“None,” the first Conservative MP said. “A niche issue,” replied a second. “Not one,” said a third. All were answering the question: how many of your colleagues have spoken to you about the Roger Scruton affair? The discontinuity between the noise about it among Tories outside Parliament and the silence within it among Conservative MPs is striking – and worth mulling.
To recap: the Tory philosopher was fired as a Government adviser in the wake of a New Statesman interview. It was clearly set up to entrap him; at least one key quote was truncated in print and misrepresented on social media. The volume of the row edges up another notch this morning, with the Spectator having obtained the tape of the original interview. There is an internal New Statesman investigation.
The Conservative commentariat, or at least an important slice of it, has been enraged. Scruton himself has written an account in which his own hounding by a mob is described alongside that of Jesus of Nazareth’s. (One winces at the thought of what Twitter would have had to say in 33 A.D.) But from Tories in the Commons – zilch. Other than criticism of Scruton, since retracted, by Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer.
James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State who fired Scruton from his job as Chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, hasn’t been hauled to the despatch box to explain his reasons for doing so. Conservative MPs haven’t been beating a path to his door. This site has a good sense of the Housing Secretary’s reasoning: he jibbed at Scruton’s description in the interview – in words that are not disputed – of Muslim migration into Hungary: “the Hungarians were extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East”. If such is Brokenshire’s thinking, he should have set it out in public – or been lobbied to do by his colleagues. Instead, silence.
Why? What explains the gulf between Tory MPs and Tory thinkers? (If we can put it that way without suggesting that the two never overlap.) There are plausible explanations. One is that no Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher has been engaged with conservative intellectuals, and that a fish rots from the head down.
Another is that that there is no gap at all: that Michael Gove, Liz Truss, David Willetts, Oliver Letwin, Jesse Norman, Chris Skidmore, Nick Herbert, Neil O’Brien and others all prove that thinking is alive and well in the modern Conservative Party. And that not all Tory intellectuals sit on the right of the Party.
Another still is that the Conservatives are simply reverting to the norm: that they have never been much engaged by abstract ideas; that the Thatcher period was an aberration, and that they are simply returning to their natural condition – namely, to be less interested in theory than practice. Or to be, as John Stuart Mill once put it, “the stupid party”.
There is truth in all these claims, but one should look elsewhere for a full answer. It clusters round a single word: specialisation.
First, consider MPs themselves. Over the past 25 years or so, they themselves have become specialists – fully-pledged professional politicians, paid by the taxpayer, rather than elected representatives, funded by either capital or labour. Fewer have outside interests or were manual workers. The old class demarcations are less clear; MPs have become more like each other. Parliament’s hours have changed. So has technology. A lobbyocracy has arisen. Commons debates, Select Committee meetings, Westminster Hall, all-party groups – all compete for attention nine to five and later. MPs scurry between them and constituency correspondence, anxiously checking their Twitter accounts and participating on What’sApp groups. Meanwhile – to rewrite Scruton for a moment – there has been a sudden invasion of Westminster by huge tribes of lobbyists. In short, MPs have less time and meet fewer people.
Next, turn to the Tory thinkers. In Thatcher’s time, Leon Brittan was dispatched in Opposition as the Party’s ambassador to the universities. A Conservative Philosophy Group met at what was then Jonathan Aitken’s house in Lord North Street. Thatcher sometimes attended it herself. Brittan has no successor today, or indeed since his time. There is now a fledgling group of Tory academics, but it has yet to take flight. The Conservative Philosophy Group has been revived, under Scruton’s chairmanship, but fewer MPs attend than during the Thatcher years. Some others who attend are contemptuous of the Party. That perhaps a consequence of the gap that we are trying to describe. There has been a big expansion of universities; the number of Tory academics has not risen pari passu. If more are there, they are, to use a phrase sometimes applied to fearful minorities, “in the closet”.
Finally, specialisation applies more widely. There is still plenty of to-and-fro between journalism and politics: think Gove; think Boris Johnson; think George Osborne. There is less between both and academia, in a certain sense anyway. The Spectator now requires a Political Editor who can classify Westminster’s pond life in microscopic detail, and give an exact account of what’s just happened in Cabinet. It has one – James Forsyth. His predecessors include Ferdinand Mount, the former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and head of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, and Noel Malcolm, now a senior research fellow at All Souls, and perhaps the most eminent conservative academic of all. There is a parallel with academic life in the universities themselves, with its own tendency to research specialisation.
We apologise if all this sounds a bit remote – with Brexit seething, Theresa May’s leadership tottering, and the Conservative Party apparently imploding. But there is a connection. Brexit itself is a sign of a country divided about culture. On the one hand, there is what this site calls a pro-EU ascendancy, which identifies more with other members of its class abroad than with some of its fellow citizens at home. On the other, there is the pro-Brexit movement – divided on many things, but united by a passion for national independence. The two talk not to but past each other. They are like the lines in Marvell’s poem which “though infinite, do never meet”.
Conservative MPs themselves are divided, as are the right-of-centre think tanks. Some belong in that first world, with its attachment to abstract rights, labour mobility, globalisation, plural lifestyles, and the environmental movement. Nick Boles has left the room but the spirit of Notting Hill lives on. Others belong in the second, which prizes law-making by Parliament, not judges; lower immigration; marriage (most Tory MPs are hitched). It is suspicious of trans, say, and assisted dying. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, Scruton himself is a environmentalist. But the general norms hold.
There may not be many Conservative intellectuals who are out and proud, but the Party has taken very little care of those that are. Paul Johnson holds the Presidential Medal of Freedom; here, he holds only a CBE. The Cameron Government was tardy in honouring Scruton himself. Imagine how a Corbyn Government would utilise every avenue to promote left-wing thinkers within the apparatus of government. Cameron came late to looking for right-wingers who might be suitable for vacancies. The May Government scarcely does so at all. And now there is a new right-of-centre competitor on the scene. The Conservatives may pay a price for the gap that has opened up between most of its MPs and some of its supporters.