Otto English explores the Conservative Party’s transformation into a platform for right-wing populism – and how so much has been lost as a result.
A Family Party
I have a secret and a very dark one at that. It is a shame that haunts me as I creep through my brief time on Earth and now is the moment to share it. Brace yourselves. Ready? Well, both of my parents, were Tories.
It gets worse.
They were active members of the party. My father was on the local district council for two terms. Sometimes they’d invite other Conservatives round and agree on things like Margaret Thatcher and how annoying Neil Kinnock was. And, when elections came around, they would go out and try to groom other people into believing the same stuff. They would put up blue posters and push leaflets through doors.
My parents were otherwise ordinary people. They didn’t go around trying to privatise random things. They never felt the urge to shout in people’s faces, or call them traitors, or rip up EU flags.
On the contrary, they thought that the European Union was a good thing. They had lived through the war and saw travel to Europe as a magical prospect. They liked their holidays in Spain, Greece and Italy. They didn’t just respect other countries, my father was a full blown Italophile. He spoke the language, loved Italian cars, the food and wine, and had tried his best to fight the war there despite falling in love.
My parents appreciated the peace the European Economic Community (EEC) and the EU brought. They cherished it more than I did. They were pleased that no German bombs were going to fall on their children’s heads. They liked nothing more than getting in their Italian car (their British-built one died a death) and driving to France and seeing their friends who lived just outside Paris. They were inquisitive, gregarious, wonderful people – who happened to be Tories.
And they weren’t blind to their party’s flaws either.
My Mum had grown up in a Staffordshire pit village in the 1940s and 50s. During the miners’ strike, she struggled to square what was happening to her childhood home and the old friends and family there with the rhetoric and policies coming out of Downing Street and Fleet Street. She toyed with the idea of voting Liberal, but stayed loyal. Later on in her life, she worked with refugees and felt ever more passionately about the cause of displaced people. Once at a party hustings in the early 2000s, she strongly objected to Ann Widdecombe making rude comments about immigrants and Widdecombe wondered aloud if she was a Communist. In fact, she was the local party chair.
My parents were Tories because they saw the Conservative party as the party of the Union; the Anglican church writ as a political movement. To them, it was the party of business, opportunity, hard graft, stability, continuity, practicality and old style British values. Neither had grown up in particularly political families and both made the Conservative party their home.
Of course, I didn’t agree with them. We rowed a lot about politics around the dinner table and in the car and over glasses of wine and cups of tea. Much as it pains me to admit it two decades later, they sometimes even had a point.
But, where are my parents’ party now?
A Decaying Party
Watching the Conservative Party Conference this week and witnessing the party’s wrecking ball tactics over the past decade, it’s tempting to think that it has gone the way of the dodo.
The Conservatives are looking less and less like a party of stability and common sense and more and more like a rampaging bull that’s been wrapped in a suicide vest. Carnage, waiting to happen.
All the values have gone. All that is left is the ‘nastiness’ – once confined to a corner of the party – and now the main event. With every day it is amplified.
On Tuesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel stole, not just the outer garments, but the very underpants of Nigel Farage. The Tories would implement an “Australian style points based” immigration policy, she promised, seemingly oblivious to the fact that had such a policy existed in the 1960s, her own parents would have been prevented from coming to live here. The points based system is a relic of Australia’s racist past – and it doesn’t work. Even the Australians are seeking to replace it. But who cares about details when there are xenophobic votes to be won?
And then – relishing the moment and practically licking her lips – Patel told the conference: “At this defining moment in our country’s history, I have a particular responsibility when it comes to taking back control. It is to end the free movement of people once and for all.”
The party faithful, roused from their slumber burst into rapturous applause. What wonderful news this was – never mind that it would end their and their children’s freedom of movement. Finally Johnny Foreigner would get his comeuppance. And, all the while in the background, Johnson and his team were busying themselves with the Irish border and making Brexit happen whatever the cost to business, to the lives of people, to the value of the pound.
Johnson’s lacklustre conference speech was instantly forgettable. There was no detail, no meat, no path forward or promise to turn back. This wasn’t a latter day Churchill or even Churchill the insurance dog. The Nasties have taken over the party and bigotry is all they have left. How has it come to this?
My parents knew that free movement was good. That peace in Ireland when it came was to be cherished. That peace in Europe had been a long time coming and was not to be dismissed. They knew that business mattered, that free trade gave them things they had only dreamed of in their childhoods. They wanted Britain to be respected and admired, they wanted it to thrive.
All of that has been spaffed up a wall.