The Case for the Centre Right edited by David Gauke
David Gauke declares in his introduction to this collection of essays that “British politics is largely stable”. To this one may retort that it seldom seems so at the time.
Our political tradition is one of precariousness. Whoever is running the show can at any moment be overthrown. If he or she mishandles whatever the latest difficulty is, out he or she goes.
The principal function of a Prime Minister is to take the blame when, as often happens, things go wrong. In these essays Boris Johnson takes the blame. I did not bother, as I read it, to collate the condemnations of him, but they are frequent.
None of the 11 contributors – Gauke, Andrew Cooper, Rory Stewart, Dominic Grieve, Gavin Barwell, Tim Pitt, Anne Milton, Sam Gyimah, Amber Rudd, Michael Heseltine and Daniel Finkelstein – is an admirer of Johnson.
Gauke lays out their case against him:
“The politics of the Conservative Party became more populist under Johnson, followed (briefly) by a period of ill-considered ideological purity under Liz Truss. This left our economy weaker, our standing in the world diminished, our political standards cheapened and our institutions destabilised. Rishi Sunak has repaired some of the damage but leads a party that has not yet fully returned to its mainstream traditions.”
This cry is heard down the ages from centrist Conservatives who feel they have been marginalised. It was heard with particular force from Tory Wets in the early 1980s: Margaret Thatcher, they lamented, was destroying all that was best in the One Nation tradition.
To which Gauke and Co might retort that Johnson is no Thatcher: a fair enough point.
But Thatcher and Johnson both had a sense of what the nation required which went beyond the imagination of their critics on the “Liberal Centre Right”, as Gauke calls his school of thought.
The EU Referendum of 2016 was, Gauke admits, “a disastrous moment” for the LCR, as one might term it for short. This is true, but to a great extent the damage was self-inflicted.
The LCR allowed itself to become dogmatic. It insisted Brexit would lead to an immediate economic crisis. I recall being assured just after the referendum by one of the authors of this book that by October 2016 we would be in recession.
The idea that Brexit might have advantages as well as drawbacks (and might indeed be irrelevant to many long-running problems such as productivity) was not entertained. Nor is it entertained in this book.
In this respect, Johnson, with his two articles for The Daily Telegraph giving the case for and the case against Brexit, was the greater realist. He conceded this was a complicated question about which intelligent people might differ.
In other words, Johnson was more liberal. During the referendum campaign he was told that as a “liberal cosmopolitan” he had no right to vote Leave. To this accusation he replied in a speech on 9th May 2016 in which he said:
“It is we in the Leave camp, we who vote Leave – not they – who stand in the tradition of the liberal cosmopolitan European enlightenment – not just of Locke and Wilkes, but of Rousseau and Voltaire…we will win for exactly the same reason that the Greeks beat the Persians at Marathon – because they are fighting for an outdated absolutist ideology, and we are fighting for freedom.”
There is a liberal case for Brexit. This insight escapes Gauke and Co. One may note there was also a liberal case for Thatcherism: she too wanted to increase freedom.
Stewart announces in his essay, “The age of populism began in 2014.” One is reminded of Philip Larkin’s observation that “Sexual intercourse began in 1963”. In both cases this is an exaggeration: sexual intercourse had been around for some time, and so had demagoguery, as it used to be known.
And as Stewart goes on to observe, in the Brexit debate there were populists on both sides, who claimed possession of an exclusive truth, and said they alone spoke for “real people”.
But he reserves his most severe words for Johnson, who “shattered his party, undermined the economy and discredited the state”, until at last his own MPs were “no longer prepared to forgive his reckless, immoral, embarrassing dishonesty”.
Here is a point which the Gauke XI find hard to reconcile with their fear of populism. Johnson did not become a tyrant. He became an embarrassment, and was chucked out.
And one might reasonably contend that by his provocative acts in the second half of 2019, which included withdrawing the Conservative whip from several of the authors of this book, he strengthened rather than diminished liberty.
For just as one might wonder if it was wise to set out on a long voyage in a boat which had never weathered a storm, so one might doubt the value of a constitution which had never been challenged.
The history of the United Kingdom can be written as the history of a series of constitutional crises, each of which seemed at the time, and probably was, extremely dangerous.
Within living memory, we have had a Prime Minister, Edward Heath, who asked “Who governs Britain” and was told “Not you”.
Johnson pushed things: he prorogued Parliament, and was told by the Supreme Court he could not do this. In the Commons, the Remainers pushed things too, were told by the Speaker, John Bercow, this was fine, but were then unwise enough to agree to a general election, in which the voters said it was not fine.
The ship of state came through that storm without sinking, and one hopes our leaders have learned, for a time, what a dangerous device a referendum is, not least to whichever leader decides to hold one, in the mistaken belief that he or she understands the temper of the people.
Stewart is the only author in this book to admit the weaknesses of the cause it espouses:
“The lack of resonant emotional arguments is an enduring weakness of the liberal centre right, perhaps because its decades of dominance made such arguments seem unnecessary, and the moderate character of liberal centre right politicians made them uneasy with grander sentiments…
“It cannot remain a purely pragmatic project, stripped of moral content. It cannot be a purely technocratic project, insisting snobbishly on a single truth.”
Many of us insist snobbishly on a single truth. The absence of such a thing is one reason why a good book advocating a moderate political creed is so hard to write, and has not been written here. How does one rationalise an instinctive preference for governing the country oneself, thanks to one’s superior understanding of the need for compromise and consensus?
The world could not be at peace for a day without these qualities, but to dramatise them is difficult, and they require a constant process of adaptation which may at times have to be carried out (see Thatcher and Johnson) by methods which are not consensual.
Daniel Finkelstein described, in a recent piece for The Times, how he came to be one of the contributors to this volume:
“About a year ago, I got a call from David Gauke, the former Conservative cabinet minister. ‘We are writing a book — would you like to contribute a chapter?’ he asked. I found myself thinking ‘no’ and saying ‘yes’ simultaneously.”
He said “yes” because he admires Gauke, thought “no” because he knew that even to define the terms “centre right” and “centre left” is difficult, implying as they do a linear conception of politics, “with voters and positions laid out in a long line”, when in reality an individual may hold a collection of wildly inconsistent opinions.
Finkelstein nevertheless contends that “the terms are just about descriptive enough to be useful”. He goes on to contend that although our political system encourages the centre right to form a coalition with others on the right, and the centre left a coalition with others on the left,
“it is increasingly obvious that there are many things that unite the centre and require a common defence: the importance of the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, the openness of our trading system, the centrality of science, the importance of facts. All these things are under heavy populist attack.”
Well perhaps, but are the populist attacks any heavier than usual, or do they serve as an excuse for avoiding the expression of any opinion which could upset anyone?
Sir Keir Starmer is such a successful practitioner of this kind of politics that Mark Carney, Anna Soubry and Sir Max Hastings have joined his supporters’ club.
Will the authors of this book do likewise, or do they shudder at the thought of being found in such company?