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What the reaction to the DUP tells us about modern Britain

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I am not, by nature, an optimist. And yet there is something, not about the coalition itself but the widespread reaction to it, which cheers me.

It reveals just how total the Left’s victory in the ‘culture war’ has been. It reveals that there is no such thing, on the mainland at least, as a true conservative party.

Ask yourselves this: in what sense is the modern Conservative Party conservative?

I have often heard it said that Tory economic policy is conservative because of the way it privileges corporate interests and abandons the state. Yet this characterisation is a mistake built upon a mistake.

Belief in a small but strong state, preserving key institutions, traditions and public mores is conservative; economics as a means to an end. The ends of Tory economic policy hasn’t been conservative since Margaret Thatcher abandoned Keynesian philosophy in favour of Hayekian monetarism; the theory that money should be borrowed and spent to meet social requirements and moral duties for the idea that social requirements and moral duties are only acceptable if they’re ‘affordable’. 

There is nothing at all conservative about the free market fundamentalism which has followed; the belief that the size and function and duties of the state should be determined not by government but by markets is a radical belief, not a conservative one. That is one of the ways by which we can differentiate between the likes of Enoch Powell, who was a true conservative – an advocate of free markets long before Thatcher but a passionate believer in a strong state and stable, coherent, strictly governed society – and someone like Tony Blair, who was at least as ‘conservative’ (in the modern sense) as Thatcher in his belief in the power and supremacy of unfettered markets.

I don’t mean to suggest that this represents the goal and victory of the Left, though I do think of it as a symptom of the same.

The divide between economics and social policy is a modern myth. Economics requires a philosophy it cannot generate for itself. Philosophy is the product of mind, and mind is largely the product of society; therefore what is deemed economic fact and necessity is invariably symptomatic of the values of a society. Of course, the transference is not one-way; economic prosperity feeds into social attitudes just as social attitudes feed into economics. But the social has, or at any rate had, supremacy.

So economic liberalisation is evidence of the Left’s victory, which has occurred at the level of society. The rejection of a strict and repressive society - as manifested in, for example, the Soixant-Huitards and the spirit of the year from which they take their name - and the assertion of the rights of individuals to their identities and their livelihoods and liberties, birthed a philosophy of its own. That, in turn, bred an unintended consequence: social liberalism, free love, freedom from state control of the personal, has created our modern economic assumptions, and the resultant conditions. (Marx was right: capitalism is revolutionary.)

If the state should not be allowed control over the intricacies of the personal, why should it be intimately involved in the economic? Our small state is the result of an individualised, personalised outlook and philosophy, one which is fiercely independent and which rejects external controls and interventions from above or beyond. The paradox, of course, is that Leftist-radical social attitudes are proving increasingly incompatible with liberal-radical economics. We have no duty to the state, but the state has duties to us. We should not be governed by the state, but the state should guarantee us health, education, jobs, houses, roads, railways.  Auden caught the essence of the paradox: ‘There is no such thing as the state, and no one exists alone…’

I contend that the recent electoral results, and the reaction, of a large portion of the British public (and even some within the Conservative Party, most particularly Ruth Davidson), to the likely Tory-DUP coalition, demonstrates this fact.

That reaction has been one of fear, alarm and despair, the classic signs of an encounter with the strange and unfamiliar. The DUP is a truly conservative party! It has a very definite social philosophy and societal vision, one based upon the preservation of certain morals, laws and norms, and its economic policy is – largely but not totally – guided by that belief. This is in stark contrast to the modern Conservative Party, which has no clear social vision, seems entirely ignorant of the concept of morality and principle; and, to the extent that it has one at all, makes its vision subservient to economic ‘realities’.

Take, for example, care for the elderly. This has become one of the surest ways by which to differentiate between an economy determined by society and a society determined by economics. The DUP is staunchly opposed to means-testing winter fuel payments and ending the triple-lock on pensions. It opposes the ‘bedroom tax’, a policy which disproportionately affects those who own homes, who in turn are likely to be of older generations. (Of course, true conservatism is not without its contradictions. The ‘dementia tax’, however poorly thought through, was nevertheless a truly conservative policy, one based largely upon Nick Timothy’s vision of society. It was conservative, not Conservative, and few people hate the conservative as passionately as modern Conservatives.)

The DUP objects to these things not because it thinks it has an economically superior alternative but because they are incompatible with its vision of society, one which is explicitly Christian, and originates from that deranged Presbyterian offshoot of the Orangemen established by the vile yet hypnotic (and hypnotically vile) Ian Paisley. Not even his staunchest enemy would accuse Paisley of being unprincipled or un-conservative; he, and his movement, and his religion, were so conservative that the term ‘reactionary’ flatters.

It is testament to the success (or the deadening effects) of the peace process that a great many people on the mainland are hearing about Northern Irish politics, politicians and political parties, for the first time. Yet our reaction to them is instructive. Perhaps we do not realise how lucky we are, or how far we have come.  We are shocked that a party exists, within the British Isles, which objects to gay marriage, which opposes abortion, which is sceptical about global warming and which seems at all anti-liberal. We are appalled by the prospect of them holding any kind of power.

This is because we have entirely forgotten what conservatism looks like. Even sensible social conservatism, vestiges of which are still prevalent on the mainland – which I’m inclined to define as a moderate sense of patriotism and moral value, and a healthy scepticism of change for its own sake - is tremendously liberal.

Yet there is an unspoken corollary which we’d do well to acknowledge. That the only things we’ve heard from Conservative spokesmen in recent days concern the DUP, and that the sole objective of these comments has been to reassure the voters of their opposition to DUP social ideals, proves, I think, the point I have sought to convey: Even the Conservatives are liberal, and are committed to preserving the gains won by the Left.

The reaction to the DUP shows us this much. There is no such thing, on the mainland at least, as a conservative party. Rather, we are all quite vicious in our liberalism.

Therein lies the evidence of our triumph, and therein lies a reason to be cheerful.




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