Hustings have been taking place around the country. The two candidates for political leadership of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have taken part in head-to-head debates on national television. Both have set out new policy agendas departing significantly from their party’s previous manifesto, lurching to the right on issues such as tax, public spending and education. Yet there is no general election. The new Prime Minister – successor to the current incumbent, a disgraced, farcical and now largely absent figure who appears (holidays permitting) to be undertaking a sort of bucket-list tour of his duties while the country he is supposed to run lurches from crisis to crisis – will be selected by 180,000 or so Conservative Party members, people likely to be middle-aged or older (most are over 60), relatively wealthy and located in affluent constituencies in southern England. They are also more likely to be male, less likely to be graduates and more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups than their counterparts in the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish nationalist parties. Such are the people who, in a manner only marginally more democratic that that used by the Chinese Community Party to select its new leaders, will decide which wealthy Tory next gets a go at running the country.
It is not possible to say with accuracy what Conservative Party members think and believe. However, it is clear from the dizzying escalation of far-right policy proposals from the two candidates how they and their advisers view them: They are, they believe (and there is a measure of contempt in this belief, I suspect), in favour of redistributing income from the poorest to the wealthiest parts of the country, they dislike political correctness and ‘woke’ culture and consider the benefits of a liberal education to be the preserve of the rich. They believe (against all evidence to the contrary) that grammar schools are the key to social mobility (the version where the deserving poor get on and the rest get stuffed), want less spent on public services and believe in tax cuts in preference to ‘hand outs’. They are not keen on human rights or public protest, considering these impediments to more noble aims such as (one imagines) protecting monuments and shipping refugees out of the country. They are not overly troubled by climate change and remain enthusiasts of Brexit. Above all, perhaps, they believe the nation’s salvation to lie in the past – whether by restoring Thatcherism (the socio-economic death cult that captured the party in the 1980s and has kept a firm grip on its supporters’ thinking ever since, such that no party leadership candidate, even now, dares to disavow it), reviving grammar schools or returning the country to levels of income inequality not seen since the early 1900s.
This is a caricature, of course, but it is evidently one in which Tory parliamentarians believe and to which they consistently appeal, and I suspect it is not very far from the mark. After all, party members represent the base which the parliamentary party has sought to appease in its drift to the right and its embrace of policies on issues such as migration and civil rights that can fairly be described as extremist and authoritarian. Simon Kuper in the Financial Times neatly summed up what the Conservative Party has become in the course of this journey into the darkness: an ‘old people’s party’ that doesn’t care about the future; one prepared to ignore ‘the dearth of new homes, record low birth-rates, the threat to funding for British university research through the EU’s Horizon scheme, reduced opportunities for Britons to work or study abroad, not to mention climate change’, that ‘takes the geriatric side in culture wars, keeps house prices rising, and redistributes not to the poor but to pensioners’ and that ‘imports a non-voting workforce while encouraging geriatric grumbles about immigration’. It is a party that sides ‘with wealth – held chiefly by the elderly – against incomes’.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that the party’s supporters continue to invoke the memory of Margaret Thatcher. Her ‘right to buy’ policy (a right, like many espoused by the party, available only to those who could afford it) of selling off social housing at discounted rates and her belief in a ‘property-owning democracy’ created a new social sub-class of well-off homeowners who saw their houses principally as investments, while simultaneously denying the less well-off access to decent, affordable housing, thus enabling the rapid escalation of property prices and rental rates. Protecting this new wealth, acquired at little cost and with little effort on the part of those who benefited (though at enormous cost to many of those who didn’t), has become the business of a party that cares little for the troubles of the young or for the ongoing housing crisis it created. For subsequent generations the boom in property ownership has contributed to mass indebtedness and precarity, making work for millions of people (the young, especially) not much more than a form of indentured servitude linked to debt repayment.
