WHEN mainstream political parties, media, and academia turn on their own country, could the ‘politics of home’ be a solution?
In Britain, the best proponents in living memory were Michael Oakeshott and Sir Roger Scruton. They were anchored in a geo-cultural-political ‘home’ – a ‘place’ of belonging, rooted in tradition and localism, a ‘somewhere’ worthy of conservation.
Scruton writes in The meaning of conservatism (1980) that ‘conservatism arises directly from the sense that one belongs to some continuing and pre-existing social order, and that this fact is all-important in determining what to do’.
In Thinkers of the New Left (1985), he draws on Oakeshott to define ‘conservatism in the British tradition as a politics of custom, compromise, and settled indecision,’ akin to ‘a conversation’.
In How to be a conservative (2014), Scruton reduces his conservatism to the belief ‘that we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep’. The crucial chapter is entitled Starting from Home.
Oakeshott and Scruton set themselves as opposites to the transient, rootless ‘anywhere,’ the neoliberal and progressive transnationalists, and the cultural revolutionaries we now know as woke progressives.
The politics of home belongs to traditional conservativism (to coin a term that should be oxymoronic, but sounds quaint these days).
The Parliamentary Conservative Party abandoned the politics of home in the 1990s, in favour of Europhilia, transnationalism, and nanny-statism.
This new Conservative Party didn’t treat Scruton well in his final year of life. In April 2019, Theresa May’s administration sacked him from its architecture commission (Scruton’s first philosophical field was aesthetics, not politics), just hours after the New Statesman magazine published quotes out of context to suggest he was racist and homophobic.
She eventually invited him back, but waited nearly four months, until the day before she left office. Scruton died in January 2020. Boris Johnson led the party’s tributes, but never endorsed his politics.
Leaving the EU is some restoration of the politics of home. To his credit, Johnson turned the Parliamentary party from majority Remainer to majority Brexiteer.
He did not return the party to traditional conservatism, even if he ever wanted to. The people who have emerged victorious in Number 10’s most recent round of in-fighting (Johnson’s live-in girlfriend/fiancée Carrie Symonds and her friend/political adviser Henry Newman) are on the left of the party.
Similarly, the ConservativeHome website over-represents the losers from David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s administration, including Newman, who was a columnist for ConHome before returning to government.
Newman’s unreadable column epitomised the intellectual poverty of the Cameron/May party. Tellingly, ConHome’s editor (Paul Goodman) refuses to publish articles about conservatism.
Goodman just wrote an editorial defining the party as leftist on economics, and centrist on almost everything else. He ‘right-washes’ the site with a weekly podcast by Jacob Rees-Mogg and the odd reprint of blogs by John Redwood.
Similarly, the old Tory newspapers are not really conservative any more. The exemplar is The Daily Telegraph. It snapped up Nick Timothy as its resident sage after his progressive policies slashed Theresa May’s inherited majority government into a minority government, during her one and only general election (2017). Note that the ConHome website will link to anything he writes.
While the Parliamentary Conservative Party is not really conservative, it still contains conservatives. Priti Patel is the most proactive member of Cabinet to be pushing the politics of home, with her determination to improve border security, rein in the woke police, and restore free speech. However, she gets little support from the rest of Cabinet.
In January 2021, Michael Gove joined a memorial discussion of Scruton’s politics (organised, tellingly, by an American institute). By March, Johnson demoted Gove, just before Rees-Mogg became the next member of the government to channel Scruton at American invitation.
Why now? These few members are acting partly out of conviction, partly out of fear of the new small parties. The politics of home defines the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party (now Reform UK).
Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK, wants to attract conservatives, who, he told me, have spent years asking: ‘Where do I go? I’m homeless.’
Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party is marketing itself primarily as a defender of our culture, and claims credit for the current government’s moves in autumn 2020 to protect free speech and statues.
The leader of the Social Democratic Party, William Clouston, told me that the SDP is more conservative than the Conservative Party, given the SDP’s nativism, cultural traditionalism, social conservatism, and interventionism against monopolies (despite its plans for public ownership).
David Kurten’s Heritage Party, like the SDP, is explicitly defending British values and Christian culture, and explicitly calls itself social conservative. Kurten differentiates the Heritage Party as the only anti-abortion party, which would seem far out, except that the Moggster went there in his most recent discussion of Scruton.
The politics of home is certainly socially and culturally conservative, but it is not fiscally conservative. Reform UK claims to offer the fiscal conservatism that the Conservative Party abandoned, although Reform UK is an outlier on that.
Clouston counters that fiscal conservatism is election death. He learnedly identifies with Scruton’s resentment of the social damage from fiscal conservatism. If governments won’t fund local institutions, such as libraries and village halls, who will? David Cameron urged local communities to volunteer their own resources, but over-estimated private capacity, and underestimated the collective action problem.
The tension between fiscal conservatism and the politics of home overlaps a tension with free markets. For instance, if job-seekers must move wherever the jobs go, the free market is separating the people from their place.
Both neoliberalism and progressivism are at fault here – championing transnational freedoms at the expense of national control and local interests.
In The meaning of conservatism, Scruton set conservatism against both liberalism and socialism. He regarded both as too abstract, dogmatic, blinkered. Thus, he warned conservatives against focusing on the protection of freedoms – even though he championed freedoms.
Boris Johnson’s party claims it has mastered the politics of home – in breaking Northern England’s ‘Red Wall’ of economically Leftist but socially traditionalist constituencies.
Mogg started his remarks by taking comfort that so many former Labour voters voted for the Conservative Party. This sounds complacent to me. The general election of 2019 was less an endorsement of the Conservative Party, more a referendum on whether Parliament should remain dominated by Remainers.
The Moggster himself made this point before the 2019 election (when he self-identified as a populist). He repeated this point during his most recent discussion of Scruton: Representatives sometimes need reminders that they are not in power to tell the people what to do, but to do what the people want.
I suspect that tomorrow’s local elections are akin to a referendum on this government’s success in vaccinating Britons against Covid faster than any other European country.
Yet I suspect also that the Conservative Party will mistake the results as an endorsement of its politics. This is a mistake it has been making since the 1990s.
At some point, the Conservative Party will need the politics of home to differentiate from a competent opposition.