Moral cowardice of conservatives

Eurosceptics lacked the integrity to acknowledge the consequences of leaving the EU’s single market

Nick Cohen

Conservative intellectuals once prized themselves on their scepticism. Despite all we have been through, they are still the first to tell you to live in “the real world” rather than the world as you would like it to be. They still claim to be heirs to a tradition that, from Burke to Oakeshott, damned grand projects that would tear up the present for the sake of an idealised version of the future. However far from his thought they might be, Kant’s “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” is a conservative maxim. Or was.

The conservative mentality now flourishes everywhere except among conservatives. Take their assertion that they are sceptical realists, even if they do say so themselves. Sceptic is an honourable title, which can only be bestowed on you by others. When men and women claim to be sceptics, as when they claim to be brave or honest, you should ask who they are fooling. More often than not, they are fooling themselves before they try to fool you. True sceptics examine their own prejudices and biases. They are aware of the dangers of groupthink — if they lose friends by contradicting the views of their party or circle, they reason, those friends weren’t worth having in the first place. They also have some understanding of the perennial human tendency to seek information that confirms their beliefs. In the words of the economist Chris Dillow, sceptics seek facts that make them uncomfortable the better to challenge their easy assumptions.

It is a sign of the propaganda success and intellectual failure of modern conservatism that British nationalists got away with calling themselves “Eurosceptics”. If they had been sceptical, Britain would not now be a laughing stock. The conservative press and think tanks would have had debates about the world as it is, not as conservatives would like it to be. They would have acknowledged that Britain was a part of an integrated European economy and leaving the single market with its web of rules and standards would inevitably have traumatic consequences. Instead, they failed to admit that the anti-European movement was based on a paradox: the EU was simultaneously a vast bureaucracy that had spread its influence into every corner of national life and an institution it would be remarkably easy to leave. Britain would be in a less dismal state if it had a conservative press and conservative intellectuals, who might have told their leaders that both these statements could not be true.

Sceptical conservatives would have recognised too that the neo-liberal world of the 1990s was dissolving. The World Trade Organisation is weak and directionless. First China and now Trump’s America are becoming ever more mercantilist. The only way to maintain our trade after Brexit with the one bloc we are part of would be to accept EU standards and laws without having a say in them.

Put these two factors together and Conservatives would have had to conclude, either that the grand project Brexit was not worth it, or that the pain was a price worth paying to cut immigration and restore nominal sovereignty, if not actual control. But just as Scottish nationalists would never admit that leaving the UK single market would hurt, so Eurosceptics lacked the integrity to acknowledge the consequences of leaving the European single market. Shamefully an entire generation of conservative writers failed to make them do so.

Assuming Theresa May is still Prime Minister by the time this issue is published, we are heading to the soft Brexit that the economics and geography of the “real world” always dictated was the only available Brexit. One should not over exaggerate its softness. The EU will probably give us a deal on manufactured goods but not on services, which make up 80 per cent of the economy, unless we commit to abiding by the freedoms of the single market. Either way we will be in a servile and diminished position. Jacob Rees-Mogg may not be much of a conservative or an intellectual but his comment that we are heading towards being a “vassal state” contained a grain of truth.

How will the conservative intelligentsia, to use the politest available term, react now they have to live with the consequences of vassalage — along with the rest of us? One option is to get out of politics. Paul Dacre picked a good time to retire as editor of the Daily Mail. Others may feel the moment has come to take up watercolour painting or Pilates classes. A few may admit they have made a mistake and seek to reverse the consequences of their actions. Most, however, appear determined to stay in their land of make believe. Just get out, their argument runs, and then we renegotiate all the concessions the current administration has made. If Britain had conservative intellectuals, who were candid friends rather than crowd pleasers and mob followers, they might have warned that, if you treat your neighbours as enemies, they will treat you with suspicion. EU leaders and the European parliament will not sign a treaty unless Britain makes unbreakable commitments. I have thought from the moment they won the referendum, conservatives would then slip into the final degeneration: a right-wing version of socialist special pleading. Just as the failure of the workers’ revolution is not the fault of the revolution but of the revisionists who betrayed it, so as the years drag by, the complexities mount, and all the promises made to the public are blown away, it will not be the Brexit revolution that is at fault but the quislings and saboteurs who betrayed the people’s will. Such revanchism is profoundly unconservative. But where are the conservative voices outside parliament warning of the dangers of descending into stab-in-the-back conspiracy theories? After turning my eyes from Matthew Parris in The Times, I struggle to find any.

You can read endless commentary on how Labour and other left-wing parties have become movements of middle-class graduates, that are losing the white working class. No one can doubt that workers’ parties without workers face a crisis of purpose. I could write a book on the deformations of middle-class leftism: in fact, I have written a book on it. Far less is said and far fewer books are written about what happens to conservative parties when they lose the educated middle class. Or to be fair, when their loudest voices scream intelligent conservatives into compliance or silence. Now we know. What happens is the national crisis you see unfolding around you.

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