It has been a strange old week. Controversial Tory-Lib Dem welfare reforms have been announced. Angry students have protested, some rioted and some taken direct action. The hoary old battle cries of ‘Tory cuts’ and ‘Tory scum’ have again filled the streets and airwaves.
Much of this is fed by the potent, emotional and deep-rooted mindset of anti-Toryism. This has a long historical lineage, and was given a powerful fillip by the 1980s and anti-Thatcherism. However, the 1980s did not create this feeling of anti-Toryism. It has been around for as long as the Tory Party itself.
Think of the various injustices which have been associated with the Tories: 1930s Jarrow Marches, mass unemployment and appeasement, the General Strike, Edward Carson and the Ulster crisis before the First World War, the bitter opposition to Irish home rule, or Robert Peel and the Irish potato famine.
All of this and more is weaved into a folklore of anti-Toryism and the numerous crimes and misdemeanours of previous Tory politicians. The past becomes a land of simple black and white choices, where the Tories are always bad and the non-Tories good, and any blurring of this distinction conveniently ignored.
There are, it should be acknowledged, several different kinds of anti-Toryism. One is a radical desire for a better progressive alternative. This is motivated by the limits of Labour and the Liberals and their various prevarications and imperfections. At its best today this perspective can be seen in the writings of David Marquand and Will Hutton who have both set out to challenge ‘the progressive dilemma’ of the centre-left’s lack of radical imagination and boldness.
The anti-Toryism I am talking about isn’t informed by a desire to develop a more thoughtful politics. Instead, it is shaped by a politics of gut instincts and blind emotions. At its heart it is tribal and blinkered.
Anti-Toryism has long been part of the left’s defining calling cards: of posing a politics of the bunker mentality and black and white choices. This has meant large swathes of the left have felt they have never wanted or needed to understand the popularity and reach of ‘the Conservative Nation’ which, from Disraeli’s time onward, has appealed to substantial parts of the working class.
This left approach always assumed that given the correct programme and leadership working people would vote ‘the correct way’. Thus, until the age of Thatcherism came along, the left with only a few isolated exceptions never seriously examined Conservatism – as an ideology, appeal or party. Instead, they were happy to paint a caricature and wait for the whole thing to collapse.
This anti-Toryism with its air of smugness and sureness aided a sense – still prevalent in parts of the left despite everything that has happened – the left’s mistakes, Thatcherism, New Labour and lots more – that people did not have to put too much serious thought into what they were for because they knew what they were against. And who the enemy was.
Tories were people who did bad things, or in the black and white thinking of some in the 1980s, people who operated in the interests of ‘their class’. The answer to this for some was for Labour to give voice and leadership to ‘our people’: the sort of proprietorial language used by the likes of Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill in that decade.
The myopia of this is startling. The Tory Party is a proud part of the fabric of British and Scottish life. Since the arrival of mass suffrage in the late 19th century it has been in office and won elections much more than it hasn’t. And of course as any good political observer knows the Tories famously won over half the Scots vote in 1955, something Labour has never once managed.
The Tory story of Britain is a rich, genuine one which, in particular before Thatcher, provided a careful balancing of Englishness and Britishness. The Tories for decades stood for localism and a patchwork decentralism which opposed the relentless march of centralism and the state. And in many respects, this account of Britain was a much more plausible account than Labour’s counter-story of a people’s Britain, which was always hung up on the left’s problems with England, Empire and patriotism.
Then we have the anti-Toryism of present day Scotland. This leads to an automatic assumption in public life that you are not a Tory unless you declare otherwise.
Now I have to admit that as a young lad I played my part in this perspective by contributing to the idea of a ‘Tory free Scotland’ in the 1980s. Looking back at this we overdid it and built a partial, distorted vision of Scotland which saw Toryism as being the equivalent of anti-Scottish.
This has reached the point twenty years after the fall of Thatcher where we need some kind of Tory Pride, whereby our shy and reluctant Tories come out and declare themselves. This feeling of Tory shame has been examined by Aberdeen University academic Antje Bednarek and her ‘Hug a Tory’ research which found that Scots Tories know they are in hostile territory and are correspondingly apologetic and defensive. And thus themselves contribute to the anti-Tory prevailing attitudes of public debate and sentiment in Scotland.
This isn’t a pro-Tory or anti-Tory argument. It is an argument against attaching labels to things, and the misuse of stereotypes which limit people’s thinking.
Anti-Toryism feeds a sense of politics which has long outlived its usefulness, which belongs to a clichéd view of the past and periods such as the 1930s and 1980s, and which does not aid an open, creative, thoughtful politics.
In an age of uncertainty, change and fluidity, the time has surely come to finally abandon a set of attitudes which have no real relevance or usefulness in the present day.
Those of us who disagree politically with Conservative values, ideas and policies have to do better and aim higher. We have to learn how to debate, and relate to Toryism, to understand and even empathise with it. This will entail recognising that it is a valued and genuine part of the fabric of Scottish and British life.
And in so doing, getting past the anti-Tory rhetoric and political mindset will help all of our politics. It will aid both Tory opponents and Tories to find a more mature, nuanced debate and language for the difficult choices ahead.
This article is re-published from Gerry Hassan's Saturday column in the Scotsman.
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