The Conservatives made two big mistakes in 2017. The first was noticed at once and will not be repeated. This was having Theresa May as their leader and her friends in charge of the campaign. Its effect was similar to pushing a wax effigy about on wheels and stopping it every so often to play pre-recorded and usually malevolent platitudes. Boris Johnson is an undoubted human being, and he knows how to say what people want to hear.
There is a chance that the second mistake will be repeated. This was not noticed at the time, and may still not be apparent. It was, and may be, the belief that Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the polls has been a function of Conservative weakness. The standard claim among Conservatives is that he loved the IRA, that he hates Jews, and that his main aim is to make England into a socialist hell – and that no one who is made aware of this could possibly support him.
There may be some truth in these three claims. Indeed, hope that the second is true explains much of his support in the Islamised areas of the country. The important truth, however, is that, while his friends would use his time in office to complete their cultural and political degradation of the country, the main grounds of Mr Corbyn’s popularity are that he detests an Establishment and a general structure of governance that hardly anyone outside the circle of beneficiaries – and probably not the average Conservative voter – still supports.
Jeremy Corbyn is a republican. Well, Elizabeth II has been the most useless monarch in our history, and her progeny are embarrassing trash. I have not been required to swear loyalty to her since I was a boy. I doubt I could now without imagining two fingers crossed behind my back. He believes in abolishing the House of Lords and disestablishing the Church. The first has become a waste of political space. The second is a joke. He is anti-American – and you tell me one effect of this alliance, at least since 1990, that has been unambiguously in British interests and has not produced a cataract of foreign blood. He is a socialist who wants to load the rich with taxes and abolish private education.
Speaking for myself, I am against these last. Even the markets we have are better than pure state control, and the right to educate our children as we please and can afford is fundamental. At the same time, he has an arguable case. Hardly anyone gets seriously rich in this country by hard work in a free enterprise system. Wealth is mostly an effect of getting the right connections in a set of interlocking scams on our savings and our tax money. The private education most called to mind when people hear the words are the great public schools. These are no longer Spartan places where boys have their bodies shaped by team sports and their minds by Greek syntax – where an élite is formed capable of transforming the sciences and conquering and ruling a great empire. They are finishing schools for the children of the merely rich – places where an insulated plutocracy reproduces itself across the generations.
As for his promises on tax and spending, there is no chance of raising the tax burden above the present 40 per cent of GDP. All Mr Corbyn promises is that more of the money will come back to the taxpayers in liveable benefits and useful services. I remember the 1970s. They were hardly a Land of Lost Content. But a bus driver could buy a terraced house in London while his wife stayed at home to look after three children. Again speaking for myself, I could go swimming for one-third the price of a Mars Bar. I could take a bus from one side to the other of London for about the same. I could find the works of Hayek in my small local library, and it was there that I found the texts for learning Latin and Greek. When I went to university, I had my tuition fees paid, and I had a student grant that left me with a small surplus when I graduated. All this, and the tax burden was about the same as now. Ditto the deficit as a fraction of GDP.
There may be reasons why this world has passed away and cannot be brought back. But I can understand why people of all ages listen to promises to bring something like it back. We can denounce these promises all we like as Venezuela plus social workers. That is what the promises may bring. But they are attractive promises. The second mistake the Conservatives made in 2017 was not to see that there was, in the public mind, a positive case for Jeremy Corbyn. There still is in 2019. Ignoring this can and will throw the election.
If asked, my advice to the Conservatives would be to treat Mr Corbyn with almost ceremonious respect. He is, after all, an honest man. I met him once, and I found him personally agreeable – far more so than the usual lying slime who make their way in politics. The best strategy for keeping the Labour vote where it now stands is to make a strong distinction between him and the Labour Party as a whole. It is to paint him as the well-meaning but useful-idiot front man for the actual ruling class, and to concentrate all fire on that ruling class.
