It is a truism that intellectuals lean to the Left and sneer at the Right. Indeed, Conservatives have been branded as uneducated and anti-intellectual at least since John Stuart Mill dubbed them “the stupid party”. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the target of something like mass hysteria on the part of the British intelligentsia — a witch’s brew of snobbery and misogyny vividly evoked by Paul Johnson in his review of the latest volume of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography. Whenever the conservative side of the spectrum is under scrutiny, a note of condescension may still be detected in the output of the BBC, academia and the liberal establishment. As Laetitia Strauch-Bonart’s review essay on Roger Scruton makes clear, there has been and still is a stark contrast in the treatment of intellectuals of Left and Right: the former are depicted as mainstream, the latter as marginal. Scruton says he was driven close to suicide by the Left’s sabotage of his career.
Yet what is the justification for the left-wing intelligentsia’s sense of entitlement? Do they in fact still monopolise the marketplace of ideas? Jeremy Corbyn’s election is said to show that the pendulum has swung back towards socialism. But this is misleading. Among serious thinkers on the Left, the mood is rather one of despair.
Last month an unusual encounter took place between two public intellectuals before an equally distinguished audience at the Royal Institution. It was unusual, not so much because the two speakers were Conservatives, but because their usual roles were reversed: it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, interviewing Charles Moore, the columnist and biographer of Mrs Thatcher, under the auspices of the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange. So much did the Chancellor relish the chance to turn the tables that afterwards we joked that on the strength of his performance he might once have earned a job from the former Editor of the Daily Telegraph. “Actually, he did give me my first job,” Osborne replied. Indeed, their conversation sparkled with enough self-deprecating wit and lightly-worn learning to impress even eminent representatives of the Left, from Lord Mandelson to the Editor of the New Statesman. Also present were some of those who had played a part in the events they were discussing, from Lords [Robin] Butler and [Charles] Powell to Dame Colette Bowe, so the Chancellor knew he was on his mettle. To have come unprepared before such grandees would have been fatal. Not only did Osborne rise to the occasion, he surpassed himself, revealing a warm, lively and likeable side to his personality at odds with his cool, even arrogant media image. If the Chancellor is to consolidate his status as David Cameron’s heir apparent, he needs to plant the seed of an idea: that George Osborne might actually be just as good company over dinner as Boris Johnson.
It is impossible to imagine a similar occasion among today’s politicians of the Left. (Not so among writers: James Fenton, who won the PEN-Pinter prize last month for his political poetry, presented an equally brilliant double act with Julian Barnes.) Michael Cockerell’s recently-aired documentary about the late Denis Healey was a reminder of the days when Labour had a chancellor with a hinterland. Jeremy Corbyn’s praetorian guard has taken to naming and shaming Labour MPs who defy the whip so that they can be subjected to trial by Twitter. Among the early victims of such tactics have been the few intellectuals: Tristram Hunt, Liz Kendall, Frank Field and other moderates. In due course, such dissidents may be purged or deselected.
This is, obviously, no way to encourage a free and frank exchange of ideas; but the thugs of the hard Left have never been interested in debate. Their conduct at the Conservative conference — where delegates had to run a gauntlet of expletive and spittle — along with the new militancy of the unions suggests a regression to the menacing tactics of the last century. Labour is in grave danger of becoming both the stupid and the nasty party.
Throughout the West, the battle between Left and Right is being fought on the question of inequality (compare our Overrated and Underrated profiles of the Americans Joseph Stiglitz and Harry Frankfurt). Should governments pursue the egalitarian goal of taxing the rich and spending the proceeds on the poor? Or instead create the market conditions for the kind of capitalist take-off that has lifted the living standards of some two billion people in the last generation? Is growing inequality the price we pay for prosperity, or is it morally wrong? Inequality is not the same as injustice, but the Prime Minister has declared that “real equality” means doing away with discrimination against women or minorities. Does he mean to endorse a tough-minded agenda of meritocracy, or a softer one of social justice? There is scope for more than one view of inequality within the broad conservative church, but the Left’s vindictive use of penal taxation as a panacea is outside the national consensus.
Europe, and especially the migrant crisis, disconcerts Left and Right alike. Only the conservative side, however, seems capable of taking into account those most affected: the ordinary people of Britain. The European question will be decided by how well David Cameron articulates their interests. As Stephen Glover argues, he has a fight on his hands. But the fight is not with the gaunt Don Quixote and the paunchy Sancho Panza who sit opposite Cameron and Osborne in the Commons. That is no contest, either practical or intellectual. For the moment, the centre-Right has won.