Remaking One Nation: Conservatism in an Age of Crisis by Nick Timothy
Nick Timothy begins his book with his own crisis: “At two minutes to ten, my world fell to pieces.” It was the night of the 2017 general election, and his friend and colleague, Fiona Hill, had just shown him the exit poll. It indicated that instead of the greatly increased Conservative majority, which they expected when they urged the Prime Minister to go to the polls, there was going to be a hung parliament.
Theresa May rang him: “She was sobbing. I remember thinking she sounded like a child who wanted to be told everything was just fine.”
A year before, everything was just fine. May took over from David Cameron as Prime Minister and Timothy wrote the speech she delivered in Downing Street: “If you’re from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise…”
This goes down well, but another speech worked on by Timothy, and delivered at the party conference in the autumn of 2016, draws adverse comment because of May’s condemnation of “citizens of nowhere”.
He remains angry and resentful about the criticism she incurred:
“It suited campaigners and political opponents to claim that Theresa had used this language to describe opponents of Brexit. But this was nonsense, as anybody listening at the time knew. Her targets were the more irresponsible and selfish members of big international business. The speech was absolutely clear. ‘Today,’ she said, ‘too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.'”
To write, or indeed to speak, those words betrays a cloth ear. May, so far as we know, let them through without a murmur: she had a disconcerting habit of saying whatever her staff gave her.
Timothy, over three years later, still cannot see the problem, which is that a citizen of the world may also have local loyalties and affections. The Hampstead liberal loves Hampstead with a passion, and joins every local organisation going, so felt infuriated to be told, by this unimaginative Prime Minister, “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”.
Nor were citizens of the world the only ones to bridle at her remark. Backwoodsmen were huffy too.
Those of us who love our own village, town or county may also aspire, however ludicrously, when we visit Paris, to pass ourselves off as citizens of the world, capable of speaking French and entering into the literature, art and manners of a civilisation into which we were not born.
This is not a linguistic quibble. Language is of the essence. Timothy describes how, until his thirties, he was “a fairly conventional conservative”, but then “started to reflect on the hostility many Conservatives feel towards the state”:
“And the way I thought about policy became more unorthodox. Unorthodox, that is, to those modern Conservatives who have been enticed by liberal and libertarian ideology. In fact, my beliefs are entirely consistent with the long tradition of conservative philosophy. They are influenced by Burke, Hume, Smith, Disraeli, Oakeshott, Churchill, Macmillan and Thatcher.”
Seven of those eight figures used language in a wonderful way to convey political insights. Timothy draws most often on Burke and Disraeli, and whenever he does, his text gains in colour and power.
Thatcher did not use language in a wonderful way. She knew, however, that finding the right language was an indispensable task for the practical politician, and she never stopped exhorting the best writers she could find to produce the right words.
Composing speeches for her was agony. Often the drafts got worse and worse, with the best stuff long since discarded and her team barely able to keep their eyes open as she drove them on into the early hours of the morning, at work on the 33rd version of the text.
All this is described to brilliant comic effect towards the end of Cold Cream, Ferdinand Mount’s memoir. The greatest conservative writers manage at one and the same time to be profound and flippant; to care deeply about what they are trying to say, but also to admit the vanity of their endeavours, so the joke is often at their own expense, for striving so presumptuously to give coherent expression to a tradition which is fluid, inconsistent, at the mercy of circumstance, more a matter of intimation than of ideology, resourceful and creative and wise, but also at times quite plainly inadequate and barren.
Mount spent some time in the Conservative Research Department, and so did Timothy. It offers a useful training in the composition of briefing papers which make the best case for whatever the Conservatives are doing or saying, without actually lying.
One studies too the weaknesses of one’s opponents, seizing with joy on any inconsistencies between what one Labour figure and another has said at any time in the last few years about their policies.
But none of this wonkery amounts to adequate preparation for taking wider views, let alone for writing a work of political philosophy.
Timothy has identified “a crisis of liberal democracy that is driven by the excesses of ideological ultra-liberals”:
“many liberals fall into the trap of believing that the historical, cultural and institutional context of government is irrelevant. Institutions and traditions that impose obligations on us can simply be cast off. All that matters, as far as government is concerned, is the freedom of the individual and the preservation of their property. The relational essence of humanity – our dependence on others, our reliance on the institutions and norms of community life – is ignored. From its earliest days, liberalism has taken both community and nation for granted, and had little to say about the obligations as well as rights of citizenship.”
Most readers of ConservativeHome will agree with this, as will many on the Left. As Timothy points out, it was when the sense of nationhood was particularly strong that the Labour Government led by Clement Attlee launched the National Health Service.
By page 180 of his 228 pages of text, Timothy has worked round to an attempt to define Britishness, while also admitting that this is an impossible task.
He lists, enjoyably enough, Wembley, Wimbledon, Bonfire Night and so forth, and says that “our national identity is derived from stories, traditions and institutions – and a reverence of particular places – that are uniquely ours”.
This, he remarks, inevitably makes it “exclusive”. He does not go on to contemplate defining Britishness as the right to elect members of the House of Commons – a right which once acquired, is thoroughly inclusive.
The artificiality of that idea of Britishness makes it accessible to just about everyone. One of the things which immigrants often like about living in Britain is our tradition of privacy: if you don’t want to participate in Wembley, Wimbledon or Bonfire Night, or indeed in a general election, you don’t have to, and whatever you may choose to do in your own home is your own affair.
We have the right to be left alone. Timothy says “we need a revival of community”, which is doubtless true, but in its earnestness, misses the pleasure to be derived from not joining in. He touches on the decline in church membership, but without expressing much in the way of regret, or developing anything like a Christian conception of politics.
In his final chapter, Remaking One Nation, Timothy says conservatives must “think more positively about the state, and more creatively about community”, before ending with page after page of dreary exhortation: “The world needs a new multilateralism”, “We need to make the most of our world-class universities”, “We need to do far more to support families, especially those who need the most help.”
Having identified ultra-liberalism as the threat, he is not particularly disposed to recognise that the ultra-liberals are not having things all their own way.
The Conservative victory in the general election of 2019, on a promise to Get Brexit Done, was a crushing defeat for the ultra-liberals.
Quite what the effect of the Coronavirus will be, one cannot yet know. But in each country, the need for a national response is felt, and national leaders will take the blame if they fail to provide it.
Boris Johnson, lover of Latin and Greek, enthusiastic speaker of French, descendant of Ali Kemal, Elias Lowe and James Fawcett, is in some ways a citizen of the world, in others a stage Englishman, but what matters now is that he is a national leader, who will within months be seen as either a saviour or a scapegoat, or perhaps as some imponderable amalgam of the two.
While Timothy was writing his book, the nation state was reasserting itself. What to read if one wants to understand something of the mentality of Johnson? The ultra-liberals know he is their enemy, but are too blinded by rage to see him steadily and see him whole.
Oddly enough, a volume of only 63 pages springs to mind. It provokes laughter on every page, something Timothy does not attempt.
Here is conservatism as a romantic and comic faith, not a platitudinous one, and here are glimpses of the paradoxes which went to form the most bizarre leader the Conservatives have ever had, and the only one to inspire the creation of a posthumous cult.
The Sayings of Disraeli, edited by Robert Blake and recently reissued with a foreword by Alistair Lexden, is the most enjoyable and discerning book about politics I have come across in the last year.