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  • Richard Farr

Understanding the Con

Absurd and repulsive though he is, the vandal Boris Johnson (Pants-on-Fire, Con), who has perhaps done his country more harm than any living Englishman, now teeters on the edge of the smoking abyss that is No. 10 Downing Street. May he cook there briefly. Or maybe we’ll get Michael Gove instead, another man stalwart to defend his own advancement at all and any cost. God help us if we deserve such people.

At such a time, it’s worth getting some context with an excellent piece by Andy Beckett in The Guardian. It’s ostensibly about Margaret Thatcher (whose “There is no such thing as society” stands still as one of the great radically anti-conservative quotations of all time), the hapless David Cameron, and the implosion of the traditional Tory philosophy in the UK. But it also acts as a useful guide to why the whole idea of a “conservative” is now intellectual and moral Newspeak – a word that means almost exactly the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean – in both the US and the UK:

That there is no there there – excepting of course the munificently-funded determination to lie to the least-privileged in order to better grovel before the interests of the already-most-privileged – may show the silver lining of electoral fury. Alas, the Europeans elections illustrate only too well that large numbers of voters hate people like Johnson but have had their political senses so corrupted that lurching even further in the direction of deliberate self-destruction seems natural. (“They set fire to the house! They said it would keep us warm! But it’s been all smoky and ineffectual! Let’s elect Grinning Nigel, the yahoo with the petrol!”)

As recounted by Beckett, conservative-friendly philosopher John Gray dreams of a return to some of the values that once made a certain kind of conservatism sensible – to a degree – even if then it was routinely a useful veil for power and privilege. But no map is currently being sold that tells us how to get back to that acre of sentimental pastoral from the blighted landscape that vomited up the likes of Johnson and Farage.

Meanwhile, in the Newspeak stakes the US is already far ahead of the UK, lighting the way into darkness: whole government departments in which scientists are not allowed to use the words “climate change” for fear of giving our carbon dioxide billionaires the vapors.

Ministry of Truthiness … it’s about to be Orwell’s 116th birthday, he’s been in the ground for 69 of those years, and at the churchyard in Sutton Courtenay you can hear a cold, mirthless chuckling.


Addendum (June 1): I read someone yesterday (Andrew Sullivan?) pointing out that Bob Mueller is one of the few people in American public life currently reminding us of what a conservative could be. It’s true that his transparent care, professionalism, integrity, lack of rhetoric, concern for existing rules and mores, and well-under-control ego have been a blessed ray of light shining through the dark public cloudscape of the past few years. It’s just not clear what those virtues have to do with any “Conservative” political philosophy: they’re just a list of public virtues that ought to be (and often are) exhibited by people with a wide variety of opinions. Right now, in the US, there is no question which side of the aisle is doing a better job of preserving this sort of “conservatism = tread carefully and practice common decency.” It’s hard to find lists of liberal or socialist politicians who have lied thousands of times on record, delighted in verbal bullying, beaten up journalists or threatened to do so, etc. etc. etc. But we are still hostage to the dated trope that there’s a special connection between conservatism and a concern for morality, when in fact the modern conservative movement has proved to be a virulent, metastatic cancer, from which others are having to defend morality.

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