Friday 9 October 2009

'Prog Con' clues from Conference

Now Conservative Conference has drawn to a close, a few thoughts on our trip up to join in the fun in Manchester earlier this week.

We were running an event, with a cross-party coalition of think tanks, called ‘After the crunch – how do we beat poverty’. And it gave a few more clues about ‘the battle for the Tory brain’ and ‘who are the new Conservatives’ questions that we’ve been exploring in the magazine and fringe events over Conference season.

First point of note: it was pretty well attended. But before any conclusions are drawn about this as evidence for a passion for fighting poverty amongst Tory delegates, the bulk of the audience was made up of NGO-types, who were more likely to applaud comments by the panel’s two fully paid up lefties (Tim Horton from the Fabians and CPAG’s Kate Green), than anyone else. There was even a walk out during some of Spectator columnist’s Theodore Dalrymple’s more outrĂ© moments.

Which leads on to the second major point: Theodore Dalrymple.

Theodore Dalrymple, for those who don’t read the Spectator, is the pen name of Anthony Daniels, and he caused quite the stir – and not in a good way. He is a essentially a professional pessimist, whose stock in trade is wistful reverie for an England of yore, a time of decency and togetherness, in comparison with a Britain today where a feral, uneducated, illegitimate underclass roam the streets. See his books for more: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass; or Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline.

We’ve enjoyed working with the Centre for Social Justice on various events, and welcome their genuine and serious engagement with issues around poverty. But their selection of Dalrymple for the panel was…confusing.

Without wishing to come over as a pious lefty having a sense of humour bypass, this is a serious debate – how the government’s stalled progress on fighting poverty can be put back on track in the tougher recession conditions – and having had a similar discussion at Labour Conference, I was looking forward to hearing what the newly ‘progressive’ Conservatives had to say.

Not very much, on this evidence. And Dalrymple was the voice of the right on the panel, so his views have to be taken at face value (Tim Montgomerie was in the chair, and was deferential in the extreme).

Dalrymple’s response to the question was the kind of ill-informed moaning you might find from a particularly grumpy old man in a country pub: that young people don’t put their litter the bin – because they are so poorly educated they don’t know how to use the bin/what it is for; the “near 100% illegitimacy rate” (“you think I’m exaggerating but I’m not”); that victims of domestic abuse should think hard about their own complicity in their situation; and the welfare dependent and drug addicted underclass are there due to personal failure. Kate Green responded that this was all “absolute bollocks” and got huge applause from the audience.

There was not a single suggestion from him for how to deal with any of these things, mind; just a condemnation of the fecklessness and moral bankruptcy of Britain’s poor (specifically Britain’s: his only solution was to move, as things are better elsewhere, apparently).

How wide and deep the ‘progressive Conservative’ agenda runs in the party away from the shadow front bench continues to be a crucial political debate. I initially found Dalrymple’s comments unhelpful in clearing any of this up, as they seemed to me too extreme to be taken seriously by most modern Tories. What really surprised me though was the high esteem him and his views were held in by other, more visibly moderate Tories I spoke to afterwards. They see him as an arch satirist who exposes the complicity of the governing class in creating this social breakdown, with a system that fails to educate people and a nanny state that stops people standing on their own two feet.

It’s all very reminiscent of the “failure of citizen character” charge that was the thrust behind the poor law. Dalrymple seems to be way outside the political mainstream, and completely at odds with the idea of compassionate or progressive Conservatism. But the fact that his presence on fringe panels and his curmudgeonly views are not just tolerated but celebrated, further muddy the waters as to whether we should be taking the Tories seriously on social justice or not.


KarlW said...

Dalrymple is a conservative. He's not a "compassionate conservative" or a "progressive conservative" (whatever that means). Do you not know what a conservative is? Conservatives like myself do not believe in the concept of social justice, if by that term you mean that society is unjust and can be improved by an active government that promotes equality by limiting some and "helping" others. Unlike most in Britain, he doesn't think people are necessarily helpless and passive victims but rather are freethinking, self-interested and potentially self-reliant citizens who would respond favorably to higher expectations and stronger standards.

Dalrymple has apparently seen more of the world and its underclass than all of you Fabians put together, so to call him uninformed seems itself uninformed. He may be outside the political mainstream in Britain or even in the entire West, but Britain and the West are dying. Why would anyone want to be in a herd that's headed for a cliff? If your comments and the reactions of the attendees are representative, you are proving that he is quite right to be so pessimistic.

Peter Cuthbertson said...

Sunder, as a Tory, I just can't imagine attending a Labour conference and then complaining that one of the speakers had unmistakably left-wing views. I'd be laughed at if I did.

Why exactly the mock horror that a speaker at a Tory conference had right-wing views?

Sunder Katwala said...

Up to a point. (It isn't my post, but that of my colleague Ed Wallis).

The set-up was that the various partners each nominated a speaker for the different events at Labour, LibDem and Tory conference. So it was the Centre for Social Justice who put up Theodore D.

Now, the decision on the right to use and legitimise the idea of 'social justice' was a contested one. Some would reject the implication that social arrangements (and inequalities) must meet a justice/fairness test to be legitimate. (The slogan 'no unjustified inequalities' may well follow from this: that has been associated with Crosland, Rawls and Sen, though they will differ in which inequalities are justified and how). The CSJ clearly thinks the right should have an account of "social justice" which will differ in content from those on the left, but does I think entail that commitment to legitimate inequalities.

Dalrymple probably rejects all of that. He is also mostly making anecdotal, not evidence-based arguments. The CSJ has sought to do the latter.

A possible analogy would be a 1996 fringe on "Are the parties good for business" at the Labour conference, between the ippr or fabians, the CBI and a Tory think-tank. If the centre-left speaker had then been in favour of the nationalisation of everything and punitive levels of taxation, I would imagine the non-partisan and centre-right voices coming away wondering how deep New Labour's claims to have changed their party's position on economic and business issues had gone.

So I can see the "Tories are Tories" shock point. But the fringe was about different approaches to poverty - and I am now reading in the papers that the Tories think they are now the party of the poor.