Who’s Tory or Right-wing now?

Within a few days of each other there has been a very good trio of newspaper articles on how one defines a Conservative, not least in contrast to or comparison with one’s being a Right-winger. I am taking the opportunity to locate my idea of a Civilised Right-winger in this picture.

Lionel Shriver was the most fascinating of our three, as she mourned the Left’s brilliant triumph in associating the left-wing with the virtuousness of liberalism. (“What do I call myself now that the Left has made ‘Right-wing’ synonymous with ‘racist’?”, The Telegraph, 18 May 2019). Equally, she said, the left has succesfully condemned the right-wing to association with fascism and racism.

She made what I would call the mistake of assuming that one might as well abandon any attempt to reclaim any virtue for any variety of right-wingery. But she did insist that at least some people – mostly baby-boomers – were making some efforts toward noting the illiberalism of many so-called liberals of the left. (I have called these latter the Bossy Liberals, and they are in a very old tradition.)

Shriver was good on how the left, and not just its extremists, have successfully stigmatised the right, including its moderates, as extremist. Of course some are, but that doesn’t remotely mean that all are. It is truer to say that all right-wingers are radical. Right-wingers are also reactionary, in the sense that many of their positions are adopted in response to the success of left-wing or Bossy Liberal ideologies.

The left has a sort of point on another related matter: to declare oneself as a right-winger is indeed to say one is an ideologue of one sort or another. It is to be in some sense doctrinaire. That is why it is never quite right to say that Tories (or Conservatives) are right-wingers: the former are studiedly pragmatic and the latter are very variously intellectuals, idealists, dreamers, or street fighters according to their type and style.

Inserting myself amongst these three distinguished writers, but I hope in a relevant way, I assert that I am a Civilised Right-winger. Here are few of the beliefs of such a one, I say. Liberty is a balance of freedom and order. The state should use taxation or its own mechanisms to do good only in cases where every other avenue of getting the jobs done have failed. The free market’s vigour, moderated by minimal but clever legislation, is a wonderful thing. Strong and resilient individuals make strong and resilient societies. Meritocratic and moral elites in any sort of leadership, and especially in professions, are essential. Tough love trumps feelgood compassion. Poverty is much more of a problem than inequality. It is a fact and not a bad thing that humans have limited empathy. The nation state is about as large a unit as can constitute a polity. The family can take many forms and still retain its ancient role as a social bedrock.

If all this sounds almost uncontroversial and yet appals the liberal soft-left and strikes many in the media as outlandish, then that supports much of Lionel Shriver’s case. It is, much of it, beyond electoral reality. But as a doctrine it should not be ashamed of itself and the Conservative – or some such – party would take almost as much risk in forever running away from it as in immediately embracing it. The Conservative Party faces the difficulty that the further left Labour goes, the harder it is to stand up for capitalism and the individual.

Charles Moore was next up in the left-right, Tory-or-not trio. (“Who is the true Tory among the contenders?”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 June 2019.) He attempted a rating of leading contenders for the Conservative Party leadership (and thus the Premiership of the country). He chose some rather eccentric defintions of the Tory type to placed the serious runners on a One-to-Tory spectrum and the surprising thing was that only two of seven candidates (Boris Johnson and Rory Stewart) scored more than 5. Johnson at 7 seems too unreliable to be worth rating so high (though his Heineken effect may make him a winner). The attractive Rory Stewart, at 6, though probably worth the score is also perhaps the likeliest of all the candidates to be unpopular (if only on Brexit grounds) with many members of the Conservative Party.

I do not entirely agree with Moore’s definition of a Tory. Tories believe they must be ready to govern the country, they aim to fend off socialism and they are allergic to dogmatic liberalism. These three ideas require them to be pragmatic and businesslike. After all, this is a parliamentary democracy and it is a capitalist country.

They are suspicious of the intellectual and the ideologue. They are proud of the British armed forces, fond of the Commonwealth but sceptical of increasing immigration from its poorer countries. Tories are tolerant more as matter of good manners than of being Citizens of the World. Most Tories don’t know what intersectionalism is but mostly think that people can get on with what they like sexually provided they don’t frighten the horses.

But are Tories right-wing?

Melanie Phillips refers to her writing for the Guardian as (I am assuming) one who was a bit to the left of where she is now. (“Margaret Thatcher blighted the spirit of community”, The Times, 4 June 2019.) Her piece praises Thatcher’s boldness in standing up against undemocratic union leaderships and the persistent narrative of national decline. Very importantly, in my view, Phillips makes the ancient mistake of saying that Mrs Thatcher’s remark that there was “no such thing of society” meant she was indifferent to society. (You might look here, for my argument that Mrs T meant no such thing. And note too, if you would, her addresses to various religious bodies. Try this, at St Lawrence Jewry in 1981, or to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988, or the Bishop of London’s funeral address in 2013.)

Melanie Phillips is right, I think, to say that “Thatcherism” led to (I would prefer, “did not counter”) a growing modern failure to understand the role of morality in markets.

The big lacuna is as Phillips identifies: peopl[e who run things shoud be articulating and producing markets and civil society which have a wide and functioning moral sense. This is to do with the cultivation of the ideals of duty, professionalism, constancy. Apart from anything else, doing that work is the only way to take some of the wind out of the socialist sails.

I take it that the Civilised Right-winger is pleased with individualism as a matter of personal freedoms and personal obligations. Civilised Right-wingers are suspicious of inflated use of feelgood words such as “community”, “inclusiveness”, “fairness”, “equality” and plenty more not because they are loathsome or allways empty but because they are often used as cover for bossy policies which pander to weakness, resentment and dependency rather than help society become more resilient and agreeable.

All in all, Tories don’t believe in over-organising their thoughts, but Civilised Right-wingers are bound to try frame the ideas which define why they dislike socialism and Bossy LIberalism and by which they can propose alternatives to it. I said Tories don’t like intellectuals and ideologues, but if there was one such they did sort of tolerate, I’d hope it would be a Civilised Right-winger.

As a Civilised Right-winger I don’t worry about the health of the Conservative Party. It seems to have the same range of voices with which it has traditionally countered socialism and Bossy Liberalism. If it splits over Brexit or anything else, that probably won’t matter much either. Provided the right people devote themselves to this general side of the national argument, we’ll be fine.

There is a profound problem that the Bossy Liberal green soft-left has swung into some sort of fairyland of its own and it may well be that the right or centre-right has now to engage in a cultural debate in which it has no experience.

It is possible that the Civilised Right-winger, especially if young, can be valuable in helping the centre-right of politics get its head round these new issues.

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Publication date

05 June 2019