Rage, rage against the dying of the right
Thinking about losing
I’ve often found myself talking about ‘future conservativism’ on this Substack. That’s partly because I’m using the PVI to explain what road we’re on, how we got there and where we’re going - which I’d like to be a conservative Britain fit for the 21st Century. The strains of conservativism we’ve seen in government, by and large, haven’t met conservative aims particularly well, and the country is noticeably less conservative than when we came into power.
But that’s also because there is a brutal sea-change ahead. Abraham Lincoln had a brighter future when he picked up his tickets at the box office than the Conservatives do now. Facing an incredible hammering, the Conservative Party is going to have to choose between realignment or replacement. Either it recognises and adapts to the challenges and realignments of the future, or some new right wing party will. The need for change in conservativism is clear; the latest MRP projection puts the party at 83 seats. That is almost *exactly* half of the number of seats they lost to Tony Blair’s landslide and almost half the number of seats they won in 1905, the worst Conservative loss in history.
After 1905, the Tories didn’t return to power for 17 years. Back of the fag packet maths shows we can expect to see another Conservative government sometime around 2040.
But this is not just a problem of losing MPs; faced with such electoral oblivion, the Tories are being abandoned. Losing, as John Oxley argues, compounds. At the back end of last year, donations to the Tory party had dropped by 40%. Some of that lost income represents a double loss; many of the donors have not just stopped funding the Conservatives, but started funding Labour.
Faced with a potential electoral albatross, it isn’t inconceivable that a huge swath of Tory councillors will disappear too. Last year Councillors defected to the Lib Dems and Labour over national concerns. But there is a nascent threat to the right; I myself have received two emails asking me to defect to Reform, and I suspect it may prove fertile ground. According to Guido Fawkes, ‘the party has managed to pick up a handful of defectors, with two Tory councillors joining in December and another in Sunderland crossing the floor on the 20th January.’ Late last year former Conservative Candidate for Derbyshire Police and Crime Commissioner and Derbyshire District Councillor Richard Bright defected to the SDP - with a concerted push, they have the potential to pick up disaffected culturally conservative councillors too.
This is not to mention, of course, the pipeline problem. Where does the next generation of talent in the party come from? With so many displaced MPs and so few competitive seats, competition for advancement in the party will be fierce, and the young pretender will likely always lose out to the man of experience; besides that, what bright young thing would choose 20 years of electoral grind in opposition ahead of a lucrative career doing anything else? You’d have to be as committed as William Hague.
These are big problems for the Tories, but to some extent they all have answers; unless there is a new right-wing party, the precious few of Britain’s young who are interested in taking office on a right-wing platform will naturally find their home there. Party machinery can be rebuilt, and donors are driven to donate where influence can be exercised. But there could yet be a greater threat; becoming America-brained.
The influence of American culture on Britain is ubiquitous, and we see the effect of our mass importation of American culture. Don’t get me wrong - I love America, but sometimes I would rather it stay in America. ‘I am opposed,’ as Mark Twain put it, ‘to having the Eagle put its talons in any other land.’
That’s also true of our politics. Our political class are by and large far more interested in events across the Atlantic than the Channel. Who the new Dutch or French PM is merits a mention in headlines; the question of who is about to become US President warrants blanket coverage that equals the coverage of our own elections. But it’s not just coverage or import of key figures like Frank Luntz or Jim Messina we import whole debate. BLM protests, trans rights, no platforming -almost every battlefield of the culture war is rightfully American soil. As Further or Alternatively writes:
This is perhaps inevitable, but it has various bad consequences for both Left and Right. On the Left, if Keir Starmer has one obvious Achilles heel then it's not his lack of charisma (see John Major's 1992 election result - more votes than Blair in 1997), it's Rosie Duffield/trans rights issues. Labour would be better off - it would have the full-throated support of JK Rowling, apart from anything else - if it had resisted importing a US culture war issue that gives it few votes and puts off many who are sympathetic to it.
But, like him, I see becoming America-brained poses a far greater threat to the right. Conservatives are faced with a heavy defeat – and potential for years in opposition - on the cards, but Republicans have already undergone their defeat. Let’s look to two particularly dangerous post-power developments in the movement. I’ll quote Gladden Pappin first:
Many “standard” conservative activists have rebranded as being “pro-Trump.” The largest activist conferences, leaders, and media figures—like the Conservative Political Action Conference, Turning Point USA (and its leader Charlie Kirk), media figures like Ben Shapiro and countless others—have all rebranded as “MAGA” conservatives. For the most part, however, these movements have not substantially updated their policy stances since before Trump. The conservative activists in this vein generally have no intellectual background or interest in policy, but are rather media figures seeking to monetize the political moment.
Can we see that happening here? With so many out of work MPs, absolutely – in fact, it’s already happening with GB News. Will it advance the electability or intellectual cause of conservativism in Britain? Unlikely.
There’s another American trend British conservatives should seek to avoid. With the defeat of Donald Trump, trust in institutions went into a nose-dive so steep even Biggles would have done well to pull out of it:
This, inevitably, has shaped how the American right does politics; it has further reinforced its position as an anti-elitist, anti-intellectual outsider movement with a broadly confrontational approach to the Establishment.
There’s already a strain of this in the British Right; as Liz Truss’ Government was imploding, Richard Tice tweeted he believed a ‘globalist coup of the British government is underway.’ David Kurten, the leader of the Heritage Party, joined a protest against 15-minute cities in Oxford to stop the WEF taking away his freedom. Will Lloyd reported young Tories argued the British right needs it’s ‘own Nick Fuentes’ at the Reasoned Student Summit.
