30 September 2007

Advice for the next Conservative leader

[Letter to be sent after the next election, which will be won by Labour, leading to a repeat of the Hague-Howard-DuncanSmith sacking effect, i.e. blaming the man rather than the misconceived marketing strategy.]

Dear ...

You have been chosen to try to lead the 'Conservative' Party to election victory in four years' time, after the failure of your predecessor David Cameron. I should like to offer you my advice on how to maximise your chances of doing so.

In many ways, Britain (like other Western nations) has taken on characteristics of a social model which I call “mediocracy”. The key characteristics of mediocracy which are relevant to your particular task are:

• appearance matters more than substance;

• names matter more than content;

• the principal thing that is thought to justify moral opprobrium is ‘unfairness’;

• most people don't care very much about political principles.

Many voters are uncomfortable about the current level of state intrusion, but feel they are not allowed to say anything because (a) it would be ideologically incorrect, (b) they would be contradicting 'trained experts' in fields such as philosophy, sociology and medicine (the vast majority of which agree that extensive state intervention is necessary and morally justified).

In the light of this I offer you the following suggestions.

1) Rename your party, and cease to use the word “conservative”. You could call yourself something like “The New Democratic Party”.

2) Claim to be left-wing libertarian. That way you can legitimately (or at least, more legitimately) attack interventionist policies without seeming to be right-wing, which is nowadays regarded as morally indefensible. The concept of right-wing is too tied up in people’s minds with taboos such as racism and defending the interests of the rich. Libertarianism is not associated with racism, and is a little less tarred with the brush of elitism.

3) Take a leaf out of the book of people such as Paul Johnson, Melanie Phillips, Janet Daley, Claire Fox and James Tooley, whose readers are periodically reminded of the fact that they were originally socialists. This makes them seem more acceptable. Or do what the folks at spiked do — they actually maintain they are still left-wing, though it’s not clear in what sense, since most of their viewpoints seem to be anti-state.

4) Right-wing policies are now becoming mildly fashionable again. (Discriminating against immigrants, compulsory cohesion programmes, tax cuts, drug prohibition, more policing.) However, the right-wing brand is falling further into disrepute — partly as a result of George Bush’s policies, and the association of the Iraq War with so-called neo-conservatism — but basically because the cultural elite regards being ‘progressive’ (or, rather, being seen to be ‘progressive’) as a sine qua non of acceptability. It is acceptable for a “left-wing” party to float right-wing policies, but sadly not one called “Conservative”.

5) Do not under any circumstances indulge in 'listening' or consultation sessions (standup-speakup etc.) Some people are beginning to realise these are often phoney anyway. But more to the point, they make you appear weak, and as if you don’t know your own minds. Ordinary people may pay lip service to the idea that everything should be done by consensus, because they have by now been indoctrinated sufficiently long with this tenet by the education system and the media, but many of them secretly admire strength and willingness to go against the grain.

6) To some extent you must follow the say-one-thing-do-another policy adopted by every other party. This is unavoidable because realism has nowadays become untenable, and only things which seem morally acceptable in terms of the prevailing ideology may be expressed by those in the public eye. Given that this is necessary, it may be best to say as little as possible. Policies which are anti-state will appeal to voters, but openly espousing them will scare them. Best to keep quiet, and concentrate on criticising the opposition. (This should be easy, because a mediocracy is characterised by much phoneyness and dysfunctionality.)

7) Focus on domestic issues, and forget about saving the planet, or enabling every child in the world to read. Avoiding global issues will make voters feel you care about their interests.

8) Subvert anger to your own purposes. Looking complacent is not good; one has to be seen to have a justified resentment of some kind. Resentment at state intrusion is harder to legitimate in the current climate than resentment at lack of ‘social justice’, given the propaganda coming out of the media and from the academic arm of the state apparatus, but with a little effort on your part you may be able to make some headway. You might even consider sponsoring some among the very tiny minority of intellectuals who have not subscribed to the prevailing ideology about ‘social justice’.

9) Whatever you do, do not try to imitate the Labour Party or outdo them on their own terms. This will badly backfire. You will be seen as the worst of both worlds: associated with the morally unfashionable Conservative brand, while also repelling those who dislike nanny statism. Interventionism is only appealing if it comes with a trendy 'radical' or 'progressive' label, and this is something which is beyond your reach.

10) Don’t try to seem cool or trendy. This will never work. The best thing you can do is to seem boring and sensible. That way, when the country’s infrastructure gets badly unstuck (as it will), you will be the safe default option.

11) You cannot openly oppose the pseudo-egalitarian ideology which has become the bane of the education system. This taboo will severely limit what you can do in practice to improve state schools and universities as effective preparation for productive employment. However, you can at least not make the problem any worse. I recommend offering voters a moratorium on tinkering for at least the first four years of your administration.

12) You could exploit dissatisfaction with the reductionism now preached by many members of the cultural establishment (e.g. Richard Dawkins). Try implying that you have lots of sympathy for religious belief — but without associating yourself too explicitly with Christianity, which (like the right-wing label) has become ideologically unfashionable.

13) Remember Margaret Thatcher. Everyone seemed to dislike her, few people admitted to voting for her, the establishment waged ideological war against her, yet she got you in three times. Moral: being liked, or being approved of by the intelligentsia, are not decisive factors.

Good luck.

PS. I have little expectation that you will take much notice of these suggestions. Some people say that the Conservative Party has a deathwish, and I suspect they may be right.