In modern England, the ruling class is not the Queen, or a few hundred life peers, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or any of the Usual Suspects. There are no longer any Forces of Conservatism. The actual ruling class is a coalition of politicians, educators, administrators, lawyers and law-enforcers, and associated businessmen, who derive wealth and power and status from a state enlarged beyond any reasonable size. Their legitimising ideology is cultural leftism – this being, in the formal sense, a development from various of the Neo-Marxist philosophers of the early and middle twentieth century, but from which anything socialist in the traditional sense of the word has been carefully drained. It is an ideology that justifies its believers in drawing public salaries twenty or fifty times more than the minimum wage. So long as he gives them time off to attend gay weddings, and bans them from smoking at least during work hours, and so long as he sacks them for voicing disapproved opinions, it justifies businessmen in paying their workers less in gold terms than Henry Ford ever did.
These are the ruling class, and their intellectuals are the Blairites who took over the Labour Party after 1987. Though threatened by Mr Corbyn between 2015 and 2017, they appear to have taken it over again. Here is the significance of Brexit. There is a good free market case for leaving the European Union. It is an organisation that traps its member states in a regulatory system of low growth. But it is not socialist. It is instead a coalition of ruling classes broadly similar to our own. By handing formal power to a set of supranational institutions, it makes these ruling classes unaccountable. They are unaccountable if their subjects want freer markets, and if their subjects do not want cultural leftism. They are also unaccountable if their subjects want socialism. I could go into detail on this point, but will not. It is enough to say that, since the 1990s, directive after directive has been passed by majority vote in Brussels that privilege corporate interests above the alleged rights of workers. These directives can only be repealed by unanimous vote. Socialism in one member state can only be brought about if socialists can win in all member states.
Jeremy Corbyn has always known this. Membership of the European Union makes the core of his economic programme illegal. He cannot renationalise the railways or the Royal Mail. He cannot subsidise the re-industrialisation of the North. He cannot protect favoured sectors. He cannot stop a flight of capital. He cannot efficiently tax the profits of the multinational corporations. Yet he is now fronting a set of devices in the Labour Party for preventing our departure from the European Union. He is praising judges whose plain agenda is to stop us from leaving – and who would use their enhanced powers to undo any radical Acts of Parliament he might be able to pass. Why he has been so neutered since 2017 is irrelevant. What matters is that he has been neutered. None of his more attractive promises will be kept, because none can be kept. However many inspirational speeches he gives, to however large and enraptured audiences, his place in this election is to act as the front man for a Blairite restoration.
Here is a suggested poster for the Conservatives. It is in the style of Socialist Realism. In the bottom centre-left is Jeremy Corbyn as a small marionette. He is speaking to a crowd on his left of all ages, colours and classes. The words “Peace,” “Jobs,” “Dignity,” “Equality” come from his lips. Behind him to the right, the strings are pulled by a larger Keir Starmer. Behind him, his strings are pulled by a larger and grinning Tony Blair and Jean-Claude Juncker. Behind them stands a crowd of anonymous men in fine suits. This, or something like it, should see off the scandalous claim that Labour is running an anti-Establishment campaign.
Though it has not yet started, everything else in the Conservative campaign looks promising. It seems resolutely One Nation in its domestic focus. The rejection of a pact with the Brexit Party also seems to be good politics. Because of Donald Trump’s intervention on its behalf, the refusal looks vaguely anti-American. Its vote will probably collapse. Brexit may be painted as unfinished business, and the Johnson Agreement as a fair middle way between the extremes. A few tax and spending cuts would be nice, but may not at the moment be good politics. Promising a bonfire of regulations may be better politics, and they would produce similar benefits. Because they have not armed themselves with the relevant analysis, the Conservatives should probably avoid promising an explicit attack on the actual ruling class – though some reference to that class in the context of Brexit would be desirable, and may be made. But the main point of my present advice is to deal with Jeremy Corbyn, and I think I have said enough.