Today’s heretics are tomorrow’s orthodoxy. The secret ballot, atonalism, monetarism, brutalism – all originally scorned; later effected, sometimes, later still, questioned.
Admittedly, not all new ideas are good ones – think of the craze for eugenics during the 1930s – but something novel isn’t necessarily something wrong. Which takes us back to this week’s National Conservative Conference in London.
It was never likely to get a glowing write-up in the Huffington Post, say, but that in itself is par for the course. And at least the conference addressed some serious issues: immigration, culture change, globalisation.
Those who object to discussing demographic change in western countries (as some of the conference speakers did) have their own questions to answer.
What do they want as our populations age? For the retirement age to be pushed back further? For higher levels of immigration? For real cuts in our public services as the taxpayer base declines?
None of these options is likely to be politically palatable. So if seeking to raise Britain’s birthrate – an aim of some National Conservatives – is somehow “unacceptable”, to borrow the prim language of the Left, which of those alternatives does it favour?
This isn’t to say that the National Conservatives are right about everything – insofar as they agree at all. So, for example, the differences about free trade and protection that I highlighted before the event were on display.
Danny Kruger, whose speech we reproduced on this site, tilted towards protection, saying said the pound has been propped up by the City of London “so we could afford foreign goods while our own manufacturers starved”…
…While David Frost, whose speech we also carried, leaned towards free trade, arguing that “I believe as a conservative that the only way we will get to [growth and prospertity] is by trying to liberate the powers of the free market.”
Disagreement is no bad thing in itself: any new movement has to find its feet – and, in any event, a conference that agreed about everything would be a drab one.
My own take, for what it’s worth, is that this American movement doesn’t easily translate into British, as it were – not least in its view that “where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision”.
I also question its view on the size of the state – does it think it should be smaller or not? – and whether nationalism is invariably a good thing. (Scottish nationalism, anyone?)
But what may matter more than the conference’s content was its purpose. After reading its agenda and following the coverage, I simply don’t understand what it was trying to achieve.
To explain why, let me sketch the different interests of different people involved, starting with the politicians. For most of the time, their audience is the public.
Most of it doesn’t vote for them and much of it doesn’t vote at all. So a politician will seek to persuade. He will set out strategic aims. Draw up some policies to achieve them. Test them with opinion polling or at by-elections.
If the voters don’t take to those policies, he will tweak them, try new language – even a new team. And if that doesn’t work, he will, if committed to his aims, either quit politics altogether or wait for better times, and keep going.
A journalist doesn’t have to bother with the general public, most of which doesn’t read or see his publication, let alone him. All he has to worry about is, sometimes, educating his readers and, nearly always, entertaining them.
A think tanker will be in the business of projecting his think tank, and keeping the donations rolling in. An academic will want to promote his book, and perhaps cause a bit of a splash.
Which brings me to David Starkey. Frankly, any conference organiser who invites him to speak knows exactly what he is getting. Well, not exactly, perhaps – but certainly the broad thrust.
He may say that “slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa or in Britain”. Or that the Prime Minister is “not fully grounded in” British culture.
Or, as he said at this week’s conference, that “white culture” is under threat from Black Lives Matter and proponents of Critical Race Theory”.
If the aim of your conference is to titillate its audience, then fine – or not, as the case may be. I wasn’t there and don’t know how Starkey’s address went down.
But that I’m aware of what he said illustrates the problem. Maybe what the Conservative movement now wants – if not quite the Conservative Party itself – is a merger with the right-wing entertainment industry.
To book the most controversial guest. To see who can most skilfully play “how far can you go?” To compete for the most Twitter hits and win the most new followers. To test who can best wind up the Left and fly it like a kite.
It’s no concidence that the right in America now has a performative element, boosted by the rise of social media, which doesn’t seem to be doing its politics or culture much good.
Journalistically, a similar trend here might be good news for publications whose only responsibility is to their readers. Or for academics with an axe to grind, or for a new group seeking to make its name.
Politically, the Conservative Party’s duties and needs stretch a bit wider. To be sure, it could decide that some voter priorities, such as the cost of living or the condition of public services, are a distraction from fixating on culture alone.
In doing so, it would abandon great swathes of the electorate to its opponents. It could then conclude that the voters are unworthy of it, and double down on talking to itself. And so on to the next downward twist of the descending spiral.
David Cameron and Boris Johnson aren’t often commended for the same qualities. One is a Conservative moderniser. The other a Tory Brexiteer. Both played their Party skilfully for a while until it brought them down.
But they had in common as politicians a focus on the voters. That’s how Cameron came to fight two elections as Conservative leader, lose neither of them, and end up as Prime Minister twice.
And how Johnson helped to win a referendum and then won an election. Vote Leave, the campaign that Dominic Cummings put together for the first, didn’t much bother with what activists of any political party thought – let alone Tory MPs, come to think of it.
It concentrated on voters’ priorities: for example, immigration (of which we heard a certain amount this week) and the NHS (of which we heard almost nothing at all).
If the aim of the National Conservative Conference was to entertain, it succeeded. If it was to revive conservative thinking, we will see. If it was to craft an appeal to voters, not so much.
Why can’t the former be yoked to the latter? If the aim of the conference was to provide the Tory MPs who spoke a platform for the future, I suspect it’s done more harm than good – unless dissassociating themselves from Starkey is part of a cunning plan.
You may not like either Johnson or Cameron, but they were always focused on winning – not a priority for all Conservatives at present, apparently.
They looked outwards, not inwards. That I write these words on a website read largely by conservatives is an irony that hasn’t escaped me.