I’ve just been re-reading what former Tory MP turned Times and Spectator columnist Matthew Parris wrote in the run-up to the recent by-election in Clacton. It goes some way towards explaining why UKIP won. So much so that, as I japesomely tweeted a few weeks back, UKIP really ought to consider recruiting him as their campaigns officer.
Here’s a taste of what he said about Clacton (a white, lower-middle-class seaside town):
This is Britain on crutches. This is tracksuit-and-trainers Britain, tattoo-parlour Britain, all-our-yesterdays Britain. So of course UKIP will do well in the by-election.
My aim, though, is not to deny UKIP its likelihood of victory. They make a good fit for Clacton. Somebody has to represent the static caravans and holiday villages, and the people and places that for no fault of their own are not getting where a 21sth century Britain needs to be going. Nor do I deny that we Conservatives, if we tried hard enough, could get some of these voters back.
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.
No, my aim is to ask this: is that where the Conservative party wants to be? Is it where the Tories need to be if they’re to gather momentum in this century, rather than slowly lose it? Or do we need to be with the Britain that has its career prospects ahead and not behind, that can admire immigrants and want them with us, that doesn’t want to spend its days buying scratchcards and its evenings smoking in pubs, that’s amazed at all the fuss about whether gays should marry, that travels in Europe and would hesitate to let those links go?
I’m not arguing that we should be careless of the needs of struggling people and places such as Clacton. But I am arguing – if I am honest – that we should be careless of their opinions.
Just as a thought experiment I’d like you to imagine a newspaper columnist of whatever political hue writing with similar sneering condescension about, say, homosexual men in Brighton, or the West Indian community in South London, or the Pakistani diaspora in the towns of Northern England.
You probably can’t because no columnist would dare to do so. Not only would they not dare to do so but they would not wish to do so. It would strike them as tasteless, vindictive, arrogant, ill-mannered, bigoted and offensively unpleasant.
They wouldn’t do it because they would realise – long before they pressed their fingers to the keyboard – that were such a noisome rant ever to appear in print it would make them look quite horrendously awful. It would make them look – going with Matthew Parris’s caricature, for a moment, with which by the way I disagree – like the kind of people who live in Clacton.
Yet Matthew Parris – who used to be one of English journalism’s more measured, thoughtful, sensitive writers – seems to have had no qualms about going ahead and saying it anyway. Why?
Because, of course, he belongs to the same remote, cushioned, complacent, dripping wet political Establishment as David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and the vast majority of the British media. He says this stuff because he thinks it’s normal and reasonable and unexceptionable. And also, bizarrely, because he seems to imagine that his Year Zero attitudes to the gay-marriage-loving, anti-smoking, pro-political-correctness New Britain he would like to help forge are a quintessentially Conservative position.
Well maybe they are for the Cameron set of Conservatives, I grant you. But I doubt very much whether it’s where the majority of natural Conservative voters would position themselves on the ideological spectrum.
Conservatism – the clue’s in the name – is, as much as anything, about resisting the urge to change for change’s sake.
As the great Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton says: “It is easier to destroy good things in the name of an ideal than to maintain them as a reality.”
This doesn’t mean we all have to go on thinking that Ken Dodd is the funniest comedian ever; nor – pace Parris – does it mean we have to spend our evenings smoking in pubs.
All it means is that we should think very hard before rejecting wholesale every aspect of our country’s past on the grounds that the many people who still happily live there hold views which wouldn’t necessarily accord with those at an Islington dinner party or in a Brighton gay cafe which serves the most amazing flat whites.
It’s not UKIP or the people of Clacton who are out of touch with mainstream Britain. It’s glib, deluded progressives like Matthew Parris.
Their wailing and gnashing of teeth at the rise and rise of UKIP is a joy to behold. Worse for them, I sincerely hope, is yet to come.