It’s been an interesting week. I was perhaps a little too hasty to jump in the ring and conduct what I thought was a defence of values that Tom Tugendhat and I both share. I saw him condemning what we both thought were anti-Semitic remarks, made by an individual who had previously made offensive comments I could not agree with. In fact, it turned out to be poor journalism from an individual whose social media posts afterwards revealed his motives. I was too quick to respond to partial quotes and partial information spread on social media with (it translated later) malicious intent. To this day we don’t know what he said and in what context, which is the problem.
But the hammering we’ve both had – mine worse, because I stand by my dislike of some of the things Sir Roger Scruton says – from the intellectual high priests of conservatism has been quite something. Toby Young and other curious individuals have mounted a campaign to ask me to change my views.
Here’s why I won’t be. I have huge respect for intellectualism. The gift of free speech and free thought is a precious one, and one I have actually fought and bled for. I admire those who make a living from it, who have a relentless pursuit of opponents, and at times rightly cause offence to the status quo.
But as I have been previously criticised for not being from ‘good political stock’, or being a lawyer or something more suitable for parliamentary life, it would appear I am being criticised here for not being an intellectual scholar. I must again point out that I profess to be none of the above, and neither would I want to be. I would also gently suggest the nation has perhaps got enough MPs from this stock already.
I’m a politician who believes in winning elections for my side, in getting people to vote for me, in bringing people together to pursue the common good. Not an intellectually pure version of the common good, but the common good that can unite as many people as possible, to meet the huge challenges presented to our way of life in Britain in 2019. Because without winning elections, you can believe in whatever you like, but you won’t change a single life.
The reality is that these causes – a unifying vision, a collective endeavour, winning elections – are not best served by comments like those reported. Imagine being a British Muslim with family fleeing Isis and reading about ‘tribes’ of Muslims. Imagine being the young gay man on an estate in Plymouth, faced with the Herculean task of ‘coming out’ to your family that has never even contemplated issues of homosexuality before, and reading that one of our great thinkers believes homosexuality is ‘not normal’.
I’m afraid that I am in this to bind people together, not mark my homework in the purity of an intellectual argument. We’ve lost the country by doing precisely that, when it comes to Brexit. Politics in this nation is in the gutter. But I never cease to be amazed by the lack of self-awareness of those who have contributed a great deal to sweeping it there.
Just last night I spoke at another Conservative association who berated me for being part of a club of MPs that has destroyed democracy. My family were there – we had interrupted a precious family holiday to raise funds for a far-flung, hard working group of our movement. I reminded them that this nation that so berated its current crop of MPs, had voted for these same MPs time and again over the last 30 years.
I am different as an MP. I accept that, and make no apologies for that. I will always defend free speech and unlike many of my detractors, I have actually fought for it. But I will never countenance ideology at the expense of groups that for too long have wrongly found themselves pushed to the fringes of society. Being a Conservative is one of my characteristics; it is by no means my defining characteristic, as it appears to be for my vociferous detractors on this incident.
I am a dad, a husband, a patriot, a leader, a campaigner, and a conservative – who has actually won elections for the Conservative movement in places the Conservatives have never won before. Again, unlike many of my detractors.
So please move on. My interest has been lost, and I hate conflict with fellow conservatives. I was wrong to call for Sir Roger to go – I slipped up and made a mistake. I have never commented on whether people should resign before, and I never will again.
But to think that someone who expresses these views should work for a government that desperately needs to bind this nation back together again at the moment is a different matter. And I still hold the view that what Scruton said was unnecessary, and detracts from what he was tasked with doing. CEOs of major companies would have had to leave too; that is the world we live in.
I want to bind people together, win elections and be part of a team that can heal a nation and meet the strategic challenges presented by the total failures of the ‘career politician’ we are seeing laid bare by Brexit. If we choose to, we can have ever-reinforcing degrees of purity in our debates around Brexit or free speech. And we can lose the next election. Or we can get out beyond London and try and bind up a broken country that is petrified by the idea of a Corbyn government and yearning to be set on fire by a new generation of political leadership, if only we are brave enough to provide it.