simply because it’s the least worst option. It’s not ideal, but I’m not sure we’ve got the time to sit around trying to dream up something better, because the time for action is now. This is where, for all our occasional differences, I find myself in absolute agreement with Toby Young. He’s a loyal Tory, I’m an out Ukipper, but ideologically we’re two peas in a pod and it strikes me as utterly insane that we find ourselves in parties committed to wiping one another off the map. Does it really have to be this way?
Well, of course Toby will no doubt argue that the Tories have no choice: not with Ukip now promising to contest every seat in the general election, and Farage making no secret of his loathing for Cameron. I’d counter that the natural conservatives in Ukip have no choice either: not with Cameron having so diluted the Conservative brand that it might just as well call itself New Labour.
So it’s going to be like the Civil War, then. Brother against brother; fathers against sons; husbands against in-laws and, at the end, years more misery under a bunch of hatchet-faced puritans. It didn’t need to be this way; it shouldn’t be this way; but it will.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 28 September 2013