On parliamentarians talented, vainglorious, entertaining and anarchic
NICK BOLES’S dramatic resignation from the Conservative Party on Monday April 1st—he announced that was leaving the party and marched out of the chamber upon learning that a bill he had sponsored had fallen badly short of the votes it needed—is a significant moment in the transformation of the Tories from a pragmatic ruling party into a vehicle for nationalist populism. Mr Boles was a key figure in David Cameron’s modernisation project. He was one of the first openly gay Tories to win a seat (and not just any seat but Margaret Thatcher’s home town of Grantham to boot); a founder of Policy Exchange, the intellectual engine of Tory modernisation; and a man who, with his Winchester, Oxford and Harvard credentials, turned down much more lucrative occupations in order to go into public life. Any party that loses high-quality people such as Mr Boles while empowering people like Mark Francois is in big trouble.
NOT THAT David Cameron’s modernisation project was an unalloyed success. The Cameroons devoted far too much energy to wooing the metropolitan elite and not enough to thinking about the problems of the left-behind. They bet the house on “double liberalism”—free markets in economics and libertarianism in social policy—without grappling with the negative consequences of both liberalisms for a lot of poor people. And they have hardly distinguished themselves since leaving office: by milking the system for big money the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne have done as much as Nigel Farage to fan the flames of populism. (I’m told, by the way, that Mr Cameron is just putting the finishing touches to the latest renovation of his house in the Cotswolds.)
But the Tory modernisation project is nevertheless continuing, hopefully with the help of Mr Boles, who is now sitting as an “independent progressive conservative”. Policy Exchange is doing wonderful work on trying to rethink capitalism in the light of growing concentrations of wealth, and social policy in the light of growing public alienation. Its work on reviving a sense of place and trying to improve the built environment is particularly valuable. After a couple of decades of Audit Commission-style utilitarianism it is wonderful to have policy thinkers addressing issues like “belonging” and “beauty”.
I HAVE blown hot and cold about the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. He’s certainly a terrible grandstander—he loves the sound of his own voice and indulges in weird flights of Dickensian language. He also shows a bit too much pleasure in sticking it to his former colleagues in the Conservative Party. But on the whole he has done a pretty impressive job of keeping the business of the house going at an extraordinarily difficult time. Day after day he succeeds in dominating a chamber filled with loud and self-important people, which is no small feat. And he has a magnificently surreal sense of humour: I’m sure he gives so much air-time to Peter Bone, an eccentric Tory MP, because he enjoys bellowing “PETER BONE” so much. Add to his command of the theatre of Parliament his long-term achievement in asserting the power of Parliament against an over-mighty executive and I think the judgement of history will be positive.
JOHN MAJOR’S suggestion on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday March 31st that Britain might end up with a government of national unity produced a lot of push-back from the political class. The practical difficulties of creating such a thing are indeed formidable. The last time this happened in peacetime three things were in place: first, the party leaders, Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald, were personally very close. They were far more moderate, particularly in MacDonald’s case, than the rest of their parties. Second, the king, George V, played an active role in engineering the whole thing. And third, Britain had a general culture of deference. Things could hardly be more different this time around. The leaders of the two parties have nothing in common either ideologically and personally. The royal family has no desire to get involved in the most sensitive and divisive issue to consume Britain since appeasement. And the culture of deference has completely disappeared: far from uniting the country a national government might well confirm the populist belief that the elites are trying to stitch everything up.
Having said all that I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea catches on eventually (and, to give Mr Major his due, he said that a national government might be formed in the long term rather than the short term). This week Theresa May was driven by desperation to reach out to Jeremy Corbyn in order to try to find a way out of the Brexit mess. The right wing of Mrs May’s party has proved so wild and intransigent that she finds it more attractive to do business with a crypto-communist. Britain needs to find a stable majority to come up with pragmatic solutions to Brexit-related problems. Remember the next stage of the Brexit negotiations, covering Britain’s long-term trading relations with the EU, will be even more vexatious than the current one. At the same time a large number of moderate Labour MPs are chafing at the Corbynite bit. I’m convinced that the future of both the parties lies with their ideological extremes. But it is nevertheless possible, in the confusion to come, that Britain will be forced, in the short term at least, to cobble together a national government to get the Brexit deal over the line.
PERHAPS THE most chilling single sentence to come out of this whole Brexit mess is Steve Baker’s pronouncement, of the House of Commons, that “I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river”. This is chilling because it is more than a rant delivered at a moment of high emotion. It’s a statement of the core philosophy of a group of Conservative anarchists who’ve lost sight of the basic principles of Conservatism—respect for institutions as embodiments of the spirit of compromise and constraints of emotional self-indulgence—in pursuit of their ideologically charged vision.
Compare Mr Baker’s rant with what some real Conservative sages have said about the House of Commons. Walter Bagehot described it as “a great and open council”. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman said that it performed “the grand inquest on the nation”. Sir Sidney Lowe described it as “the visible centre, the working motor of our constitution”. “Take parliament out of the history of England”, Enoch Powell once said, “and that history itself becomes meaningless”. McCallum Scott, a Liberal MP, recalls bumping into Winston Churchill, then also a Liberal MP, when he was leaving the House of Commons one night in March 1917, a particularly fraught month in the history of the first world war:
[Churchill] called me into the Chamber to take a last look round. All was darkness except a ring of faint light all around under the Gallery. We could dimly see the Table but walls and roof were invisible. “look at it,” he said. “this little place is what makes the difference between us and Germany. It is in virtue of this that we shall muddle through to success and for lack of this Germany’s brilliant efficiency leads her to final destruction. This little room is the shrine of the world’s liberties.
The reason that Mr Baker can rant about bulldozing this shrine of the world’s liberties into the river is that he is not a Conservative. He is a Jacobin, an anarchist, a national populist, and a thoroughly dangerous person. Whether true Conservatives can save their party from such vandals is one of the great political issues of our time.
Correction (April 9th 2019): This piece previously stated that Margaret Thatcher was MP for Grantham. In fact, though Ms Thatcher came from Grantham, she was never its MP. This has been amended.