How will the Conservative Party adapt to a post-modern world?

Alexander Pannett 10.30 am

Over the last few decades the Western world has been swamped by a revolution that has undermined all its previous assumptions about the world. Truth, progress, humanist values, even democracy itself have all had their imperious hold over Western consciousness shattered by a force of ideas that is invincible as it is ethereal.

I refer of course to that terror of terrors; post-modernism.

This concept largely started as a rejection of the grand narratives of modernism. A renunciation of the modernist idea that only Western rationalism pointed to the one true vision of the world. A rejection of the concept, amongst others, that the Enlightenment’s achievements would be unassailable and that humans were destined towards perennial progress. Post-modernism grew to challenge all universal beliefs wherever they were found, from science to architecture and spawned the emergence of identity politics and value plurality.

For Tories, a generally reticent bunch who pride themselves as the guardians of traditional values and culture, post-modernism appeared to be a gift from the Greeks. On one hand it eroded the centralising and universal tenets of socialism and its belief in the progression of mankind. On the other it cast traditional values, bourgeois ambitions and existing social hierarchies to the winds.

But it may be time for the Conservative Party to re-analyse its relationship with post-modernism. Whilst it is impossible to form policies based on a concept that effectively denies the narrative of its own self, the Tories should recognise the changing, post-modern Zeitgeist of society.

Post-modernism has brought about a re-evaluation of human’s relationship with the immediate, putting emphasis on the local and practical rather than the universal and abstract. This shift, far from undermining conservative values, is in fact a simulacrum of Tory localism and pragmatism.

As the belief in a universal political creed has fallen away, identity politics has risen into the void left by its disappearance. The rise of post-modern identity politics is well suited to a Tory party that has always seen itself as a “Big Tent” that encompassed a plurality of seemingly divergent views and opinions. It has appointed both a female and a Jewish leader in the past, a chairman from an ethnic minority and has a healthy representation of LGBT members, as Ken Livingstone so recently and gallantly observed. Its ranks include environmental campaigners to human rights activists. Its divergent views range from the socially liberal to the more authoritarian right, economically libertarian to state interventionist.

There is no universal ideology that unites and drives the Conservative Party. Instead a patch work of communities find common cause with a political will of toleration and freedom of expression, united by emotive catalysts such as compassion, community and patriotism rather than by artificial, academic ideals such as “equality” or “progress”.

There have been signs that the Conservative Party has adapted to the post-modern world.  Its localism agenda and support for elected mayors and police commissioners shows an increasing desire to give voice to the fractured identities of the polity.  The emergence of modern Tory movements such as Red Tories, Progressive Conservatives or Compassionate Conservatism suggests a hybridisation of previously inalienable values and identities.  David Cameron’s careful cultivation of a “normal” image through cycling, washing up and family barbeques with Obama suggests a blurring of the social hierarchies that previously dominated the symbols of power.

This hybridisation reflects the wider fracturing and re-moulding of identities, values and aspirations in society that post-modernism has enacted. As values have fallen away, we have been left with “one issue” politics where alliances are formed and broken between different interest groups as idiosyncratic political issues gain attention, such as with the AV referendum or Scottish Independence. The Coalition is another example of this shifting mass of ideas and views whose lack of a definite ideological centre ground is contrasted with its kaleidoscope of opinions that vary, merge and mutate as they seek the most practical course.

The Conservative Party is well poised to benefit from the post-modern world and should no longer fear it. But it must resist the temptation to cling to outdated political and economic narratives of the world that are as empty as they are damaging. Pragmatism should be prioritised and political single issues confronted on their merits rather than on how they fit into a holistic vision. The errors of believing in market orthodoxy or liberal interventionism are presently all too plain to see.

From foreign policy to economics, the Conservative Party should eschew the dogmas of the past and seek policies that prize the needs of the local over the temptations of the grand alliance or ideology.

Only by placing the needs of the diverging human in its natural environment over the dictates of social, political and market grand theories will the Conservative Party truly embrace and represent the post-modern world.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Why Owen Jones is right. The working classes are demonised… By his class

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 2.00pm

The West has many words for them. The American “limosuine liberal”, the German “salonkommunist”, the French “gauche caviar”, the Italian “Radical chic”, the Danish “kysbanesocialist”, and the Swedish “Rodvinsvanster”.

The rich English language has even more; from “Hampstead hippies” to the “chattering classes”, from “Bollinger Bolsheviks” to the “Islington massive”. Most famously of all perhaps is “Champagne Socialist” a term with its roots planted firmly in Herzen, who wrote of the poor “dying of cold and hunger… while you and I in our rooms… are chatting about socialism over pastry and champagne”.

The debate on how, why and when this happened is for another place and another time. Suffice it to say that it revolves around the “Frankfurt School’s” success in the post-war period in capturing the commanding heights, the citadels of culture and academia instead of politics and revolutions, and shaping society’s values. 

