Of the many inconsistencies associated with the Tory ‘modernisers’, one of the most glaring is the moderniser label itself. As all the cool kids know, modernism is terribly 20th century. We’re very much into the post-modern era now.
(In case you're not up to speed with the philosophical niceties, the basic distinction between modernism and post-modernism is that while the former is all about reason and structures, the latter is all about feelings and appearances.)
In a book review for Prospect, Roger Scruton has some sharp things to say about the influence of post-modernism on the Conservative Party:
- “The mid-term of a government is a time of reflection, in which the parties can revive their attachments and reformulate their message. Two recent volumes, Britannia Unchained, co-authored by a group of young Conservative MPs, and Tory Modernisation 2.0, issued by Bright Blue, an organisation that campaigns for reform within the Conservative party, give us some indication of the forces now at work in shaping Tory thinking.”
As you might expect, Scruton expresses a clear preference for the first of the two books:
- “The volume by the MPs… is a detailed analysis of the ways in which Britain has been failing, and the ways in which it could regain some, if not all, of its former stature. The volume by Bright Blue is a plea for the party to ‘modernise.’ The one calls on Conservatives to save the country, the other calls on them to update themselves in order to solve their image problem.”
And yet, while praising the authors of Britannia Unchained, Scruton finds that their analysis is incomplete:
- “They do not shrink from addressing some of the deep social and spiritual problems that have emerged in postwar Britain—notably the collapse of the work ethic, and of the family structures that go with it. Necessarily, however, their arguments depend on the financial aspect of the things they deplore, and they retreat into the castle of economics whenever the big ideas loom on the horizon.”
- “If we are to confront these ideas, it seems to me, we must begin from Plato’s famous distinction between philosophy, whose goal is truth, and rhetoric, whose goal is persuasion. In a media-dominated democracy truth counts for very little, while persuasion is everything.”
Scruton is surely right: The persuaders now run the show. In all political parties – including the Conservative Party – power and influence has shifted decisively from men and women of conviction, knowledge and experience and towards the communicators, manipulators and emoters.
Those of us who would fight back face an uphill struggle. "Conservatism", says Scruton, "is difficult, intricate and true. Today’s winning political rhetoric, by contrast, is simple, persuasive, and false."
As if proving his point about the difficult and intricate nature of the truth, Scruton paints a somewhat incomplete picture of the enemy. He gives the impression that the influence of post-modernism emanates only from the liberal left – infecting the Conservative Party from that direction alone. But haven’t we also seen the persuaders at work elsewhere, for instance, in the financial services sector, the advertising industry or the murky world of corporate lobbying?
The reality is that you don’t have to be liberal or a lefty to be a post-moderniser. Press the right buttons, play on the right emotions, and you’ll have no problem selling simple solutions to complex problems.