A few weeks ago, some of the new Renewal editorial team sat down with a veteran of the think tank world. Although not sharing his pessimism, I listened – not entirely unsympathetically – while he outlined his worries about Labour, the general election, and the challenges that would await in government. Nevertheless, I was somewhat perturbed to hear an idea that seems to have taken hold in some quarters: that the National Conservatism conference was a sign of the intellectual vibrancy of the British right – however bad the ideas in question might be – by contrast to the left.
This has become something of a recurring trope, particularly in the pages of The New Statesman. Hence, for (an admittedly sceptical) Andrew Marr, ‘the philosophical zest and avid desire to retain power on show [around NatCon] should alarm social democrats. For where is the centre-left equivalent? The 18 months, or whatever it is, before a general election should be a time of bubbling intellectual debate… On the left, I don’t see it.’ Blue Labour’s Jonathan Rutherford took this further. In the wake of NatCon, he suggested, ‘it is Conservatism that has generated energy and held attention.’ For Rutherford, it was not just that the right had ideas but that the reaction to these ideas exposed the very bankruptness of the left, as ‘[f]rom the Guardian to Novara Media, the left reacted with predictable hyperbole about its hard-rightness… [W]hat occupied people’s minds wasn’t a progressive future under a Labour government, it was Conservatism.’ Invoking Stuart Hall, Rutherford argued it is necessary to ‘understand your adversaries’ (quite right), to ‘inhabit their mental landscapes, know their intuitive take on the world and put one’s self in their position.’ However, ‘the dismissive commentary on the NatCon conference suggests that large swathes of the left are not interested in Hall’s advice. It begged the question of what does the progressive left stand for apart from its hostility and contempt for Conservatism?’ Last week, Adrian Pabst followed suit, charging that the left was ‘still losing’ because of its lack of intellectual vitality and will to win, held up the reaction to NatCon in support of his case. ‘The left sneers at the right’s attempt to renew itself at gatherings such as the recent National Conservatism conference, dismissing it as an expression of reactionary conspiratorial anti-enlightenment hysteria’, writes Pabst, ‘[b]ut… the NatCons managed to mobilise a diverse youthful crowd in search of new ideas and political debate.’ This is (i) profoundly wrong, and (ii) a symptom of a mindset which the (centre-)left can do without; a mindset which fetishizes ideas and which readily cedes ideological ground to political opponents.
Wrong, first, because – for fear of neglecting Hall’s advice – those who responded to the conference with hostility and contempt were exactly right. It was a contemptuous spectacle, to be met with hostility. The intellectual backdrop, the ideological incoherence on display, and the rather sharp contrast between these ideas and those of the British public have been well covered by Peter Geoghegan and Andrew Gamble, and merit little further elaboration. NatCon exposed not a party on the ideological front-foot, running with the grain of social change, but a desperate assortment of political undesirables and opportunists, trapped in their own media echo chamber, aware that they are losing, unable and unwilling to make the case for their party’s track record after thirteen years in government. The presence of frontbench politicians at the event was a symptom not of a coherent ideological project, but of a breakdown of discipline in the party of government. Crucially, the attending politicians were not even able to agree amongst themselves. Free market ultras rubbed shoulders with the few who have at least processed that after the financial crisis, Brexit, the pandemic, war in Ukraine and a disastrous fifteen years for growth and living standards, something quite big might need to change about Conservative political economy.
A generous interpretation of the event is that many Conservatives, in that desperation, have grasped at an apparent source of ideas to be imported wholesale from the frontiers of the American culture war, which they do not fully understand. Certainly, in our two-party system, the radicalisation of the right is cause to worry. But it is not good judgement to position yourself against the social attitudes of the majority of British people. It is not smart politics to appear to rant and rave about the perils of ‘Marxism’, ‘narcissism’ and ‘nature worship’, and pin all your failings on ‘the blob’, during an economic crisis your party has continually aggravated. It is not a sign of enviable intellectual vitality, to see the notional party of the mainstream centre-right flirting openly with political extremes.
