On the morning after the election I was drinking coffee with one of my heroes, Sir Roger Scruton. We talked about the moment during the 1968 Paris évenéments when Scruton, who had been fairly apolitical up to that point, suddenly discovered he was a conservative.
He had watched the educated children of privilege wantonly destroying the property of their social inferiors in the name of something or other, and realised: ‘Whatever they are for, I am against.’ That was the reason he has spent so much of his life since trying to develop a philosophy of conservatism as thorough, persuasive and enticing as the variations on Marxism so compelling to those students.
I do wish some of those kids who came out en masse for Corbyn last week would google the marvellous essay Scruton once wrote on the subject. Actually, though, I think the people who need to read it even more are the ones who’ve been holding the reins of the Conservative party these past few years, plus their financial backers and apologists among the commentariat. It might remind them of something they appear pretty much to have forgotten since the Thatcher era: the key question, ‘Why we fight’.
Let me quote one recent example of this phenomenon: a tweet from a conservative friend and colleague — and this, mark you, after the result — describing Theresa May’s election manifesto as ‘bold and visionary’.
No it wasn’t. I read the manifesto through quite carefully. I had to because I was going to be grilled by Andrew Neil on BBC1’s This Week that evening and you don’t want to go into such an encounter unprepared. My thesis was that this Tory manifesto was so red it ought to be renamed Das Kapital. I was half joking, but what struck me forcibly as I read it was just how easy it was to find examples to make my case: worker representatives in boardrooms; stuff about the ‘gender pay gap’; the creation of a ‘National Productivity Investment Fund’…
Yes, all water under the bridge now, you might have hoped after seven days of postmortem. Except it’s not, is it? The impulse that led to May’s red manifesto was no different from the one that led to Cameron’s hug-a-husky nonsense or the one which, even now, is causing conservative commentators to argue that maybe May’s ‘social justice’ agenda didn’t go quite far enough.
But ‘social justice’ is a meaningless, feel-good term designed by the left to give a faux-moral gloss to whatever cause they’re currently championing. It cannot, by definition, ever be an attainable conservative goal, because it was framed by leftist propagandists with the sole intention of making conservatives look nasty. The moment conservatives take such concepts seriously they’ve already lost, because they’re fighting a war on the enemy’s terms.
To put it another way, if one party is offering ‘Free cake for all, but responsibly administered, with due regard for calorie and sugar content’ and the other is offering ‘Free cake — as much as you like, with cherries, hundreds and thousands and flavours so delicious you’ll hardly believe they could exist’, which do you think will have more appeal?
We’re often told that conservatives need to make their message relevant to the millennials, who see no likelihood of ever getting a foot on the housing ladder, who despair of seeing a halfway decent return on their expensive degrees, and who quietly resent the older generation for rigging the system and stealing their future. I totally agree. But it’s never going to happen until those conservatives fess up to the fact that for years they’ve been part of the problem.
At the moment, it’s far too easy for the disaffected young to point at the broken system, the gulf between the 1 per cent and the rest, and say: ‘This is why we need socialism.’ That’s because successive conservative administrations — not just in Britain — have failed to explain that the current globalist, communitarian, crony-capitalist, interventionist, central-bank-rigged stitch-up has nothing whatsoever to do with conservatism.
Not only have conservatives failed to repudiate the myth; they’ve actually gone along with it. From the money-printing that’s enriched the asset-owning class (and driven housing ever further beyond the reach of first-time buyers) to micro-managing such as the minimum wage, sugar taxes and the attempt to regulate the ‘gig economy’, Conservative governments have actively conspired against many of the principles — equality of opportunity, personal responsibility, minimal state, free markets — which are the bedrock of true conservatism.
Conservatives have made conservatism look so uninspirational, valueless, undynamic and self-hating that it’s no wonder they’re failing to capture the imaginations of the young who are not — as they’re sometimes glibly mischaracterised — stupid; but who are most definitely passionate and idealistic.
To win the argument, conservatism must do three things. First, it must regain its intellectual coherence. It needs, for instance, to make the case that, while definitely pro-cake, it does not believe it is government’s job to provide it — not least because this will only deny opportunities to those who might prefer blancmange or a steak sandwich instead.
Secondly, it needs to regain the revolutionary zeal that Scruton captures perfectly when he says: ‘I started as a rebel against rebellion.’ Thirdly, it needs an emotional heart: something quite different from all the patronising, touchy-feely nonsense it has been dabbling with ever since someone — I forget who — branded it the ‘nasty party’.
Scruton again: ‘Conservatives are people who love something actual and want to attain it.’ Yes!