Daniel Downes is a secondary school teacher in Buckinghamshire.
Christopher Hitchens was not a man who shied away from a battle. Indeed, he relished in intellectual or linguistical victory – as one can see from watching recordings of any of his debates. Armed with these two facts, one might suppose that, as his favourite subjects of derision, he would happily have lived in a world free from religion. You might assume that he wished to have wiped it out completely ,and start again in a world in which reason, science and philosophy conquer the human instincts of superstition and faith.
However, this is not the case. In a 2007 debate with the other ‘Four Horsemen’ (Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins), Hitchens proclaimed, to the distaste and bemusement of Dawkins, that he would not want there to be no religious people in the world. When pressed on the matter he made it clear that he loved the cognitive sparring with those that disagreed with him and that, without such debates, the world would be a poorer place. The fight was how he kept his wits keen, how he knew that he was continuously refreshing and challenging his ideas. As a true Hegelian, the absence of an antithesis to his viewpoint would have left an intellectual void.
It is with this in mind that Conservatives should feel both elation and trepidation at the current state of British politics. Theresa May, despite the attempts of CCHQ and Conservative MPs to lower expectations, looks set to win a landslide in next month. The Tories, for the first time since the 1850s, have a poll lead in Wales. We look set to make a comeback in Scotland after the wipe-out of the New Labour years. In England, Labour seats with majorities of less than 8,000 look like they may turn blue. The projected majority for May’s next government seems likely to increase by the day.
This is not a statement of hubris – or at least, that is the very hazard we must shed light on. The danger of this election is that the most astute political decision that May could make, and continues to make daily, is to avoid engaging in any debate. In one day alone, April 24, Labour was endorsed by the Communist Party of Great Britain, bickered with itself about the renewal of Trident, was hit by the SNP from the left and the Liberal Democrats on their right.
Whilst all this undoubtedly provides an electoral opportunity for the Conservative Party, it carries with it threats to intellectual and ideological scrutiny. The message is one of “strong, stable leadership” – that creation of Lynton Crosby, whose presence permeates throughout the beginning of this campaign in thought if not deed. But what does it actually mean? What truly are the instincts and priorities for this Government that will lead us through Brexit, and is it possible to unite the British people behind its vision? Here are answers that are worth seeking, and if the Opposition will not provide decent accountability or scrutiny, then it is up to the Party to provide its own mechanisms with which to do so.
In the name of Party unity during election time, it is natural for there to be an unwillingness to break ranks. At the very least, if a high-ranking member of the party disagreed with a policy, he could expect that during the campaign it would be discussed and dissected, perhaps with compromises being reached. And in addition to the considerable debate that must unfold about what manner of door it is through which we leave the European Union, there are other issues at stake. What of the tax rises that Philip Hammond looks set to propose? Whilst Labour talk about the problem of underfunding in the NHS, this is easily ignored by the Conservative leadership (in the absence of a proper and meaningful discourse about how we fund our health care system and what the priorities should be). There are claims that May now has an opportunituy fundamenally to reshape Britain; the irony seems to have escaped most of those who put them that no-one seems certain what this might look like.
So the result could be a curse in disguise for the Conservative Party. A lack of opposition has hurt both major parties badly at different times since the Second World War. After the Thatcher years, entrenched hubris meant that there was no room for intellectual innovation, no space for new or diverse policy. The result was successive Leaders of the Opposition who were unable to reach out to the country, and speak directly to its needs. This delivered Labour their own landslide – the existential crisis of which Jeremy Corbyn now embodies.
We cannot know what will happen at the general election, or indeed after it. If the Conservatives gain a substantial majority, hit Labour hard in their heartlands, and win a decent number of seats in Scotland and Wales, it could mean that all opposition parties, and not just Labour, are thrown into chaos. Even if Corbyn is then removed as Leader of the Opposition (an outcome that is by no means likely), a new Labour Leader would have few seats from which to hold the Government to account. The SNP would be in their own crisis, having lost momentum for a second independence referendum. The Liberal Democrats would have little by the way of clout to add to their own calls for a second referendum on the issue of Brexit.
It is for our own sake as Conservatives that we should seek out criticism and scrutiny of our ideas and our values. Without it externally, we must be careful to ensure that we remain vigilant, and avoid political stagnation. There are constituency parties, think tanks with links to the party and the media with which we must engage to keep our mental muscles in shape. We must not fear disagreement, but embrace it as an opportunity to improve ourselves. We currently stand on the brink of a significant victory, and it is with humility that we must prepare ourselves for any eventual outcome. The dangers of large majorities are clear; we must find a way to avoid them.