What is striking is the willingness of many outside the fringes of the Conservative Party – including those very hostile to the underlying politics – to treat this bizarre spectacle with reverence. In part this reflects a fetishization of ideas. By disposition and interest, I am if anything predisposed to place too high a premium on ideas in politics. But to celebrate ideas because they are ideas, detached from any ethical judgement on their content or practical judgement on their utility, is nonsense. To assume that the culture war diatribes on display at NatCon are the most pertinent ideas at a moment in which the British public’s biggest concerns are the cost of their mortgage, their energy and their food is little short of bizarre in its neglect of the material conditions that shape our politics.
Academics and commentators are predisposed to seek out the key text, the big idea, the intellectual milieux which can be dissected, critiqued, and deployed to explain politics. That’s fine, but it can give you a very limited understanding of politics. Ideas are not synonymous with grand ideological slogans (‘National Conservatism’). They are not even synonymous with elaborate cultural critique. These have their place; Labour could perhaps do with more ‘big ideas’, more interrogation of the means and ends of social democracy and of the political and cultural terrain in which it operates. Nevertheless it is entirely possible that the most pertinent ideas for a moment are practical responses – the kind often written off as technocratic – to the symptoms and the underlying causes of the severe material problems we confront in the economy, in our public services, in our climate. Some ideas are useful in politics, others are not. It makes neither moral nor political sense to fetishize bad and irrelevant ideas because they are ‘ideas’, but ignore ones that might actually begin to address the problems ahead of us – or even ones that might help deliver a Labour government with a mandate to address them.
The willingness to assume that these sorts of ideas matter so much is perhaps a symptom of a chronic defeatism. The left has lost a lot. The assumption is that the right must know something we don’t. But does anyone really believe Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn lost the elections they did because of a deficit of ideas? Defeatism has been buttressed by those – with Matthew Goodwin only the most prominent example – who staked their public reputations on confidently asserting that Britain was subject to an inexorable process of realignment. The choice for the left was to adapt to the iron law of ‘left on economy, right on culture’, or to keep losing.[i] The Brexit vote, the Trump election, the 2019 election were stripped of the contingency, the specificity, that marks political events. The right had the secret sauce for mastering the realignment and if progressives were intellectually serious, well that must mean accepting their values were anathema to the electorate – and that political renewal meant acquiescing to that reality. The contingency of politics – of which we have been so forcefully reminded since 2019 – was squeezed out in favour of a crass cultural reductionism. When people complain the left has no ideas, often what they mean is the left doesn’t share their ideas. That many Tories have chosen to believe that the culture war is everything, and that the fringes of the right-wing media and the darker corners of the internet represent the views of the British public, does not mean the rest of us need follow them.
None of this is to deny the real electoral challenges confronting the left, the faultlines exposed since 2016. Nor is it to deny that today’s social-democratic revisionists may not benefit from the same rich, intellectual ecosystem that their predecessors did three decades ago.[ii] But it is to say that, while we should take the right politically seriously, we should not fetishize their ideas. There is no need to accept the diagnoses of our political opponents; to ‘know your enemy’ is not to substitute their judgement for your own. Since 2016 we have had more than enough evidence that the populist right, whatever its electoral successes, has few answers to governing. Social-democratic politics can develop its own analysis of the strategic possibilities and constraints – what is electorally possible, economically feasible, deliverable through the British state. We should not elevate abstract arguments about culture over ideas which offer a practical response to the very material problems defining people’s day to day lives. Most of all, we should ignore those who insist that plans for national economic renewal and green transition are not in themselves ideas worth debating. Ideas are important; pluralistic debate is vital; but we have nothing to gain and nothing to envy from bad ideas.
Nick Garland is an editor of Renewal. He is currently completing a DPhil in History at the University of Oxford.
[i] Of course, under closer inspection, Goodwin’s version of ‘left on the economy’ looks (un)surprisingly akin to ‘right on culture’.
[ii] On which point, see my editorial with Karl Pike in the forthcoming summer issue of Renewal. Now is a great time to subscribe!