Sunday National, 19th December 2021.
It was the passive voice which struck me. In a recent interview reflecting on the scandals which have engulfed his party, the Scottish Tory MP Andrew Bowie admitted he was finally experiencing a little discomfort in championing the UK government’s position.
“It was very uncomfortable having to defend what we had done over Owen Paterson’s case,” Bowie said. “I took the decision that I couldn’t, in all conscience, go out and defend how we had come to the decision that we had come to, and how we had voted that week. And I was being asked to go out and defend that.”
“In all conscience” is a nice touch. Reading this neat little piece of self-justification, you could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that Bowie – along with three of his Scottish Tory colleagues – actually voted to let Paterson off the hook. A shorter way of putting it is: “I decided I couldn’t defend how I decided to vote.”
Tory MPs sometimes like to quote the 18th century reactionary Edmund Burke. One of his zingers which makes semi-regular appearances in Hansard is the idea that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
So where was Bowie’s judgement here? Why is he talking about these political choices as if they just happened to him? Why is he recounting his own actions in passive voice? I re-tread this old ground to make a simple point. You’re going to hear a lot of this kind of thing during the next weeks and months, as Tory politicians attempt to position themselves as babes in the wood, who just can’t fathom how the UK has ended up with this venal, dishonest, malicious Tory government. What went wrong?
You are going to be hearing a lot from what you can think of as the Sensibles in the Tory Party. Or the supposedly Sensibles. They will give radio and television interviews. They will brief the lobby hacks anonymously. They will express concern and regret and surprise about the state of things. They will try to persuade you that the problems and mistakes and cruelties of this Conservative Party are in great part attributable to the man they unaccountably elected to lead them and his cabinet of curiosities, and that all of its troubles will be flushed away once Boris finds himself in the u-bend.
Because Johnson’s slow humiliation is also an opportunity for tarnished reputations to be rehabilitated. There’s a certain kind of muzzy-headed centrist who might well find themselves thinking “maybe David Cameron wasn’t so bad,” or “it makes you wish Theresa May was still PM.” Nobody will be keener to encourage this kind of thinking than Johnson’s two predecessors. But their rehabilitations are entirely unearned. They are up to their necks in making the Tory party what it is today.
If you bump into a Conservative these days, I’ve noticed we now go through a few familiar rituals. They will deprecate the Prime Minister. Shake their head at some of his Bills. Deplore much of the rhetoric about human rights, and immigration.
These little disloyalties are aimed, presumably, at soothing their own consciences, persuading themselves that they haven’t – in the final analysis – sold their whole souls to the party machine. But if you truly feel this way, if you honestly conclude that the Conservative Party is a force for evil in our society, nurturing and giving expression to some of the worst instincts in British politics – then why spend your days defending it?
Why devote your brains and industry to keeping it in place? If you are, as you claim, honestly appalled by parts of your party’s domestic agenda, why work to ensure the Priti Patels and Dominic Raabs of this life are given a privileged platform to realise their goals? Why facilitate that? Because that’s exactly what you are doing. I’m only surprised you are surprised.
The truth is that the Tories have played Goldilocks politics on everything from human rights and crime to immigration for decades. There is a direct line connecting Priti Patel’s odious Nationality and Borders Bill – and more than twenty years of Tory Party rhetoric and policy. The Bill isn’t an aberration or an outlier. Its contents shouldn’t surprise anyone who has listened to policy speeches given by successive Tory leaders for decades.
It was Michael Howard – remember him? – who first proposed withdrawing the UK from the 1951 Refugee Convention which recognises the fundamental right in international law of persecuted people to seek and find safe harbour. The Tory manifesto that year ran with the memorable title “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?” – and was replete with attacks on now-familiar Tory targets, promising to “root out political correctness” in schools and to uproot traveller encampments, making it a criminal offence to occupy land without permission. You wonder if this was a seminal moment in a young Douglas Ross’s political development, as he embraced his inner Tory. That aspiration will now be realised in the Home Secretary’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Remember – it was David Cameron who first brought Priti Patel into government. It was Theresa May who kept her there. It was David Cameron who decided to call the Brexit referendum as a party management issue, consumed by the – it transpired, astonishingly misplaced hubris – that he would carry the day easily against the lion’s share of his party colleagues, and decades upon decades of propaganda from Britain’s Eurosceptic press.
This week, Dominic Raab unveiled the Tory plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. This has been party policy since 2005, powered by a series of fantasies that courts are constantly knocking down ministers’ decisions, that the European Court in Strasbourg is a factory churning out adverse judgments against the United Kingdom. None of it was true, and all of it was encouraged by the Sensibles, who now wring their hands about the state of things, and pretend they don’t understand how we got here. I’ll tell you how we got here. We got here because of you, and people like you. We got here because you thought you could ride the tiger.
In 2011, Theresa May told her party conference the following fables about the effect of the Human Rights Act. “We all know the stories” about the legislation, she said. “The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here. The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend. The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.”
She was making it up. It was a lie. But Raab is just following through on the paranoia the now repositioned “sensible” Theresa May cheerfully promoted when she sat in Priti Patel’s office, when she was positioning herself as la passionaria of the Tory right, hoping to cut a political contrast with the squishy centrism of David Cameron and his out-of-touch Notting Hill sensibilities. And look how well that worked out – reconciling her to party activists after Brexit, and giving her the chance to get her own shot at buggering up the country as Prime Minister.
It was Theresa May who first coined the phrase a “hostile environment for illegal immigration” in 2012, and set about using the powers of the Home Office to create one. It was Theresa May who sent “go home” vans into communities, and liked to tell party activists fevered bedtime stories about how immigration damaged social cohesion, how these “citizens of nowhere” contributed nothing to the economic or social lives of Britain. It was Theresa May who elevated Boris Johnson to Foreign Secretary, despite his obvious inadequacies for the role. It was rank after rank of his party colleagues who told the nation that his unique qualities were required to get Brexit done – despite all the evidence Prime Minister is idle as a toad, and as honest as the winter days are short.
You can’t spend decades stoking public fears and resentments about immigration without consequences. Because you know what? People will believe you. If you transform the term “asylum seeker” into a term of abuse, then “send them back, stop the boats, let them sink” is just the next wave of feeling you have helped to stir. If your political project is built on the backs of dehumanising people, cutting the ties of reciprocal moral obligation between them, presenting them as users, parasites and criminals – you have no right to be surprised about the consequences of your actions.