Conservatives look like cranks today, not because of personal failings of this or that politician, but because they cannot deal with the crises of the modern world. It’s not that they don’t have answers – rightwing thinkers spit them out faster than a machine gun fires bullets. It’s just that their answers are irrelevant and, even in Tory terms, self-defeating.
All viable responses to global warming, vaccination, the job losses artificial intelligence will bring and failing public health enhance the role of the state. It must provide jobs and benefits to society’s losers, protect their health and drastically reconfigure markets to sustain the planet. Small states that allow sovereign individuals and companies to decide for themselves now feel as antiquated as Margaret Thatcher’s handbag and pearls.
At best, Conservatives will the ends but not the means, as the Johnson government does with the climate crisis and protecting the NHS from the Covid pandemic. At worst, they retreat from modernity into denial and conspiratorial gibberish.
I know of no better example of the inability of the right to face the world in front of its eyes than the collapse in public health, which will become ever more visible as 2022 progresses.
Inflation and tax rises are pushing a great segment of the population into poverty or a place close to it. In ways that would astonish our forebears, poverty will produce obesity. Anyone in the government who has cared to study the crisis knows that the cheapest meals are no longer vegetables and rice, potatoes or bread, the traditional diet of the poor. Now, they are ultra-processed industrial foods, whose manufacturers use the cheapest and least nutritious ingredients and economies of scale to keep the price as low as possible and lashings of fat, sugar or salt to make their gunk palatable. Government knows it, but will do next to nothing about it.
Tim Lang, the author of Feeding Britain, refers me to studies showing the UK had the worst diet in Europe, with half of all food bought processed to the nth degree. The result is hundreds of thousands suffering avoidable deaths or years of painful and cramped lives as they deal with the chronic illnesses fatness brings: cancer, heart disease, strokes, dementia and, indeed, Covid.
The moral argument for preventing needless pain is overwhelming. Even the most hard-hearted Tories, meanwhile, should want to limit the escalating costs of healthcare if only to hold on to their money. The NHS spends £18bn a year treating obesity-related conditions, a figure that can only rise. Dreadful diets mean higher taxes.
They cannot bring themselves to act, just as they cannot bring themselves to tell the UK’s Novak Djokovices that there is a price to pay for refusing to be vaccinated or level with the public on the revolutionary changes to national life a serious attempt to cope with climate change will bring.
The best the Conservatives could manage was to commission Henry Dimbleby to produce a national food strategy. Last summer, it recommended the government intervene to produce a long-term shift in eating habits, that sugar and salt be regarded as modern versions of tobacco and taxed accordingly, and that the government protect food standards in trade agreements.
The report was criticised for treating food poverty as a distinct condition. Our own Jay Rayner, the Robespierre of radical restaurant critics, roared there is no such thing as food poverty, there’s only poverty. The best way to deal with today’s fall in living standards is to listen to Marcus Rashford and restore the cuts to universal credit.
Dimbleby is indeed a classic establishment figure: fathered by David, schooled by Eton. But that is what makes him interesting. He offered Tories the chance to modify rather than overthrow their beliefs. Throughout its history, the Conservative party has survived by making concessions to shifting times the better to ensure that it stayed in control of change. “Tory men, Whig measures”, as Disraeli put it.
Now it cannot adapt or concede. Ministers have sat on the Dimbleby report for months. In cabinet, all the familiar arguments are heard against, in that tellingly upper-class phrase, the “nanny state” interfering with free markets and freedom of choice. Civil servants are muttering that better health labelling on food products is as far as their political masters will go.
Readers may scoff at Conservatives babbling about nannies. But there is a long tradition of leftwingers worrying about the middle classes telling the working classes what to do.
“The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots,” wrote George Orwell in 1936. “When you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’.” In other words, it’s not that worries are not justified. It’s just that they provide no solutions.
History isn’t an exam. No teacher rewards the students who get the questions right. Maybe Conservative politicians can prosper by riding the reaction against the costs of the push towards net zero. Donald Trump has already shown them the way.
But whatever electoral success they continue to enjoy, Conservatives can see the world Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan created collapsing. They fear a prim and constricted future when the state represses enterprise, tells you what to eat, how often you can fly, when to be vaccinated, how you must heat your home and what type of car you can drive, if any. But then, when the current wave of conservatism began in the 1980s, leftwing critics saw how it would lead to a corrupt and divided future. If Thatcher wins, said Neil Kinnock, in 1983, “I warn you not to be ordinary, I warn you not to be young, I warn you not to fall ill, I warn you not to get old”. His oratory and foresight did the Labour party no good because the left no longer seemed to have credible solutions.
Now it is Conservatives who cannot respond to change. The 21st century baffles them. They don’t know what to do about it. This is why, for all their apparent self-confidence, so many speeches by Conservative politicians and articles by Conservative thinkers sound more than a little unhinged.