Dear sensible Conservatives …

I’m not just writing this with liberal Conservatives or Conservatives who voted Remain in mind. I’m thinking about all of you who know that politics involves trade-offs, opposition matters in democracies and disagreement with the Government is not treason to the country.

Your views on the current Government vary. A few of you are quietly or openly miserable. Many see Theresa May as one of the sensibles at heart, trying to keep the diehards within the tent. Others think her Brexit policy is broadly tolerable. But I imagine you all look across the political divide, see what’s happened to moderate Labour and think it could be much worse for you internally — even as you fear losing to Corbynite Labour.

Labour pains (and possibly precedents)

It certainly could be much worse for you. I’m a Labour moderate: I know what ‘worse’ looks like. But in some ways, your situation feels like a much more extreme version of Labour’s 2011 or 2012. At the time, we had a leader whose basic priority was to keep Labour’s internal coalition more or less on board. We also had a groundswell of feeling in, around and sometimes in complicated opposition to (combined with a sense of ownership of) the Party. In our case it was driven by a mix of being in Opposition and the sheer scale of Government cuts to the most vulnerable. And we had a longstanding hard left element of the Party — a small one in Parliament and a larger one in the country.

The soft left and many who now identify as moderates liked lots about this state of affairs— not wholly unreasonably. Ed Miliband went on the March for the Alternative in 2011. New Labour was self-consciously disavowed — either as too centrist, or as an outdated response in new circumstances, or both. Labour started to sound more critical of business, less keen on markets in public services, less interventionist in foreign policy. All of which was well within the mainstream of politics, whether you agreed with it or not.

On the side, sources like Another Angry Voice became quite well-liked and read by much of the left. Owen Jones was read and shared with sympathy by many social democrats. They were clearly to the left of the leadership — how far wasn’t too clear to many at the time. Organisationally, the unions had been shifting left over years. CLPs were moving that way too, with an inevitable impact on candidate selection. It’s not surprising that the 2015 intake had a significantly larger share of genuinely Corbynite and would-be-Corbynite-if-we-could-get-away-with-it MPs than the rest of the PLP.

We also tend to forget that nasty incidents relating to anti-Semitism and foreign policy predate Corbyn’s leadership. Under Miliband, three Labour MPs saw fit to invite Raed Salah to the House of Commons — and of the three, only Jeremy Corbyn was on the hard left. During the Gaza offensive in 2014, a shadow minister cheered the fact that protesters forced a Sainsbury’s to close — and yes, she apologised, but how did we ever get there in the first place? When an MP’s language called a Jewish Ambassador to Israel’s loyalty to the UK into question, it took a week for Labour to get him to apologise.

Meanwhile, Miliband tended to nod to the left of the soft left in his rhetoric, even when policy remained pretty resolutely social democratic. By 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn borrowed the same rhetoric and most of the policies too, Andy Burnham and (to a lesser extent) Yvette Cooper found themselves struggling to tell Labour members why they shouldn’t vote for him apart from saying he couldn’t win an election. Liz Kendall was the only candidate who consistently said Corbyn was wrong on policy as well as tactics. And the moral case against Corbyn was only made by a very few. The rest is history. Whether social democratic Labour will ever reassert itself against left-populist and hard left Labour I don’t know. But our parlous state is obvious to all.

Conservatives and the nationalist right

I see parallels with the Conservatives and the nationalist right now. Theresa May is no liberal and in many ways she’s an anti-liberal — a true Home Secretary turned Prime Minister. But she isn’t a zealot at heart. And most of the Cabinet is trying to keep the zealots onside en route to a Brexit which I would deem moderately hard, but would probably include a lot more regulatory co-operation and alignment (UK rule-taking in disguise) than said zealots actually want. But in so doing, too many of the sensibles are aping their language and assumptions.

