The Tories still don’t know how to fight the madness of identity politics | #students | #parents


Does it really matter what a common room in Magdalen College does with its portrait of the Queen? Students have long liked to provoke – and wind each other up. The historian Niall Ferguson has spoken about how his Oxford friends would throw parties to welcome the arrival of Cruise missiles to Britain (with invites showing a mushroom cloud emerging from a bottle of Bollinger). They once requested that the college library purchase the Collected Limericks of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. “The joy of this kind of thing,” he wrote, was that “the Left always rose to the bait, no matter how puerile.”

It seems to be the Right, now, that rises to the bait – and on a national scale. After Magdalen’s postgrads voted to remove the Queen’s picture on the grounds that she represents “recent colonial history”, ministers let rip. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, formally denounced them. Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, declared himself proud to hang Her Majesty’s portrait on his office wall.

There’s something still a bit student politics about this reaction – and a failure to recognise that this stopped being a game some time ago.

It’s not quite clear when this madness moved off campus and started to infect the workplace, but the trend has been clear for some time. We see an England cricketer suspended for tweets he sent as a teenager, which sets a worrying precedent: can an adult now be fired for daft jokes they made when just out of school? On its own, the digital outrage mob is irrelevant. But when institutions buckle to pressure, it matters.

There are real concerns about the emergence of a new racism: the idea of making assumptions about someone based on their skin colour, it seems, is back. White working class parents resent being told they are “privileged” regardless of their circumstances – especially if their children are, now, less likely to get into university than any other group. By indulging all of these fashionable doctrines, Labour ended up coming across as a party that would do anything for the working class, except like them.

But what do the Tories say about all this? Even now, they’re not sure. If universities are turning into woke madrassas, with even Oxford dons engaging in statue-toppling games (as 150 of them are doing at Oriel) it becomes serious: it is, now, politics. “The Conservatives need to have a vocabulary on this,” one minister tells me. “Unless we do, we cannot claim to be a cultural force.” But what to do? What to say? And what would a conservative response to this look like?

This isn’t about culture war, but a simple ability to explain and defend values. Margaret Thatcher spoke at length, often quite movingly, about what she stood for: not just the liberty and the rights of the individual but our responsibility to each other. How people, if entrusted with a greater share of what they earn, tend to make better decisions for themselves, their family and their community.

In recent years, political values have descended into a mush of cliche and platitude. We hear about serving “hardworking families” (who speaks for the slightly more chilled people?) and “aspirational” voters. To this, David Cameron added his incomprehensible notion of “the big society”. The current “levelling up” agenda has become a running joke in government, with ministers teasing each other by asking them to define it. No one has succeeded.

When Boris Johnson became party leader, he brought something else: an obvious disregard for the self-appointed thought police. His journalistic oeuvre includes a great many off-colour jokes that his enemies like to quote in hope of exposing him as a monster. His being rude about wearers of the burqa, in the pages of this newspaper, sent his opponents into meltdown. He didn’t reply that it was absurd to call this Islamophobic, given how many Muslim countries have banned the burqa. Nor did he point out he was defending the right of all women to wear what they pleased. He just kept quiet. He didn’t rise to the bait.

At the time, his silence was well-judged: one should never feed the trolls. But his enemies were unwittingly doing him a favour: painting him as someone who said what he thought, who didn’t mind making jokes and didn’t walk on eggshells. “There’s a huge political market for this,” says one of the red-wall Tory MPs. “It’s a big part of why we won: our values. But even now, No 10 doesn’t seem to realise this.” The new northern Tories are keen to join a battle of ideas, but the older ones recoil – as if it’s somehow all a bit déclassé.

The opportunity for the Tories is to say they believe not just in free speech but in forgiveness – that no one should be judged by what they said (or tweeted) years ago. No one should be defined by their worst mistake. While Labour is captured by identity politics, dreaming up ways of preaching victimhood and setting people against each other, the Tories can counter with a new form of One Nation conservatism: rejecting racial divisions, emphasising what we have in common and celebrating Britain’s status as the most successful melting pot in the world.

But for now, Tories seem to seek short-term wins, weighing in on cricket spats and Oxford common rooms but without any hint of a wider strategy or philosophy. There are no end of serious points to make. They ought to say that students can put a portrait of Idi Amin on the wall if they want, but things get serious when diversity of thought is threatened, academics are hounded or speakers no-platformed. The recent Freedom of Speech Bill is a nod towards this. But even this is done gingerly, as if the Conservatives are terrified of their own agenda.

When Johnson was elected Tory leader he said his mission was to unite the country – but he has not yet worked out that this will mean confrontation with those set on dividing it. A Left that cannot win via the ballot box will start a march through the institutions and make decent progress if the Tories cannot say what they stand for and fight for it.

For a party led by a professional wordsmith, it ought not to be too much of an ask.



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