If you were an undergraduate at St Andrews University in the early 1970s, it was difficult not to be aware of the emergence of Britain’s New Right; and it wasn’t just the presence, in St Andrews student politics, of a small but influential group who seemed strangely hostile to the postwar settlement without which many of us would never even have reached university.
The scene was populated by people like Madsen Pirie, Eamonn Butler, Stewart Butler, Michael Fallon, Michael Forsyth, and “man who invented the poll tax” Douglas Mason, all of whom went on to play key roles either in Conservative politics, or in significant right-wing think-tanks including the Adam Smith Institute and the Heritage Foundation; and I suppose that I should be grateful to them, at some level, for the early education they gave me in the coming rightward shift in British politics, and on why I should, if I cared at all for the peaceful and relatively just postwar world my parents’ generation had fought to create, spend the rest of my life opposing their political vision, with every means at my disposal.
Apart from the pure politics of it, though, there was something else about the demeanour of at least some of those young Tories; something jokey and performative, best summed up in Lewis Carroll’s phrase, “they only do it to annoy, because they know it teases”. Some went about at all times in their academic gowns, in an age when most students wore jeans and long hair. Many were markedly young-fogeyish, specialising in brogues, tweeds, and Oxbridge-style tea parties; and many would gather annually at the house of a famously right-wing professor for a noisy celebration of Rhodesia’s 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence, under which Ian Smith’s colonial government, in what is now Zimbabwe, refused to end white minority rule.
They often, in other words, gave the impression of adopting reactionary positions and styles just in order to shock or provoke, and without any real sense of what should replace the liberal orthodoxy against which they railed; and I was reminded of their attitude this week, when I heard that the group of hard Brexiters whom the Prime Minister invited to talks at Chequers on Sunday had been nicknamed the Brexit “Grand Wizards” – a title taken by leading members of the Ku Klux Klan. “Is this for real?” tweeted an incredulous former Chancellor George Osborne, on hearing the news. “No, it’s not for real,” replied former minister Steve Baker, a Brexit hardliner; implying, perhaps, that it was just a “joke”.
Whatever the truth of this particular incident, though, it comes as a sharp reminder that for more than a generation now, far too large a section of the Conservative Party has been in the hands of people who find it amusing to joke about the appeal of Nazism, or white supremacism, or Islamophobia, or any other kind of traditional bigotry you care to name. There have been Tory leaders, since the 1970s, who could bridge the gap between this kind of mocking reactionary stance and a more “mainstream” liberal Toryism – including Margaret Thatcher, who tolerated an explicitly Hitler-loving Tory like Alan Clark, while never moving an inch down that path of jokey reaction herself; but their success always depended on the assumption that such right-wing provocateurs would remain a small minority in the parliamentary Tory Party.
What has gone wrong now, though, is that some time around the middle of this decade, these “jokey” reactionaries – abetted by some extremely powerful friends in the media – ceased to be an influential side-show to British politics, and actually began to win. Many commentators, for example, have noted just how shocked some of the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared to be by their own EU referendum victory; the suggestion is that in their own comfortable, privileged and well-cushioned postwar lives, many of them – including Boris Johnson – may never fully have intended their sustained campaign of sniping mockery against that settlement, including the avalanches of jocular lies told over the years about the EU, actually to achieve such a spectacular success, in destabilising the world in which they grew up.
What we are witnessing in the UK parliament now, in other words, is the result of the unexpected victory of a decades-long negative campaign which never had – or at least never dared to name – any specific plan for how to replace the status quo it treated with such contempt. In the midst of the ruins of Britain’s failed Brexit process, adult politicians like Oliver Letwin, the man behind Wednesday’s series of indicative votes, are still desperately trying to piece together the elements of a Westminster consensus that might enable Britain to leave the EU with a minimum of economic and political damage; and as such exercises go, Wednesday’s much-dismissed series of votes was actually highly successful in identifying the two options, a customs union and a second referendum, that attract the highest levels of parliamentary support, and might form the basis for further discussions next week.
It is, though, almost certainly too late, as Britain’s new Brexit deadline of 12 April looms; and in any case, all Letwin and his colleagues receive for their trouble, from the mockers and wreckers on the Tory benches, is absolute scorn yelled across the Chamber, from the heart of a parliamentary culture still more or less illiterate in the arts of negotiation and compromise, even when its most strident leaders have led it into its current crisis. Put the Joker in charge of Gotham City, in other words, and you end up not with organised evil, but with a policy vacuum, and the kind of chaos that only the wealthy can be sure of surviving without anxiety, disruption and pain. And of course, that cruel outcome may – for all we know – have been the plan all along; but if so, my guess is that many of the reactionary jokers and sniggerers who have brought us to the pass, with their little jibes about political correctness and the joys of fascism, will never have had the courage to admit as much, even to themselves.