I would dispute the fact Socialism ever had a working-class core in the first place however. The French Revolution had its engine rooms in salons full of the well-to-do, not on the backstreets with sans-culottes. The Marxist Revolution was fathered by academics and industrialists, not workers. Its dogmas have only gained traction amongst the working classes when it has been in the interests of the bourgeois to persuade, bribe or coerce them from above. The ratio of roots-up working-class socialist movements compared to top-down equivalents has always been pitifully lopsided. 

Marxism’s two major constituencies are nihilists and idealists. Indeed, though you might find pessimistic and optimistic working men, nihilism and idealism are forms of distortion only the indulgence of an education can afford. And education, in spite of all efforts, remains the key definitive quality that forms the border marches of working and middle class identities. A fact poignantly illustrated by David Starkey in an intimate interview he gave for the Guardian in which he revealed that the typical working class parents’ mindset was enshrined in the phrase “you educate ‘em, you lose ‘em”. 

Parents have lost them nonetheless. Lost them to an education system that is experimenting with socialist concepts the bourgeoisie framed and are now toying with. If “lions led by donkeys” was a popular leftist motif for the behaviour of generals in the first world war, it is one that would accurately describe our education system today in which all the historically conservative foibles of the working-classes have been stamped into the dirt. Its patriotism patronised as racist, its royalism denigrated as quaint, its love of cohesive community decried as tribalistic, its liberality denounced as animalism, and its respect for authority scoffed at as infantile.

Owen Jones, a man loudly ashamed of his bourgeois background, made a name for himself last year by informing us of a process involving the “demonisation of the working classes”. A brave book by any standards for a man who belongs to the class who seem to have done precisely that. 

The solution to this sad tale lies in the conservative party embracing a One Nation Toryism best embodied by men such as Iain Duncan Smith, who, instead of aping the worst aspects of the metropolitan left which takes the underclass vote as a given for its want of proper alternatives, actually takes our compatriots’ concerns seriously. This would be both the morally right thing to do and a politically astute decision, staying on message, detoxifying the brand, whilst gaining a whole new constituency.

People desire, at the very least, shades of fidelity between thought and action, ideals and deeds. But the piquant notes tucked away in these neatly coined phrases reveal more than just frustration with inconsistency. The nugget of injustice the terms are swiping at is the fact the middle-classes, loaded with bourgeois sensibilities, are perceived to have hijacked a theory that claimed the working-classes and history had each found redemption in the other.

The delusory demonisation of Conservatives

David Cowan 10.59am

There are many young Conservatives in Britain. But many do not dare admit it. Young Liberal Democrats, Labourites, Socialists and Marxists are lauded as idealists who care about the injustices of the world, whereas young Conservatives are seen to be unpleasant, reactionary and self-interested individuals with no capacity for compassion (pace unpleasant publicity here and here).

Yet this perception has very little to do with the facts and has everything to do with the Left’s need to discredit a party which has done so much for this country, especially for the most vulnerable in our communities. Sir Robert Peel’s Factory Act 1844, Benjamin Disraeli’s Artisan’s and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act 1875 and Public Health Act 1875, Rab Butler’s Education Act 1944, Harold Macmillan’s housing programme, and Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy initiative are just some of the Conservatives achievements which have improved the nation as a whole.

The current debate over the coalition government’s spending plans has been the latest cause for demonising the Conservatives, but the truth is that eliminating the budget deficit is saving £1,000 for every family in the country by decreasing borrowing costs; taking £5,000 off every family’s mortgage interest bill by keeping long-term interest rates low; helping people to pay off their credit card bills; and getting lending to small businesses going again.

Britain’s national debt is having a harmful impact on everyone, especially the poor. There is nothing progressive about spending £47.6 billion on debt interest repayments instead of schools and hospitals.

Despite the current economic hardship, the Conservatives have still managed to protect the schools budget and increase NHS spending every year in real terms. They have also embarked on an ambitious programme of reform to modernise our public services and to tackle poverty at home and abroad.

Welfare benefits are being simplified so that being in work will always pay more than being out of work. A rehabilitation revolution intends to get criminals out of the vicious cycle of reoffending. A new Troubled Families Team will provide ‘action plans’ for dysfunctional families to help turn their lives around.

The Conservatives are also dealing with global poverty by increasing international aid to 0.7% of GNP by 2013 so we can train 190,000 teachers, immunise more than 55 million children against preventive diseases, and give 15 million people access to clean drinking water.

Most Conservatives are motivated by a strong sense of duty and responsibility. They believe that there should be a link between effort and reward, that everyone should have the opportunity to be successful, everyone should have the freedom to make their own decisions and choices in life, and we should always help the most vulnerable in our communities.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

This article first appeared on The Cambridge Union Society’s Huffington Post UK blog