The revival of Thatcher’s flagship right-to-buy policy continues to be a popular fallback for Conservative leaders, particularly when new ideas are in short supply (as, to be frank, they generally are). The policy is, however, indicative of more than just a party out of ideas. It demonstrates a wilful disregard for the well-understood negative consequences of right to buy, as well as indifference to the needs of those languishing in grubby, insecure private accommodation whose lives could be transformed by the ready availability of decent social housing. Like the Johnson government’s proposal to reintroduce imperial measurements and the frequent harking back to the supposed golden age of grammar schools, it is a populist policy calculated to appeal to a certain constituency. It is hard to gauge how serious ministers are when they make such proposals (it could just be the latest front in the government’s tedious attempt to foster ‘culture wars’). But the attempt to glamorise the past says a great deal about both the leaders and the followers of modern Conservatism. Imperial weights and measures may be a part of our history and language, and perhaps even our identity (as the government’s consultation suggests), but they have not been taught in schools for generations and should certainly not be part of our future. This misty-eyed nostalgia for a fondly imagined golden age in which everything was as it should be, and everyone knew his or her place, is far from harmless. It is steeped in a distrust of foreigners and a fear of change and difference. And while it may be understandable that, in a time of unpredictable change and unprecedented, existential challenge, leaders strive to hold on to what we (or they and their friends) have, it should be just as clear that in such moments – in this moment – we need change and difference. More of the same will only edge us closer to the precipice.
Yet this appears to be all that is on offer. Even the Labour Party – increasingly an opposition in name only – refuses to offer anything new or better, preferring to shackle itself to the sinking ship of British Conservatism rather that engage with the real challenges we face and devise a vision of a different, fairer and more sustainable future people can actually get behind (or at least consider). In such an environment, the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party can make proclamation after proclamation in their search for the all-important Golf Club bar vote, cheerfully recanting them the next day if they don’t fly right. Rishi Sunak’s proposal to phase out university degrees that do not improve students’ ‘earning potential’ is a typical foray into the clubhouse lounge, a flip, kneejerk attempt to appeal to those who think arts degrees are rubbish (‘not worth the paper they are written on’) and academic teaching is a hotbed of steaming woke (bloody Marxists!). Sunak is on comfortable, familiar ground. The press has been banging on about ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees for years. His target, of course, is not Oxford or Cambridge. The privileged, privately educated sons and daughters of the wealthy can continue to study what they like at the elite finishing school of their choice. His target is the newer universities, the red-brick unis and the former polys, the places people like us send our kids. No history or philosophy for them. No liberal arts. You can forget all that. That’s not for you. You need to get ready for work! Be productive! Be deserving! Like Thatcher’s right to buy policy, it’s a divisive ‘fuck you’ to some dressed up as freedom for all.
The irony of all of this, of course, is that we need more access to arts and humanities not less. In a moment of acute challenge, we need people who can think differently and see the bigger picture. We need people who can think critically, who are tolerant and civically minded, who are compassionate and thoughtful. Rather than closing humanities courses and discouraging working-class students from taking an interest in the arts, we should be looking to ensure that arts and the humanities are an ongoing, integral part of everyone’s education, and that the discovery of a vocation does not mean the end of a person’s wider education. We are all human – none more than anyone else – and we all deserve the chance to explore, to be curious and creative, to be what we bloody well want to be! Education should be about opening doors, not closing them, now more than ever, when we must learn to be and do different. The Conservative Party leadership campaign has underlined how shoddily we are led. We need political leadership that builds a bridge to the future, not leadership that holds on to the past and refuses to do better. We must break free of all the old traps. That is what leading for the future would look like. Instead, for now, we have leaders and followers desperate to hold on to the past, even after it has gone. For those left behind by the Tories’ dreams of a suburban paradise of shining cars and lush green lawns (there are no hosepipe bans in paradise), there is the generational accumulation of misery where work, debt and death are the only certainties – and hope, the elusive, joyful, fluttering thing with feathers, has long since been silenced, shot dead and stuffed. We should not wait for change to come. We should not ask politely, caps twisted in our sooty fingers. Freedom, after all, is never given. It has to be taken.