Just what is it that makes Tim Montgomerie such a massively influential voice in modern British conservatism?
Is it his ebullience, wit, openness, charisma and ready charm? Is it his razor intellect and adamantine principle? Is it his journalism’s famed lightness of touch, bold insight, and gripping readability?
Well, all of these things and more, obviously. But while that may answer the “massively influential” part of the question, it doesn’t really address the bit that has to do with “conservatism.”
Tim Montgomerie is not a conservative. Or rather, he is a conservative, but so very much the wrong sort of conservative for these most difficult of times that there’s surely a case to be made against his website Conservative Home under the Trades Descriptions Act.
Drippy Wet Wet Tory Lite Home – that would work. Surrender Monkey Central – that would be even better. No Conservatives At Home Here – that would be a good way of saving on the rebranding, because you could just stick in a few extra words with carats. But I think if you really wanted a moniker which properly captured just how many good and wonderful things Montgomerie and his crew are contributing to the conservative intellectual current, then there’s only one serious contender: OwenJones.com.
Now I know that some of you reading this are going to consider this assessment slightly unfair. You’ll point to one of the articles Tim has written on his website along the lines of 10 Red Meat Conservative Things I Jolly Well Believe In, So There! and you’ll go “See. There’s Tim sounding off on all the right conservative things, so he jolly well is a conservative – and on the centre-right of the party too.”
(I hate that phrase “centre-right”, by the way. It was cynically devised by the milquetoasts who have seized and corrupted (aka “detoxified”) the brand subtly to imply that any conservative with views more principled and sound than theirs is “extreme right” or “hard right” or “far right.” If you believe in much smaller government, in other words, you’re a Nazi. Which is odd when you consider that one thing the Nazis most definitely were not about is smaller government.)
But I could just as well point to any number of pieces Tim has written which reveal this flip-flopping invertebrate’s politics to be mildly to the left of a dampish dishcloth. Indeed, damn it, that’s exactly what I’m going to do right now.
Exhibit A (there’s no Exhibit B, by the way, so don’t get too excited: this one’s more than evidence enough) Tim’s recent piece in the Times, snappily entitled:
‘Political entertainment’ could be as harmful to the Conservative Party as it has been for the US Republicans.
The thrust of Tim’s argument here is this: don’t listen to the siren voices of the right-wing blogosphere, ignore Fox News, get thee behind me Rush Limbaugh – elections are won in the centre ground and the only way conservatives are ever going to win power is by looking and sounding and less like conservatives.
You may have heard this argument before. You’ve definitely heard this argument before. It’s the argument that explains why, in a general election up against arguably the most useless and incompetent prime minister in history (Gordon Brown), David Cameron’s Conservatives still failed to win a majority. It’s the argument we’re hearing from Tim’s RINO squish equivalents in the US media – David L Brooks, David Frum, Andrew Sullivan, et al – when they suggest that in order to win the next US presidential election, the GOP must ditch the extremists of the Tea Party.
Maybe there are credible psephological reasons to support what Tim and co are saying. Maybe not. But let us not allow ourselves to be sidetracked into the murky and dubious territory of opinion polls and focus groups for these things can be made to say whatever it is you want them to say. Let us instead concentrate on what it is that Tim is arguing conservatives should do – and not do – in order to make themselves electable.
Here is an example
Many of our best-read newspapers appear to believe, for example, that you can cut the foreign aid budget or the Whitehall payroll and the deficit problem will largely be solved. In reality we could get rid of all of Britain’s assistance to the hungriest people on the planet and we’d be barely a tenth of the way towards a balanced budget.
Did you see the straw man Tim put up just there?
He has imagined a world in which (presumably evil, right wing) newspapers are ruthlessly arguing that the interests of a balanced budget should come before those of the “hungriest people on the planet.”
Have you read those articles? Me neither.
I’ve read one or two saying that deficit reduction is very important (as indeed it is: clearly it makes no sense that before it can even begin spending our money on public services, our government first has to tax or borrow in order merely to service the interest payments on our enormous debt).
I’ve also read several more sensibly arguing that in times of government cutbacks, the very last thing we should be doing is ringfencing funding for a department – DFID – with a worrying track record of splurging out taxpayers’ money on mindlessly stupid projects like the women’s Ferris Wheel in Lashgar Gar.
I’ve also read ones – some of them by me – reiterating the economist Dambisa Moyo’s point that if we really want to improve the lives of those “hungriest people on the planet” (and which of us, pace Montgomerie, doesn’t?) then the solution is not more aid but better, freer trade.
But Montgomerie, it appears, would prefer not to acknowledge that such intelligence, subtlety and human sympathy exists in the arguments of his Fox-news-watching, Rush-Limbaugh-loving, Telegraph-blogs-reading bugbears. Instead, he prefers to dismiss us as frothing ideologues beyond the purlieus of decent, reasonable, sensible debate.
According to Montgomerie, we nasty right wingers come in all shapes and sizes: there’s the “sink-or-swim libertarianism of the right-wing blogosphere” (Guido?); there are “young, childless ideologues” who promote “a conservatism where government should always be off our backs” (I wish he meant me but I’m neither young nor childless: Raheem Kassam and the Commentator crew? the Telegraph’s superb Ed West and Thomas Pascoe, whose own brilliant rebuttal to Montgomerie’s piece you can read here); and there are the Basil Fawlty columnists who can’t mention the EU without resorting to Second World War imagery (well that could be me, I suppose, if you changed EU to climate change – see my column here the other week on Godwin’s Law….)
Collectively, I suppose, we are all Tim Montgomerie’s Emmanuel Goldstein.
Which, obviously, is a tremendous badge of honour – but which also ought to be a matter of some concern to anyone who truly cares about the future of Britain (and the world), the mess we’re in and how to get out of it.
Without Fox News, the Benghazi scandal would have gone all but unreported in the US media; without the right-wing blogosphere there would have been no Climategate; without all those young, childless ideologues and sink-or-swim libertarians, there would be no one out there critiquing the decades of state expansion and bastardised Keynesianism and overregulation which are responsible for perhaps the biggest economic crisis in history.
These are dangerous times and they call for serious, bold, original analysis. Demanding that this serious, bold, original analysis should be ignored on the grounds that it sounds insufficiently fluffy and caring is not merely cowardly but suicidally wrong-headed.
Nobody on the right wants to cut government spending because cutting government spending is fun. They want to cut it because not to do so will only prolong the misery in which we now find ourselves – and because the people it will hurt most of all are those vulnerable poor about whom Montgomerie professes to care so much.