But taking a position as an outsider comes with problems:
The things you say can be easily categorised as non-mainstream - even if you’re representing a majority opinion
It leads to a click-seeking, rather than vote-seeking, mentality amongst conservative leadership, which has effects on electability, credibility and respectability.
It risks talking about things you care about the electorate don’t
It’s not particularly conducive to effecting actual change or conservative outcomes
It’s a much easier solution for Conservatives to blame the entrenched woke establishment than asking why they failed to tackle it in the first place, and a ‘burn it all down’ approach involves attacking many institutions conservatives should be seeking to protect
It leans into another cultural trope imported from the US – that being right-wing is declassé - and it’s bad to be low-status when you’re trying to win elections
It rejects the conservative position since time immemorial that elites, a class of people bearing responsibility in society who are then rewarded with honours and respect are ok, actually
The Conservative brand in the UK is based heavily on a ‘nasty but competent’ strategy. That requires big business, 'the markets', mainstream economists and the media to say 'by and large the Conservatives have the best economic policies'. Bashing elites like big business, 'the markets', mainstream economists and the media is not particularly conducive to that
Conservative party politicians are, by an overwhelming majority, elites. The ‘anywhere’ domination of our politics should end, but it should end by the injection of more ‘somewheres’, not with one set of millionaires with homes in the country attacking another set of millionaires with homes in north London for being 'out of touch'
If (when?) the Tories lose the next election, they shouldn’t import the Republican model. Voting Tory may become unpopular but it can’t be allowed to leave the mainstream of politics. A lashing out against the forces ranged against them might be cathartic, but it would likely be counter-productive too; they could regain the ‘nasty party label’ and become once again untouchable - as they did under Blair. Further or Alternatively, again:
Something like this has happened before. Do you remember when Tony Blair carried all before him and managed to maneouvre the Conservative Party into being best known as the party of foxhunting? The Countryside Alliance? The Liberty & Livelihood March (perhaps the biggest march before the Iraq War)? Ring any bells? At that time, the Conservative Party found its only (or at least best) friends were people who considered not just London but all urban areas to be the enemy. I recall Charles Moore, of all people, having to use words from Iolanthe to remind the party that "hearts just as pure and fair may beat in Belgrave Square" - or even in Seven Dials - as in the rural air of the Cotswolds or what have you.
There are very, very few votes in a Mike Graham raging against ‘WOKE OF THE WEEK’. Cultural grievances soon descend into incoherent messaging based on individual issues. That’s a dangerous game to play in politics, as it makes it more difficult to develop a narrative and people thrive on metaphor, narrative and emotion. As Robert Cialdini writes, ’people don’t counter-argue stories... if you want to be successful in a post-fact world, you do it by presenting accounts, narratives, stories and images and metaphors.’ A good story must be told – when the average person spends so little time thinking about politics, stories are a convenient way of transferring complex concepts into a simply understood, concise narrative. This disaggregation of the conservative message is already happening Stateside, as Gladen Pappin writes:
The New Right’s focus on “woke” ideology reflects a deeper trend in how the Republican Party absorbs new tendencies in its electorate: the GOP turns new constituencies into cultural tropes while avoiding substantive policy change. To succeed in 2024, the Republican Party needs to avoid this trap. The archetype for this tendency was the GOP’s absorption of culturally conservative voters after Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the Moral Majority. Socially conservative voters became one leg of the “three-legged stool” of fusionism, whose votes could be relied upon while economic policy continued its shift toward laissez-faire. After 2016, discussion revolved around how Trump conjured the “white working class,” particularly from many of the forgotten parts of the Upper Midwest and in places where working-class voters had traditionally voted Democratic. Fast-forward to 2022, and most prominent “MAGA” voices and candidates had nothing specific to say to working-class voters, white or otherwise. Rather, pro-working-class politics had been transformed into messaging campaigns based, as it were, on caricatures of lower-class whites. Many of these simply repurpose the caricatures drawn by establishment and left-wing commentators, in the immediate aftermath of 2016, to explain white working-class votes for Trump as ressentiment, or racist anger over white men’s having lost cultural ascendancy as well as their jobs. Unable to embrace policies that would help the (multiracial) working class, MAGA voices have instead emphasized continued litigation of the 2020 election and the Covid pandemic, while promoting “based” tropes centered on defiant but politically toothless gestures against cultural left-liberalism.
Will – should – the future spell in opposition be used to question and solve why we have a political settlement that has seen Britain become more left-wing after 13 years of Conservative Government? Yes. Should it be used to realign conservatives to the politics of the 21st Century? Yes. Should we descend into an America-brained strain of performative, camera-conscious conservativism? No.
The Conservative movement in Britain is fundamentally different to the American, not just in fundamental philosophy but in circumstance. MAGAism was driven by a charismatic outsider in power for four years. Conservatives will have been in power close to 15 years under a succession of leaders. Americans are also fighting a more ingrained progressive culture, but there’s evidence that coming up against progressive ideology (on transgenderism and immigration) as a concrete reality make Brits more right wing on those issues, not less.
Meticulous reflection on the mistakes we've made in Government, a realignment to the political dividing lines of today and conservative answers to the questions Britain faces right now are going to bring the temperature of the thermostat of public opinion down again, not raging against the dying of the right.
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