I doubt many of you have failed to read Matthew Parris’s column(£) from Saturday, or any of the furious reaction. The gist of his argument: Clacton is a nice place with nice people but going nowhere, and the Tories in particular are heading down a dead end if they pay heed to the sorts of opinions needed to win such seats. Here is an excerpt:
“There are many in a place like this who might be attracted again to the Tories by a noisy display of hostility towards immigration-and-Europe, political correctness and health-and-safety: hostility to a Britain that has forgotten the joys of Ken Dodd, meat pies, smoking in pubs and the Bee Gees … is that where the Conservative party wants to be? … Or do we need to be with the Britain that has its career prospects ahead and not behind…?”
He argues that we should care for the needs of the people of Clacton, but be careless of their opinions.
You might see the Parris article as another salvo in a war tearing up the Tories that pitches the liberal cosmopolitans against a more nativist, socially illiberal approach. I think this was tackled decisively in a Janan Ganesh column from 2014. Amongst many superb passages, there is this simple insight (subscribe to get it all):
A cool counsel would also warn that no policy tinkering can disarm Ukip of its lethal weapon: the personal appeal of Mr Farage. Kent’s answer to Pierre Poujade, the mid-20th century French populist, has the knack of radiating clubbable good cheer while cursing almost everything about modern life. His mastery of the demotic marks him out from professional politicians such as the jarringly slick prime minister and Ed Miliband, the Labour leader who communicates in academic epigrams. To fight personal force with policy is to make a category error.
My emphasis, because this is exactly what I felt when in government, struggling with unworkable immigration proposals; as if the voters were going to read the small print of an Immigration bill and fall out of love with Farage!
Ganesh goes on to make a simpler point that pre-echoes Parris: don’t adopt UKIP policies, because they are “simply awful ideas”. However Parris’s target is not only Tory attempts to ape UKIP, but also Labour’s courtship of the same target voter, presumably through boneheaded redistributive policies – “the politics of victimhood, subsidy and the soup kitchen”, that renounce Blairism and drag down the “winning” areas like Canary Wharf and Cambridge.
I have been a fan of Matthew Parris since the impatient dog days of Major when his columns tearing up the Tory Right were the funniest, most incisive thing around, and despite going purple with frustration at many of his orthodox, Tory-pessimistic economic views. Given the tone of Twitter, saying anything at all in his favour is mad. Nevertheless I will try a very minor defence.
I should first concede that many of Parris’s critics are right: he has handed a helluva recruiting tool to UKIP. He also allowed the style of his column (e.g. “Shops tell you so much … Lycra is the textile of choice” etc) to imply that just sniffing the wind in a town and counting the tracksuits, crutches and betting shops gives you a right to say what the people think, what their opinions will be – and then whether you should reflect them in your pitch. No wonder he’s being whacked like a pinata.
What I don’t get is disquiet at the idea that his Party has to show some discrimination in which opinions it will court. Nobody should berate the LibDems for ignoring the opinions of climate change deniers, or those who cannot see anything to be proud of in modern Britain (see Rawnsley). Labour can’t pretend to love the opinions of accountants designing tax avoidance schemes- and Conservatives cannot succour those calling for a big increase in welfare, paid for by tax. You have to tell a voter he is wrong, sometimes.
But in the most passionate assault on Parris, Dr Tim Stanley argues that being careless of the opinions of the people of Clacton is ignoring their needs. They want respect. But there is a thin line between being respectful and patronising in a different way – by pretending on the doorstep that UKIP-style nativism is a workable answer for Britain, or (on the left) that endless redistribution is the answer. Surely what people really want is solutions that work, that don’t merely assuage a cry of anger at the modern world but actually help them cope with it? These, in my view, respect the liberalism that did indeed win the 20th Century. As JC writes for The Economist in a piece that dares to back Parris:
“What is certain, however, is that whichever [Party] first chooses to throw itself into the pursuit of cosmopolitan voters will have the demographic wind behind it. That party will most likely dominate 21st century British politics.”
From the tone of his previous assault on Parris, Dr Stanley and a great chunk of the Conservative party simply don’t agree with this liberal, optimistic premise. In fact I wonder whether the Tory brand is now so confused between the hug-a-husky days and later Austerity phase that neither cosmopolitan nor communitarian sermon can be preached in good faith. The more they fight about it in public, the more the public may see that the cloth cannot stretch to cover the whole body. As a dispassionate observer, I look forward to the spectacle.
The optimistic liberal in me agrees with Matthew Parris that the right policies for this country are cosmopolitan and outward-looking. But the same optimistic liberal disagrees with him in hoping that these too could be the views of the people of Clacton, and that this is where a brave politician should be pitching his tent.