May herself did it repeatedly. Her attempt to portray differences of view as somehow threatening to the nation when she called this year’s election was a case in point. Somehow we had reached a point where political division in the House of Commons — in an adversarial assembly! — was supposed to be a problem. She drew on the language of conspiracism as well as the nationalist right in her absurd claim that the EU was trying to influence the UK election. Earlier, her ‘citizen of nowhere’ remarks played into the same sort of rhetoric and language.

Boris Johnson, whose patriotism is so all-consuming he probably decided whether to back Brexit solely on the basis of his own personal advancement, has played the same game. (I normally disapprove of blanket cynicism about politicians. However, every now and again the evidence requires exceptions to be made.) Our born-again patriot Foreign Secretary recently declared himself ‘troubled with the thought that people are beginning to have genuinely split allegiances’. One assumes his convictions are of recent origin as he only renounced US citizenship this February.

Even more recently, David Davis — also a Brexiteer, but probably more pragmatic than many of his fellows — wrote to demand Labour MEPs have the whip withdrawn for voting in favour of a European Parliament resolution. The relevant section ran as follows:

The European Parliament … is of the opinion that in the fourth round of negotiations sufficient progress has not yet been made on citizens’ rights, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the settlement of the United Kingdom’s financial obligations …

I think the UK national interest is served by recognising our weak negotiating hand and a) settling on citizens’ rights rapidly and in good faith, b) settling as much as possible on the Irish Border while pointing out that the extent of EU-UK divergence will dictate the nature of border management and c) agreeing the broad outline of a financial formula. As far as the money is concerned, getting a decent final relationship is worth virtually any amount. British MEPs also have a duty to their constituents’ interests as they see them (including, I might add, non-UK EEA nationals when it comes to citizens’ rights). They have every right to use their votes to nudge the UK Government towards reality as they see it.

You might disagree with me on the merits of that view. But it is not unpatriotic to hold it. It is not “acting against your country” to advocate it. The national interest is a contested thing, which is one reason we elect people with a responsibility to adjudicate upon it. To call on opposition parties to withdraw the whip for “voting against the national interest” is as toxic as it is disingenuous. It’s not all that far from “enemy of the people” as applied to judges. And “enemy of the people” wasn’t all that far from “traitor”.

This sort of rhetoric has made far deeper inroads into mainstream Conservatism than the hard left equivalent managed in mainstream Labour before autumn 2015. It’s a dangerous game to play. And if I can’t persuade you it’s wrong in principle, think on this: if you don’t want a total car crash in March 2019, at some point you will have to disappoint the people who actually believe this stuff.

You will have to compromise on the Brexit bill. Your deep and comprehensive free trade agreement will involve copying large parts of EU law in all but name. Even after any transition ends, the European Court of Justice will — though probably not directly — continue to have influence over law in the UK. You will probably find your two-year transition period isn’t long enough. You will discover that immigration can’t be cut to tens of thousands without damage you won’t be willing to tolerate.

Do you think the obsessives on the nationalist right will spare you when you try to bring them back to Earth? Philip Hammond was sympathetic to Brexit not that long ago. He backed Remain in the end, but he was distinctly eurosceptic. He is implementing a policy of leaving the single market and not forming a customs union. He still has Brexiteers baying for his blood now. What is it about the record of lifelong europhobic obsessives which makes some of you think they can ever be appeased? What happens when you have to tell them Utopia doesn’t come wrapped in a Union Jack?

So if I were you, I’d draw some lines in the sand sooner rather than later. I’d resist the temptation to define disagreement as unpatriotic. I’d remind myself that pragmatists can’t control zealots forever. I’d get ready to fight sensible, moderate conservatism’s corner. And I’d remember that if you co-opt the zealots’ language and instincts for too long, you’ll have nothing to defend yourself with if they come for you.

For the good of the country — though of course your zealots would deny my right to say such a thing — please learn from Labour’s social democrats. Given the chance, the hard left turned on us. Given the chance, the nationalist right can turn on you in turn.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 October 2017.

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