Go back ten years and you could never imagine green campaigners greeting Michael Gove’s return to government with a mixture of contempt and despair. It feels like another age, but in the last decade Gove, Cameron and Osborne decided the only way to stop the Tory party remaining in opposition was to force it to come to terms with modern Britain.
‘Detoxifying the brand’ – to use their advertising agency jargon – meant Conservatives should stop giving the impression that ethnic minorities weren’t truly British. They should help all people, rather than just the comfortable. Most of all, Conservatives must stop being John Stuart Mill’s ‘Stupid Party,’ which resists new ideas merely because they are new.
Under their leadership, the Tory party made a decisive break with global warming denial – one of the greatest systems of organised stupidity in the modern world. In 2006 Cameron posed with huskies in the Arctic Circle to emphasise his concern about the melting ice caps. At the end of a press conference, Conservative PRs handed baffled journalists birch saplings in hemp bags. The hacks were meant to do their bit for the fight against global warming by planting in their gardens.
All gimmicks to be sure, but they made the point that the Conservative Party accepted science rather than raged against it. On the economic and strategic imperative of Britain remaining in the EU, the Tory modernisers were coyer. Cameron and Osborne appeased their party’s right for years and only spoke up for the EU when it was too late to make a difference. Still they, if not Gove, were convinced that the only way for the Tories to survive in the 21st century was to ‘stop banging on about Europe’.
Less noticed than the culture war between liberalism and conservatism are the culture wars within liberalism and conservatism. No one who reads the Tory press can doubt the right has won the conservative culture war, and routed the Tory modernisers. On the right of politics, these truths are held to be self-evident.
- Man-made global warming is either a hoax or the green ‘lobby’ has hugely exaggerated its consequences.
- True poverty does not exist in Britain. The so-called poor taking their tickets to food banks are scroungers looking for a free lunch.
- The young are not facing a harder life than their parents did. Far from worrying that they must cope with exorbitant housing costs, risible pensions, and stagnating wages, we should deride them as over-privileged snowflakes so entitled they think they can ban uncomfortable thoughts.
- Public services remain overfunded and overstaffed. The only way to restore the country’s finances is to keep taxes low and cut services.
- Violent anti-democratic prejudice is not confined to radical Islamists. It is in the nature of Islam and all Muslims share it.
- Liberals are in power even when they are defeated. The true elite does not consist of the pro-Brexit Tories, who run Britain, or the Donald Trump presidency and the Republican Congress, which runs America, but their opponents.
- Dissent is anti-democratic. Oppose Brexit or the Trump administration and you are not engaging in the essential arguments of a democracy but are an enemy of the people, conspiring against the popular will.
I am not saying that all Conservatives believe in the above propositions, or even most Conservatives. All I am saying is that anyone who reads the Conservative press can see that these are dominant ideas, which liberal conservatives barely bother to challenge. So dominant are they that when Ruth Davidson makes an unremarkable defence of LGBT rights, it is news.
Nowhere is the collapse of liberal conservatism more striking than in the unprincipled career shifts of Michael Gove. When May brought him back into her cabinet as Environment Secretary, his liberal days were behind him.
Greenpeace pointed out that he was wholly unsuited for the office. Like Pope Paul V banning the teachings of Galileo, Gove had reportedly tried to wipe climate change from the school curriculum. (The Liberal Democrats, then in coalition, stopped him.)
His swerve to the know-nothing right was not confined to the greatest issue facing the planet. During the EU referendum campaign, Gove famously said that people had had enough of experts. Like so many on the Tory right, he took the referendum result as a mandate for the hardest possible Brexit. ‘The public knew that we could not cut migration to tens of thousands while we were in the EU,’ he declared in the Times. ‘They knew the idea that the European Union was essential to our prosperity and security was nonsense.’
In other words, Gove continued with the ‘have your cake and eat it’ propaganda of the referendum campaign even when the referendum was won. There were still no hard choices. No blood, sweat and tears ahead. Only despised experts believed the ‘nonsense’ that leaving the single market and customs union, and cutting immigration to the tens of thousands, must come at a price. Only elitists suggested that abandoning our European allies and making Britain dependent on a capricious Trump administration would be a diplomatic disaster. They should be ignored. With Gove’s Cosmo-girl conservatism, Britain could have it all. To say otherwise, he assured his readers, was to ‘patronise the public’.
It was an unintentionally revealing choice of words. The patronising comes in many forms, but the Gove manifestation is the most condescending. He pretends that problems he has created are not problems at all. He tells the men and women who must clean up his mess that they are elitists if they have the effrontery to protest.
Now we can see where the right’s triumph in the Tory culture war has left it (and us). Conservatives threw away an election they could have won by a landslide. They have no majority in Parliament and a zombie leader. Many reasons have been given for the Conservative collapse. But in Britain and America one trend is clear: the better-educated you are the less likely you are to vote for the right. Like Mill, I am not arguing that educated people are always clever. Intellectuals have always included fanatics and cranks among their number. But I can say this: in a country where ever more people are going to university, no party can hope to survive as a party of government if it sells itself as Michael Gove’s know-nothing party.
Shaken by the Tories’ Pyrrhic victory, Gove and by extension May were scrambling to say today that they wanted to reach out and form a new consensus with their opponents on Brexit and austerity. What they mean by this is anyone’s guess. Do we stay in the single market, or increase public debt?
But I do know that Gove’s hand of friendship will not be taken. The Tory right has spent too long insulting its opponents to seek to befriend them now. As the case of Gove shows, its greatest and most unforgivable insult has been the insult to intelligence.