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Several eons ago the great Peter Robinson asked me a question which I still haven’t answered, viz:
Why don’t the Tories seize the moment? Why don’t they put Europe to a vote of the British people, then campaign for full independence, seeking to reclaim British sovereignty, free the country of smothering regulations, and re-ignite economic growth? Has British democracy ceased to function? If Cameron refuses to seize the moment, why doesn’t the party topple him? Why doesn’t Hague–or someone–led a tidy insurrection, replacing him?
There are lots of possible answers to this, some optimistic, some pessimistic. But here’s one. It concerns one of the most charming, civilized and impossibly erudite men it has ever been my privilege to know: the late critic and man of letters John Gross.
If you’re unfamiliar with the life and letters of this remarkable chap – known, probably correctly, as “the best read man in Britain” – do glance at some of the heartfelt tributes he received on his death in January this year. They ranged from this one in the Wall Street Journal from Roger Kimball to this in the Guardian from Victoria Glendinning to this in the New York Times.
John’s memorial service was a starry affair – Martin Amis, Lord Weidenfeld, Barry Humphries, David Pryce-Jones, Lady Antonia Fraser – but what fascinated me most apart from its delightful electicism (operatic tenors; stage-female-impersonators; actors; hacks; authors…) was the discovery that a good 80 per cent of those present clearly had no idea whatsoever of John’s political leanings.
John was pro-Israel; violently anti Big Government and the Nanny State in all its manifestations; he hated political correctness; he despised “liberalism” (in the US sense of the word, though he would certainly have considered himself a classical liberal); he was conservative through and through.
Yet when intimations of these facts slipped out during the memorial service tributes, you could see the astonishment in – and indeed hear the gasps from – many of the actors and writers and critics he had worked with during his 60 year career. And you could almost read the thought bubbles over these literary and thespian bien-pensants’ heads: “How could such a nice man hold such repellant political views?”
But besides being famously nice John was famously not stupid. As he confided to me once in one of our many chats about politics (he knew his dirty secret was safe with me), “Britain is a socialist country” and, social chameleon that he was, John saw absolutely no point in courting unnecessary opprobrium by showing his true colors to those on the other side of the political divide.
Which is a long and roundabout way of saying that in Britain, Gramsci won the culture war decades ago. In academe, in journalism, in literature, in the theatre, in the visual arts, in the BBC-dominated broadcast media the default position is so unquestioningly, entrenchedly, knee-jerk left-wing that unless you are prepared to stick your neck out and make a career of being hated the only sensible path for those of a right-wing persuasion is to do as John did and spend your whole life keeping schtum.
Britain, in other words, is a country where red-blooded Conservatism – apart from a brief glorious period under Margaret Thatcher – just doesn’t get you very far.
David Cameron knows this. At least he thinks he knows it. Being much more of a politician than he is a conservative he will take whatever stance he considers necessary for staying in power. His calculations have told him that he can safely abandon those on the right because they have nowhere else to go and that the more he carries on like the Heir to [socialist-lite] Blair the better his chances of survival. And hey, his lack of principles haven’t worked so badly for him so far: for lookee who’s British Prime Minister at the moment.
I personally think he’s wrong and that even if Britain is instinctively soft-socialist the mood is shifting very rapidly in a way that will not be to Cameron’s benefit.
But that’s for another post another day.