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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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The Tories still think they can fight the future

Published by The i paper (21st May, 2018)

The royal wedding was unexpectedly significant since it showed the rebranding of an inherently conservative institution. A likeable prince prodded the palace towards the modern world after falling in love with a mixed-race woman and demanding the celebration of their union reflected their shared lives. Black faces were in the pulpit and pews, not simply serving drinks at the reception. The weekend seemed to reveal acceptance of a messy world, with all its mashed-up cultures and relationships crossing borders.

What savage irony this followed so soon after the Windrush scandal, which showed with terrible force how the Conservative Party managed to place itself on the wrong side of the diversity debate. The bureaucratic bullying and wrongful deportations were a legacy of a determination to look tough on immigration, regardless of damage done to their brand by flirting with bigotry. The focus was only on shoring up the right flank against Ukip nationalists and their fellow travellers in Tory ranks.

The enforcer was Theresa May, a woman who made her name telling Tories they were seen as the nasty party and must ‘reach out to all areas of our society’. Yet first as Home Secretary imposing a hostile environment on undocumented migrants, then as Prime Minister forcing through Brexit and banging on about borders, she has reinforced the sense that her party does not want voters who embrace diversity, inclusion and openness. Never forget that insulting jibe about ‘citizens of the world’ who ‘don’t understand what citizenship means’.

This is a woman who thinks it is smart politics to keep the grammar school debate alive, another reactionary signal to voters. Yet as the Tory party continues its tragic pivot towards Ukip’s dark terrain, a group of younger activists and MPs are trying to kick-start the concept of party modernisation that flared briefly under David Cameron before stalling under his successor. On Monday they launch Onward, a campaigning think tank seeking to renew the party, with speeches from Michael Gove, a Brexiteer, and Ruth Davidson, a Remainer, reflecting efforts to straddle current divisions.

Those involved – who include some of the smartest brains and most interesting MPs in the party – aim to broaden appeal by reaching out to younger, working-class and ethnic minority voters. They accept that in Tory terms, young means under 50 based on electoral patterns that show such a sharp age divide in Britain. They plan to unleash a barrage of policy papers, starting with housing, training and childcare, that are aimed at struggling young families and workers worried about job security.

This is noble stuff, not least when the reactionary forces of the hard left are setting so much of the agenda under Jeremy Corbyn with his revived Seventies socialism. The centre left has disappeared from the field of play, while the right has lost faith in core beliefs following the 2008 banking collapse. ‘The crash generation simply don’t trust the motivation of the right,’ wrote Davidson at the weekend. ‘A bolder narrative about the benefits of our free society and a bit more practical delivery is required.’

The arrival of Onward follows that of Freer, promoted by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss to push bolder and libertarian ideas. This group argues that millennials are less left-wing than thought, fertile ground for Tories offering social freedoms as well as economic liberalism. Meanwhile Bright Blue, an energetic liberal Tory think tank, just issued a booklet on Burning Injustices that blight Britain such as drug abuse, mental health failures and racial discrimination.

It is good to see this bubbling cauldron of ideas on the centre right, combating the success of Corbynism in shifting perceptions on issues such as state control, tuition fees and unfettered spending. It marks belated acceptance that revival of the nasty party has corroded support among chunks of the electorate, which could be lethal if Labour had a leader less repellent to moderates.

Yet it will take far more than a few smart retail policies to fix the party’s existential problems – and the challenge is so profound it is hard to see MPs having the guts to confront it while in government. For many voters simply will not listen to ideas coming from the Tories, such is their intense loathing for the party behind Brexit – especially while it is led by a woman who symbolises hostility to foreigners and global citizens.

These people embrace diversity, free movement and multiculturalism with an outward-looking view of the world, so despise the petty nationalism of the Conservatives. Politics has become a battle about identity and values – and the Tories stand opposed to the most deep-rooted cultural beliefs of growing groups of voters.

Nothing illustrates this gulf better than Brexit, which ripped open festering wounds in our society to satisfy ambitions of a few selfish politicians. The great divide was visible in the last general election, with Labour winning among voters aged under 47 and Tory support slipping among ethnic minorities and in metropolitan areas. It could be seen again in recent local elections with Tory gains largely in Leave areas and losses in Remain regions. ‘The Conservative Party now finds itself supported by a predominantly pro-Leave electorate,’ concluded pollster John Curtice.

Ukip may have disappeared but its ghost still torments the Tories. Party strategists will want to speed up the pivot towards the less affluent, less educated and more insecure voters to win the next election. Yet every day, they shift closer to disaster by restricting appeal to dwindling sections of the electorate. For all the bold new ideas and barnstorming think tanks, the big problem is a brand that is toxic to many voters comfortable with their world. We have just seen the Royal Family adapt to modernity. Yet the Conservatives still think they can fight the future.

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